Several groups of OACS high school students headed for warmer climates this past March, but their destinations were unique to most travellers. These students had committed their time to participate in service trips that took them to countries such as South Africa, Belize, and the Dominican Republic.
One of these groups included twenty-one students from Smithville Christian High School (SCH), who travelled to South Africa, where former principal Marc Stroobosscher had previously established connections with a partner school called Theocentric Christian College. SCH has sent out six teams of students over the past twelve years during March break to complete work projects alongside students there. This year, SCH students participated in science activities together with the students, as well as involving them in sports, crafts, and the creation of a mural project which incorporated the handprints of all the students at Theocentric Christian College (TCC). While they were there, the students also met up with a former graduate of SCH who went on the same trip to TCC a few years ago, and is now living and working in South Africa and Swaziland as part of the mission organization Hands at Work in Africa.
A smaller group of seven SCH students travelled to nearby Swaziland to visit an orphanage called New Hope Academy. A number of years ago, a local Smithville parent had travelled to New Hope to work with a church group at the orphanage, which houses approximately fifty children, directed by Elizabeth Hynd. The children had been rescued from death in a country that has the highest rate of HIV in the world, and the highest number of orphans per capita. While she was there she met Caleb, the oldest child at the orphanage, and invited him to come back to Canada with her. She and her husband sponsored Caleb to attend Smithville Christian High school along with their own children. In return, he extended an invitation to SCH students to visit the orphanage where he had spent his childhood. Caleb, who graduated from SCH in 2013, served as a host to this group of students—the first group of high school students to ever visit New Hope Academy. SCH students spent their time working in the school along with the students there, playing and leading worship alongside the children that have all since been adopted by the directors of New Hope and given a new name.
“The trip had a huge impact on our students,” shared Director of Communications, Marlene Bergsma, who travelled along with SCH students to Swaziland. “For some it affirmed their gifts and calling, and for others it will shape their philanthropy.”
“Our students made amazing connections with the students of New Hope,” she added. “It was a joy to watch the connections that were being made while they worked, played, and worshiped together.” According to Ms. Bergsma, at least one of the students plans to go back.
Toronto District Christian High School (TD Christian) also sent out two separate groups of students to serve in other countries over March break. The first group of ten students flew to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, working in conjunction with Max van Til, a missionary formerly with Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC). Before leaving, the group fund-raised enough money to bless a struggling mother of four with a new house. “She had no idea that any of this was happening,” shared Rachael Weening, an International Block teacher at TD Christian. “The first morning that we were there, our group found her and told her we were going to build a house for her. What joy there was! It was like Extreme Home Makeover – Dominican style!”
During their time in the Dominican Republic, the students mapped out house plans, dug 160 feet of trenches, assembled rebar columns, and poured most of the footings. The joy of being able to work together to provide something so necessary and valuable to a woman who had given selflessly in her community for over twenty years was a gift that TD Christian students had never experienced the magnitude of before in their lives back home.
According to grade 12 student Ashley Tiemens, the culture in the Dominican is very different than it is in Canada. “You can feel it as soon as you walk through the airport and into the country,” she described. “The people welcome you, and will share stories with you if you ask; the kids on the street will play with you if you’ll let them. Everything about the Dominican is just so colourful and welcoming.”
“For example,” she continued, “One of our construction projects was fixing up a house, and when it was lunchtime, the principal of the school invited us to her house for a lunch that her family had prepared for us. We were dirty and sweaty, but we were invited to come into their house, sit on their couches, and eat.” It struck her that people were valued more highly than things.
Makayla Schoonhoven, another student who worked in the Dominican Republic over the March break, agreed. “The Dominican people are so full of love and warmth. The people taught me so much. I came in thinking that I was going to make such a difference in their lives, but I learned that they are people just like I am, and we learned from each other and built relationships together.”
A second group of fourteen students from TD Christian chose to travel to Belize over their March break to work at Howard Smith Nazarene School in Benque Viejo del Carmen—a school about a mile from the Guatemalan border. The students braved the heat and helped transform old bathrooms into a new computer lab for the young students there. Upon completion, TD students painted a tree in the front entrance of the school with their handprints. It was exciting for the fourteen volunteers to contribute to a project that brought a great deal of joy to the children.
Even more exciting for many of the students was the interaction that they had with the children in Belize. “The amount of times that I lost my big sombrero hat to the kids—I lost count.” said Jared Simpson. “But what I loved was the big smile on their faces when I chased them down! The trip affected me for sure,” he continued. “I see and look at things differently and learn not to take the simple things like food and water for granted.”
Another huge part of their learning was accomplished by immersing themselves in the Belizean culture. The volunteers were given the opportunity to climb Mayan ruins, work alongside local workers, ride in the bad of a pickup truck through towns and countryside, go tubing through incredible cave systems, walk through the jungle, and learn to make corn tortillas and pottery alongside some inspiring Mayan women. As they experienced a taste of daily life in Belize, they met several incredible people and heard many moving stories.
“I got to know my classmates better, I got to know myself better by doing things out of my comfort zone, and I became closer to God,” shared Amanda VanderSchaaf.
As students are once again immersed back into their lives back home, they continue to process the impact that these trips have had on them.
“The students returned to our school as changed people,” shared SCH principal, Ted Harris. “They have the privilege of learning that people from dramatically different backgrounds can find beautiful unity as Christ followers.”
“At first, it wasn’t as easy to find joy in the work I did back home compared to the Dominican,” shared Sarah VanderVeen. “Doing my homework didn’t seem as meaningful as building a house for somebody. I’ve learned that this isn’t the attitude I should have. Just as I needed to choose happiness every day in the Dominican, I have the same choice at home.”
The stories recounted by students and teachers who embarked on each of the trips offered by OACS high schools include many ways that their faith was impacted by being exposed to the places they travelled and the people they met. The trips created meaningful opportunities for high school students to begin making the transition from learning in classrooms to a life of service in their communities and in the world around them.