Growing up in a religious family, many of my young and molding experiences were afforded me by the church my family attended. With volunteer work and missions as a strong pillar of that church's personal creed, one of the programs available to the youth was attending a short term community service mission trip every summer through the Group Workcamp Foundation. Between the ages of 15 and 20, I attended six of these trips, spending a week of each summer volunteering in a different, underprivileged rural or urban city. In the summer of 2011, I attended my very last trip with the Group Workcamp Foundation and it would prove to be one of the most humbling and impactful experiences of my life. That July, myself and 21 other young people flew to Puerto Rico for a ten-day mission trip. It was an altering experience, and it forever solidified my support of the work Group does for the communities who host it's camps.
Each camp is structured around the same formula: the volunteers (called campers) are divided into work groups intended to intersperse the more experienced campers with those still wet behind the ears. As a five year veteran, I was not fazed by the three first years and one second year who made up my group. When they weren't staring at their feet, the pubescent, shifty lot of them stared at me, and I in turn looked around for our assigned adult. Each group had a randomly assigned adult volunteer, usually a youth pastor or an actively involved parent, who came with his or her respective church to act as group overseer and chauffeur.
During that first meeting with our groups we are given our ‘assignment' the duration of the camp. I had spent the past five summers assigned to home renovation projects. I had painted whole homes and built decks and wheelchair ramps. This is what I knew and what I was comfortable with. But I opened that brown envelope to find only a single piece of paper: directions to a retirement home called ‘Angel Suelos' and the name of the director who we should seek out upon our arrival.
I went into that week with a heart of frustration and discomfort, but I left with a softer demeanor. For the rest of my life, I will remember the friendship that formed between a 16 year old, English speaking girl from Wisconsin and 86 year old Adora, who spoke only Spanish. I will always carry with me the sound of Gabe playing the same song on his guitar. “Julieta,” He would tell us in his broken English, “I play for my Julieta”. When we asked him who she was, Gabe could only turn his eyes skyward and smile.
We didn't build anything for the residents of Angel Suelos, didn't leave them with newly painted walls or even with cleaner rooms. Instead we sat with them, listened to their stories. We ate with those who could feed themselves and we fed the ones who couldn't. These elderly men and women told us about the loved one's they'd buried and the grandchildren who lived so far away. Through the Group Workcamp Foundation, we had a chance to love and honor and care for these beautiful people, even if just for a few days. For the first time in my life, I experienced compassion—the cornerstone of a gospel I thought I understood. Regardless of your personal beliefs, I whole heartedly recommend volunteering a week of your summer through the Group Workcamp Foundation. The mission is universal: helping people from all walks of faith grow grow spiritually through serving others, and that is a mission we can all get behind.