Summer camp brochures landed in my mailbox and reminded me that I needed to complete the paperwork for my kids summer mission trips. As I was composing the Part 1 adult version of mission trips, I thought it only appropriate that I also compose a youth version, gleaned from my experiences, what I have learned from the wonderful youth leaders at our church and what my own children have taught me.
Our church has a very active mission orientation and organizes mission trips for middle and high school youth each summer. When our older kids reached middle school, we encouraged them to make the trip part of their summer plans, in addition to sports camps and hanging out with friends. Once they reached high school, we were pleased that they often turned down other activities in order to participate in the trips. Both of our 22 and 24 year old sons have even joined as adult leaders. I have never added up the costs of all those trips (5 kids x 6 trips each at $300-$500 per trip) but have often wondered if my husband and I were doing the “right thing” by paying for our children to have an experience helping others, when the money may have been better spent given to the organization that they were helping. This same thought comes to mind as I am often asked if I allow teenagers on our Haiti mission trips. Many of these students and parents are looking for a mission trip experience to put on their upcoming college applications. Again – who is the trip benefitting? Are we exploiting people who are less fortunate for the advancement of our more privileged children?
Unfortunately, I don’t have all the answers to these questions. I don’t think we should cancel these trips completely, but I do think we can improve the experience of our children and of the locals who are interacting with the mission teams. After all, many of the young adults who are now starting amazing ventures in the developing world got their first taste of “helping” on a mission trip. Creating empathy in our children often starts when they are able to help someone less fortunate. The following are ideas to keep in mind when planning the next teenage mission trip.
1. Location. Talk with your child about where they are going, locate in on a map, and discuss why people there may need the help that your child is providing. Even if they are only traveling across town to a more urban environment than where they live, discuss the differences in social services and joblessness.
2. Try to avoid drop-in mission work. Looking at the trip from the locals perspective, you are often more well received if there is an ongoing presence of the umbrella organization. This is the reason that my children’s mission trips cost more than travel, room and board. Tuition subsidizes the on site staff that coordinates projects with the local community and plan work that helps and doesn’t hurt.
3. Cellphones. I am as guilty of this as you – not that I carry a cellphone but that it is too easy to stay connected with our kids on a daily basis when they are away. The policy of the staff on our church mission trips is that the cell phones are collected at the beginning of the trip and the kids get them back for one hour a day. I would like to advocate that the phones stay home, but this has met with much resistance, both from parents and kids. Some of the best conversations I have had with my teenage sons (who usually only talk to me in monosyllables) are in the first few days after a trip when they are relating some of their stories.
4. Opt for trips that are less luxurious than their home settings. Similar to the adult comment about “Get comfortable being uncomfortable”, it often takes an uncomfortable surroundings in order for children to try new experiences. This can include food, making new friends, talking to strangers, performing a physical task outside their abilities. One of my daughters conquered her fear of nursing homes when she was required to talk to elders at a nursing home for 2 days during a trip. Traveling to Juarez, Mexico via a cramped bus and playing street soccer with neighborhood kids is a favorite memory of one of my sons. He doesn’t remember that baby wipes was the only shower he had for a week.
5. Walk the Walk. I think this is the hardest part, but the most important, for a parent. Writing a check for the mission trip that will “change your child’s life” isn’t nearly as effective as volunteering with your child once or twice after they return to continue the pay it forward concept. Teenagers have short memories. Life quickly returns to normal and it is difficult to remember some of the lessons learned. Reinforcement, especially when it involves seeing the parental unit participating and being uncomfortable with the setting, goes a long way towards imbuing characteristics of empathy and compassion in our children.