Imagine two teenage American girls living for 10 days without the Internet, taking cold showers, using toilets that frequently flood or back up, working in an under-staffed home for children, and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every day.
That’s exactly what Meredith Banks and Caroline Bowen, both 16, did last summer, and not only did they love it, they want to go back.
Banks and Bowen were part of a youth mission group from Sardis Presbyterian Church that traveled to Mandeville, Jamaica, in June 2012 to work at various job sites. The girls were assigned to the Hanbury Home, a residential facility for orphaned children, with eight other teens and an adult leader from a different church.
The teens’ tasks included changing diapers and soothing crying babies, organizing games and crafts for preschoolers, and guiding children with special needs through activities. What they discovered is that most of the children just wanted their company.
“A lot of the girls were really shy, but they liked to have their hair played with and they wanted to play with our hair,” said Bowen. “They loved to sing, and they don’t really have toys, so they’re very creative in their play.”
She remembers a 6-year-old boy named Lamario who constantly pretended he was a car, making beeping and engine-revving sounds as he moved around.
Banks became close with two older boys, 12-year-old Davian and 14-year-old Dwayne.
“Davian and Dwayne were really cool, and we just talked like we were friends. They told me that they didn’t know where their parents were,” said Banks.
One day, one of the boys returned from school bloodied from a fight. “He said another boy beat him up, just because he was younger,” said Banks. “And he said it like it wasn’t really a big deal.”
Both girls now are in their sophomore year at Providence High School, and they can’t stop thinking about the kids at Hanbury Home.
“We told them we’d write, but there’s really no way to make sure they get it,” said Banks.
Shortly after the trip, she bought Dwayne a pair of shoes, and it sparked an idea. “Most of the kids there wear flimsy sandals, shoes with holes in them, or no shoes at all,” she said. “And the roads are dirt and rocks.”
Banks decided to ask people in her Hembstead neighborhood to donate shoes, and Bowen expanded the plea to her neighbors in Beverly Crest. Initially, the two collected about 60 pairs of shoes, but the girls knew there were more than 100 kids at the Hanbury Home, so they approached the elders at Sardis Presbyterian about a church-wide shoe drive.
“When the girls presented their mission idea, there was no hesitation to support it,” said Rhonda York, a longtime member of the church and one of the advisors who accompanied the youths on the trip to Jamaica. “Meredith and Caroline were so engaged and connected so well with the children. This 10-day trip made a big enough impression that it transformed them. It opened their hearts and made them realize that they can make a difference, no matter what age they are.”
With the help of their parents, Banks and Bowen launched the Shoes4Kids drive in hopes of providing every child at Hanbury Home with a pair of brown or black dress shoes that they are supposed to have as part of their school uniform.
The drive runs through May 15, and already the girls have more than 400 pairs of shoes. They’ve also received monetary donations and are considering buying socks or other items to ship with the shoes.
They are depending on Son Servants, the organization that helped arrange their 2012 trip and that regularly coordinates mission work in Jamaica, to deliver the goods.
Banks and Bowen already are signed up for this year’s youth mission trip to Pittsburgh, PA, but they’re hoping to return to Jamaica in 2014. In the meantime, they won’t let the children at Hanbury Home be forgotten.
“I think about Davian and Dwayne every night,” said Banks. “All the kids there taught me that you can be happy no matter how little you have.”
Bowen agreed: “The people in Jamaica are amazing. They’re not living in comfort and yet they are so connected to God. It made me feel really lucky to have all that I have, and I feel like I am a much more positive person now.”
Angel Trimble is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Angel? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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