Jarrod Polson (men's basketball)
The last day of the trip may have been the most moving of them all. We were able to visit an organization called Youth Impact that was located about 15 minutes from our guest house. When we got there, we were greeted by Abraham (who was educated in the United States, but decided to come back to help the Ethiopian people instead of getting a very lucrative job in America), the visionary leader of the affiliation. He and his wife had the idea about 20 years ago to teach uneducated men and women different skills that would help them get back on their feet and provide for their families. In essence, instead of handing out the fish, teach the people how to fish so they can sustain themselves.
We toured around and saw people basket-weaving, working the cash register and even making scarves and blankets (which is a very complicated and tiring process). The items were so well-made and intricate that a lot of us decided to buy some souvenirs to take home from the different shops.
After a little bit of shopping, Abraham and Aramis, the other main leader, took us to the "library." Aramis also has a very interesting story. He grew up as a street kid who got into a life of crime and drugs, simply trying to survive. A girl he knew kept trying to convince him to come to church with her but he never would. Eventually, he decided to end the nagging so he accompanied her one Sunday, but instead of participating, he took out a cigarette and started smoking during the service. She was very embarrassed, but about six weeks later, he came again and sat in the front row where he radically changed for the rest of his life.
Anyway, we arrived at the library, which was also where they educated young children. Most of the young boys were taken off the streets, and most of the girls were taken here right before they would have more than likely been sent to the streets. You would think that being abandoned by your parents and having to live on your own would completely wreck a 5-year-old's heart, but I can honestly say I have never seen a group of children with more joy and excitement in my entire life. The teacher had them sing the ABCs in English to us, along with the Ethiopian national anthem, so loud and passionate in fact that most of us were either crying or had goosebumps the entire time.
The last Youth Impact group we got to meet was made up of older kids and young adults, ranging between around 14 to 21. They were a group of around 20 teenaged boys who were rescued from the streets by this organization. Some had been street kids for up to five years. Just to give a little background, I asked how children came to live on the streets. I learned that a lot of the times a mother takes her child to a stadium via taxi, tells the driver she will be back in 10 minutes, drops her child off and returns to the taxi. Others are simply orphans and have no parents to feed them. Others are the victims of mothers choosing a boyfriend over their kids because of an ultimatum. In any case, these children literally have nowhere to sleep at night and no way of getting food.
These teenagers we met quickly changed from a statistic to a story. Five years went from just a number to a tragic and lonely life. A few of these rescued men stood up and thanked us for coming to help them, one of the most humbling experiences of our lives. After we returned to the guest house, we were able to collect a lot of our clothing and shoes to send back to the Hope House (this is what the street kids' house was called) because they were big enough to fit into them.
We left for the airport around 7 p.m. (East Africa Time) and after a 17-hour flight followed by a one-hour flight to Cincinnati, we finally arrived safely in Lexington around 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
I know that when people come back from mission or service trips they always talk about how "life-changing" the experience was. Because I had never experienced one, I was always hesitant to believe them. I regret it now because this trip has really given our group a brand-new perspective on life. Some of us were talking about how sometimes during the trip, we were confused because we felt as if we were in a completely different world. The biggest impact on me personally was seeing the Bible come to life.
I started a book called "Red Letters" before the trip and it talked about trying to see Jesus in everyone you come into contact with. In Matthew 25, Jesus says, "Whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." This idea was so clear to me in Ethiopia because it was really easy to see Jesus in a lot of the people we came into contact with. I saw Jesus in the little boy with a huge smile on his face using a balloon to drink water from a muddy river. I saw Jesus in the woman with a nervous-system problem who cried tears of joy when we delivered food to her because she was about to give up, saying we were a gift sent straight from God at the exact right time. I saw Jesus in the woman who was distributing bread she had made to the poorer people at the church, the same woman who we gave food to earlier in the day because she was very sick and struggling to feed her children. I saw Jesus in our two translators, one orphan and one street kid, who have every reason to be mad at the world or God, but are the two most joyful and unselfish young men I have ever met. I saw Jesus in the woman who has been in bed for 18 years plagued by leprosy, who wouldn't let me touch her head in fear of me getting the disease, who blessed us and our country through her words, and who still seemed more joyful than me after years of physical agony. I saw Jesus in the woman who brings in travelers to her small home and shares the gospel, all the while her sons won't talk to her, ashamed of her Christian views even though she has HIV and still feeds them. I saw Jesus in the leaders of Youth Impact and the church who finally "made it" and could be very successful, but chose to stay in their poverty-stricken native areas and try to help everyone they can. I could go on and on, telling the stories of so many people we met that have very little of what the world has to offer, but very much of what God has to offer: a joyful heart and a peace beyond understanding.
I'm not writing this blog to condemn anyone or judge anyone, because I am guiltier than anyone of not helping people or taking the time to make people feel loved. This trip has definitely changed the lives of our group members and I pray that God would use this trip as a wake-up call to realize why He chose us by name to live on this earth.
I'm not saying everyone needs to move to Africa to become a missionary. People in America have problems just like people in Ethiopia, just maybe not in the same ways. The one thing we realized, and (Senior Associate Athletics Director of Corporate and University Relations and trip chaperone) Jason (Schlafer) pointed out to us, is that everyone who we helped was more appreciative of the fact that we came to help than the actual food or supplies we gave. Forming relationships and just coming across the world blessed the people way more than any amount of food we could have given them. I'm talking to myself when I say this, but we can translate this to America by simply forming relationships with people who need to feel loved and be loved. People may not need food like the Ethiopians do, but everyone needs love and that is where we can make our biggest impact in America.