SOLANA BEACH — About 50 students from Santa Fe Christian High School spent their Easter vacation helping others in need in Waco, Texas, and four other countries.
The goal was to change the lives of those less fortunate, however, the trips may have impacted the students more than the people they were there to serve.
The trips are part of an extensive mission service program that began more than 10 years ago at the private Solana Beach school. Students train for four months, immersing themselves in the language, culture and customs of the region they will visit.
They travel three times a year — during Christmas, Easter and winter breaks — to a variety of countries including India, Uganda, the Dominican Republic and Africa.
In April the students visited France, Thailand, Russia and Waco to work with the local communities in each region.
Tory Trexel and her group spent their first day at a French high school. “They asked us, ‘Do you smoke? Do you drink? Do you have Facebook?’” Tory said.
“We told them the first two, no,” she said. “They didn’t realize you could be Christian and still have fun. It really opened my eyes to all the things that go on over there. We’re so lucky to learn in such an awesome environment.”
Dane Dwyer spent part of his time in Thailand clearing a jungle for a local Baptist church. “The people there are all willing to serve,” he said. “They don’t think anything of it. It’s just who they are.”
MacKenzie Gilbert, who was part of Dane’s group, agreed. “I felt like we were being served more than serving,” she said. “They really wanted to show off their culture. The main pastor had a barbecue for us. It was weird being served on a mission trip.”
“They wanted so badly to get to know people,” said Ariana Hazery, who was teaching English to students in the only Christian school in St. Petersburg, Russia.
“They have lots of problems with enrollment so they see a lot of their friends leave,” she said. “They’re lonely. It was humbling to talk to the older students and see how easy it is for us in our walk with God. But they have a strong faith.”
“At first I thought they would be mean,” said Madison Davis, who was part of the Russia group. “But after one conversation they opened up and wanted to be friends. They were fascinated with Americans but they are fascinating humans, too.”
Madison said a 10-year-old named Chloe kept tickling her. “She said she would stop if I played dodge ball, so I did. Then she held my hand and protected me so I wouldn’t be out.”
Connor Smith and his classmates in the honors choir spent time helping the homeless in Waco. He said the most memorable moment of the trip was singing at a homeless shelter.
“We sang and then hung out for about an hour,” he said. “One guy said he had just asked God for a blessing and he got it.”
Connor and his group also participated in a poverty simulation. They were given a limited amount of money and had to survive for two days.
“We met a group that meets under an overpass,” he said. “We were with them on Palm Sunday. They had a tradition where a guy who is supposed to be Jesus rides in on a donkey, which didn’t always cooperate. So they switched the donkey for a motorcycle.”
Although the students learn a few key phrases, none are fluent in the language of the country they visited. But that wasn’t a problem.
“You’d be surprised how much you can communicate through the language of love — and with hand gestures,” Ariana said.
The students aren’t the only ones from Santa Fe Christian impacted by their experiences. Chris Whyte, an eighth-grade science teacher, was on the Thailand trip.
“We went in to clear 10 years of unrestricted jungle growth,” he said. “They told us half the plants were poisonous but they didn’t tell us which half. There was a massive bee hive and fire ants. They gave us three machetes, two hatchets and two rakes.
“When you looked around, no one was doing the same thing but everyone was happy,” Whyte said. “I don’t know how we got done what we did, but it worked.”
“On these trips, the teacher-student role shifts,” said math teacher Tyler Gray, who was also with the Thailand group. “We’re in this experience together.
“The eight kids and three adults in our group turned into a giant family in a week,” he said. “You have this connection you’ll never forget. That was special.”
The program is open to all high school students. About 275 apply annually and approximately 180 are selected each year. By the end of their four years at Santa Fe Christian, all students who apply are generally accepted for at least one trip, Vicki O’Rourke, admissions director, said.
The cost is about $2,500. Students are encouraged to raise the funds themselves rather than ask their parents for a check. Teachers and faculty members serve as chaperones.
“Living here, we are blessed,” O’Rourke said. “They see others who have basically nothing but still have joy. It changes the students radically.”
“This program touches our students in a way nothing else could,” assistant Principal Pamela Oden said.