I spent the last couple of weeks on two very different mission trips, and to sum them up is like trying to write an autobiography in a single page.
On each mission trip I become a new person in a new world, which makes it difficult to explain the intensity of the experiences.
Padre, where I spent my first week of mission, has become my second home.
This was the sixth year I’ve gone to lead vacation Bible school at Island Presbyterian Church six hours away. The people I’ve met, the houses I’ve been to and the children I’ve watched grow up, and vice versa, have all become very close and familiar to me.
I couldn’t begin to tell you of all the family and friends I’ve adopted there and how grateful I am to them.
In this second home I become a different person for half of each day. I have gone by the names of Sparks the fox, Galileo the gorilla, Scraps the raccoon, a Bible storyteller, a science or crafts helper, or Dive Chief, or this year (and maybe my last) as Telly Ticket.
I go down with a group of teens from Presbyterian Children’s Homes and Services in Waxahachie. It may seem strange that a group from a children’s home would travel six hours to an unknown church and take over their VBS, until you know how it all started.
The whole crazy idea began in 2007 when a woman named Leslie Swindle formed a Leadership Group on the PCHS Waxahachie campus with the hope of taking kids with unfortunate backgrounds and making leaders out of them.
Part of being a leader is serving the community, and so what better way to serve and lead (and be completely outside our comfort zone) than at an unfamiliar church where there wasn’t enough help to keep the program going?
We would take charge of the openings and closings, the dances, become line leaders, fill in every room and face our fears of talking in front of large groups.
The first year, of course, was extremely intimidating. I remember there being maybe 30 kids, tearing down the puppet stage we hid behind as we tried to do an opening.
Now here we are, five VBS’s later and I’m piping to a crowd of 70 kids on Monday, “Good morning, everybody! I’m Telly Ticket, and I’m your ticket taker for the Everywhere Fun Fair! Is everybody excited to get started this morning?”
To which they respond by screaming and yelling enthusiastically.
A lot of hard work goes into this week. More than a month ahead of time each year, the PCHAS crew and I meet up with adults from IPC to talk about all the boring but necessary tidbits: planning, schedules, meals, emergency evacuation and you name it.
Two days each week on our own, the teens get together and memorize the crazy dances, songs and energizers we will do. We plan our jobs and go over our scripts and supplies. Each year we understand how we can do even better the next year, and our preparation pays off well.
“Our VBS is larger than the one I helped to lead at a 700 member congregation up in Chicago. The youth from Presbyterian Children’s Home bring an energy and enthusiasm that I have not seen in the other five congregations I have served over the past 40 years,” Pastor Rick said in his own personal church newsletter, reflecting over this year’s week.
But back to my job, after the 15-minute opening of singing and dancing, delivering a script with my buddy the puppet Godwin Merrifeather (who is actually Dominic Alexander – shhhh, don’t tell), I run and change into robes for my second job until the 15-minute closing: this year, Bible Storytelling.
And this is where I think I made the most impact to the kids through God.
On Friday, the last day of VBS, after I was helping to clean up the Bible Storytelling room, the woman helper, Jeannie, told me she had seen Jesus in me.
This was surprising since I still felt like me and not exactly holy. Each day during the Bible Story, we have a Moment for Mission, in which a PCHAS adult tells a story about a kid from the Home. Then she would point at me and another PCHAS helper and say, these kids came from the Home as well.
After a while, it began to click in the kids’ minds that we energetic, crazy, loving teens came from unfortunate backgrounds just like the kids in the Moment of Mission.
I think it blew their minds.
They cornered Jeannie on the last day and began asking her all kinds of questions when I had left the room.
Some kids told Jeannie “I want to be like them one day!” and I know that we have impacted their lives. I also know some of those kids have unfortunate backgrounds just like me. And of course, I know the stories also reopened other adults’ eyes and mine.
So being me, I should also tell you that I am much more comfortable putting on a show and entertaining 70 or so kids rather than talking to a kid one-on-one. If you know me, you’re nodding knowingly in amusement, and if you don’t, that probably sounds odd. This is why the second mission trip was more of a stretch for me.
Week of Hope:
For the Week of Hope, 96 youth came together from four different states to mix up and split off into crews of six, to go serve at different sites all over the Austin area. I went with my youth group, The Same Difference Group (the name actually inspired by my sister Crystal Sweet, who said we’re all different here but the same) from Central Presbyterian Church of Waxahachie, the one with the beautiful stained glass windows by the post office on College Street.
My crew consisted of two women older than me and three boys younger than me (two freshmen and a sophomore). One of the women came to have a chance to get away from kids, something I could understand. But she and I both were going to have to stretch a little that week.
Our site was a tutoring center started by first-grade teacher, Mr. Mata. That week we would tutor and love on mostly bilingual kids who needed the extra boost and extra love to succeed. The first day I noticed the kids (I had three) treating me warily – they didn’t trust me.
Why would they?
Each week or so, a team of volunteers comes down and bonds with them, but leaves three days later to never contact them again. Some of these kids live in unhealthy situations or have parents a country away, so they already have trust issues, something I completely understand.
That week as I went over their math homework and tried to explain variables and transformations, I wondered if by coming down here, we were actually doing more damage than good.
That night, I stopped some of the staff and told them about my theories. They stood there a bit surprised.
“I’d never thought about it like that,” one said, but then reassured me that the alternative to us not doing this was the kids not going to the tutoring center, not getting the help they needed, and that they could be spending that time in much worse situations.
The next morning at breakfast I was told my input had created a heated discussion in the staff room. The conclusion made was that overall, the kids would grow to see us in a good light. They’d have positive role models in their life, of people who came to serve them.
With a somewhat lighter heart, I returned to work. That day, I was struggling to help my three girls with writing. After trying to read a baby book in Spanish (and somewhat failing), I could understand their frustration with trying to write in English.
I was feeling rather hopeless when out of nowhere, Jenn, the woman in my crew who wanted to get away from kids, came into the room with an exciting writing game. It promptly got us all giggling and having fun creatively writing sentences from three random words, like frog, car and dance.
Since I understood Jenn had the most reluctance of our crew, she surprised me with how good she was with kids. But she wasn’t done surprising me. All that week we were asked if we saw God at work at all in the day, and one of my most prominent “God sightings” was her.
Jenn is a paramedic as well as the only female SWAT member on her team back in her town. She and two boys went to clean a nearby park that week when they heard a woman screaming, and then a distant siren. Running towards the sound, she found a man holding a choking baby.
“Paramedic,” she yelled, and he threw the baby to her. She turned it over, smacked it hard on the back, and a penny flew out of the baby’s throat and bounced off of her shoe. Talk about being in the right place at the right time! I hardly want to think about what might have happened if she hadn’t decided to go clean the park that day.
I’ve come across many kids and adults these past two weeks – as Telly Ticket, the ticket taker at the Everywhere Fun Fair; and as me, a volunteer who struggles one-on-one with kids. But even as a struggling, awkward volunteer, much different from the confident and crazy Telly, I come away knowing I have impacted more than just the three lives of the girls I tutored.
I shared that I don’t have parents, and that I live at a group home.
And in my crew’s and in the kids’ eyes I saw understanding, surprise and amazement. They see where I am now. They see that I chose to spend my time serving others – and I know I have impacted and inspired them.
But they also, with fortunate and unfortunate backgrounds, have also inspired me.
It doesn’t matter who you are; you, being you, can make a difference.
Even Jenn with an exasperated spirit saved the day for me, the kids I was trying to help, and for a baby and its family as well as others.
My expertise in college algebra and talent as a speaker meant nothing at this second place. The kids didn’t need a superstar, they needed somebody to just love on them and help them understand.
By serving others I have found confidence, skills, people, a new life and I have caused a tremor that may guide the decisions and thoughts of many people as they continue their journeys.
In return they have caused a tremor that has shaken and strengthened me.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” and I have found it to be true.
Tiffany Sweet has served as a newsroom intern with the Daily Light for the past two years. She is a 2013 Waxahachie Global High School graduate, also earning her associate’s degree through Navarro College. She will be attending the University of Texas at Dallas this fall.