Back in November and December, Central students heard about New Yorkers dealing with the devastation of Superstorm Sandy and the border cities of Texas struggling with poverty. Urged on by a sense of generosity and a conviction that they could make a difference, nearly 100 students decided it was time to give back—in a big way.
From building houses to feeding the hungry to planning a kids’ carnival, mission trips coordinated by Campus Ministries over winter break proved exciting challenges for Central students who wanted something more out of their days off than video games and movies.
For the past several years, Central’s Campus Ministries has organized a trip to McAllen, Texas, and surrounding areas. More than 80 students hit the road in December and headed south to the impoverished city over winter break. The southern part of the city shares a border with Mexico, and many of its Latino residents suffer from poverty. In the past, Central students would cross the Mexican border to help neighboring towns, as well, but this year it was no longer safe.
“It became too dangerous to cross, but on this side of the border, you can forget you’re in this country because of the poverty and the language and culture,” says Sarah Schlager, a Campus Ministries staff member and group leader. “This trip was the first time we actually served stateside down there with immigrants.”
The change in the mission trip was as successful as previous years. Students were able to gain hands-on experience building houses for Habitat for Humanity; in just under two weeks, the group built two houses from the ground up and added an addition to an existing home.
But with so many students on this year’s trip, there wasn’t always room for everyone. They split into multiple groups each day and spread their talents to others. Teams visited schools that help students get education visas and distributed food to those in need. They even set up a kiddie carnival in a trailer park. To do so, the students had to get creative.
“We had to make our own fun,” says junior Ricky Boyle. “We had a few boxes, a Frisbee and some soccer balls. My carnival game was trying to throw a Frisbee into a crate. It was a lot of running around and chasing, like kids like to do.”
Another game included a makeshift bean bag toss—throwing rocks into the cut-out holes of a cardboard box. Others had fun playing soccer or running with their new playmates for the day.
“We were not really sure what do to when we got there, so it was good to see our students come together and create fun games,” Schlager recalls. “These kids were so selfless. We had some food to give away, and they asked if they could help give food to their neighbors. They were more concerned about making sure that their neighbors had something. They had so little, but they were so generous.”
Taking after the children they had helped, the students supported and encouraged each other. Two weeks of hard work and prayer lead to a greater understanding of one another—and now their bonds of friendship will last a lifetime.
“I went to New Orleans on a mission trip my freshmen year, and I formed a lot of relationships that have helped me at Central. I wanted to see that happen for the younger students,” Boyle says with a smile. “The relationships that were formed and strengthened are a big reason that I love going on mission trips.”
Thanks to Campus Ministries, students found new ways to connect with each other on a spiritual level.
“This trip was amazing spiritually,” says Boyle. “Every time expect one thing, God surprises you with something else in your heart. For me, it was a way to serve others away from home, but I got hit hard with what I can do back here. I got so wrapped up with how can I save the world, and I missed the things that were closest to me. My eyes have been open to new possibilities.”
SWEEPING OUT THE STORM
It took just two weeks to plan a mission trip to Staten Island, N.Y. After Superstorm Sandy hit, Central students wanted to get involved, so they brought the idea to Campus Ministries. Junior Jodie Landt, a member of the executive team for Campus Ministries, remembers how it all started.
“There was a discussion amongst students that they really wanted to do something about New York,” she says. “When students heard about the storm, the team brought it up and talked about what the trip would look like and who would come. It ended up being organized in a short period of time.”
Group leaders contacted the Reformed Church of America, which put the leaders in touch with Project Hospitality, a non-profit organization that provides services to those in need, particularly people with mental illnesses, substance abuse or HIV. From there, the organization placed students with various non-profits on the island.
Leaving the day that first semester finals ended, students organized supplies for hospitals and charitable organizations, prepared meals for volunteers and the homeless, handed out Christmas presents and even demolished a house. But the most memorable day for Landt is the one that the group acted as “shoppers” at one of the hurricane relief centers. After the needy filled out an order form for supplies they required, Central students would gather the free supplies around the large facility, and Landt took her job very seriously.
After group leader and Campus Ministries team coordinator Nick Rohner asked her to find size five diapers, Landt ran into a large problem. A 20-foot wide “mountain of diapers” was standing in her way. Diving right in, Landt couldn’t find what she needed in the mixed-up pile.
“I kept looking and looking with no luck. There was a box full of size three diapers. I kept digging and praying to God that I would find them in that box. The very last bag in the box full of size threes was a size five! I held the diapers in the air and said ‘Thank you, God!’ To me it was such a picture of God providing what people need in the time that they need it. He wasn’t going to short that child diapers.”
Although helping hurricane victims was an essential part of the mission trip, the 10 students that traveled east found conversations with locals were some of the best parts of the week. According to Rohner, residents were shocked by the Iowa volunteers.
“People from Iowa in New York, citizens were shocked to see us driving 20 hours to serve,” he says. “It was neat to see the glimmers of hope we gave a lot of people that we worked with.”
Landt agrees with the sentiment. “I talked to a woman—a police officer—that was at one of our sites, and she was blown away that we were there. That was probably the best part—not the service, but to show, with our presence, our love for them and to feel their love for us,” she says with a grin.
In between working with charities, the group made their way to Manhattan by ferry and was able to check out Rockefeller Center and Times Square during Christmastime. As they crossed to Manhattan, Rohner watched as the students handled everything they had seen and counted it as a rewarding experience.
“It was cool as a group to process and see what God was doing in people’s hearts,” Rohner says. “How the trip was intersecting with things the students were already learning and how that acted as a crossroads was truly remarkable.”
The students returned to campus just before Christmas with a new perspective and a sense of accomplishment.
“It was such a growing experience,” Landt muses. “The locals were so surprised that we would come from Iowa rather than send money—that we would come and show them love. Their gratitude and friendliness made it easy to volunteer our time. It meant a lot to me to know that what seemed like an obvious sacrifice to me meant so much to someone else.”