Youth return from life-changing trip to Bogotá
By Jenn Watt
Nine high school students between the ages of 14 and 18 returned from a trip to Colombia in March with a new perspective on the world and a desire to continue travelling internationally.
The young people were part of a mission trip of 16 people from Lakeside Church in Haliburton that visited the South American country’s capital, Bogotá, between March 8 and 18.
“We went down for 10 days and every day we would go to a different organization and support them in whatever way they needed us to,” said Chris Weir, the youth pastor at the church.
Through a connection with El Camino Academy, a non-profit, interdenominational Christian school, locations were chosen that would benefit from a visit from the Canadians. Among the stops was a women’s shelter, children’s school, and seniors’ residence.
“We interacted a lot with students that were from very hard backgrounds or environments – so who had parents who had passed away or were addicted to drugs and many things,” Weir said. “... A lot of these kids [we visited in Colombia] had very little hope and so we were able to provide programs for them. Some of them were fun, some of them were educational. The whole idea was to provide love to them when they might not experience it.”
Depending on where the group went, the lesson plans or interactions would change. Sometimes they would play games to teach kids about the geography of Canada, for example, or show flashcards to teach English.
“We brought down several puzzles … of either Canada or the world. We’d build the puzzle and talk about different parts of the world or different parts of Canada and show them about that,” he said.
This was Weir’s first time leading a group internationally and he said it was a challenge, but that everything went smoothly and with the help of Skype he had already conferred with organizers in Colombia to help keep things organized.
The trip was faith-based and Weir said there was a Christian element to most of what they did, which included visiting churches. One focuses on helping refugees from Venezuela. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, more than 2.7 million Venezuelans have left their country since 2015, which has been plagued by supply shortages, hyperinflation and violence during a time of great political upheaval.
Weir said their group had lunch with some of the refugees and through translators heard their stories. Some had left their “home country with their whole family and only a backpack to find a better life because Venezuela had collapsed around them. That was a really powerful experience that we were able to take in as well,” he said.
Donations that came in ahead of the trip surpassed the youth pastor’s expectations, with $30,000 raised to cover the entire trip. Additionally, Air Canada allowed them to bring donations with their luggage – between everyone who went, 700 pounds’ worth. The supplies were distributed not only in Bogotá, but around the whole of the country through other mission teams.
“One of the major things that was requested was sewing machines. They’re a lot more expensive in Colombia,” Weir said. The Haliburton group was able to bring three.
Photo: Grade 12 student Nick Toth, left, plays a game with young people from Colombia during his trip to the South American country in March. He said it was life-changing. /Photo supplied by Chris Weir
Grade 12 Haliburton Highlands Secondary School student Nick Toth said he initially was unsure whether a trip to Colombia would be for him. He said after the first presentation at the church in the fall he had “no intention of going.”
“There was that tugging at my heart that only happens when you know deep down something is happening that will change your life,” Nick said in an email to the Echo.
It turns out that his instincts were right; the trip was life-changing.
Despite commonly held notions that Colombia is overrun with drugs and crime, Nick found a city filled with hospitality and love.
“Every time the name Pablo Escobar was brought up, the looks of pure disgust on the Colombians’ faces were so evident. They hate that the stereotype of drugs and crime exists because you only realize how beautiful of a place it is when you go there and see for yourself. I think mission trips anywhere are amazing for young people. Colombia holds a special place in my heart and I’m sure that anyone else who went would feel the same,” he said.
He said his outlook was changed as he met people from so far away and realized how much he had in common with them.
“The world is a massive place with so many different people from different walks of life. But at the same time it’s also so small. It isn’t like there is anything truly different between people from different countries. The culture may be different but we all have the same kind of blood pumping through our veins,” he said.
Photo: Grade 11 student Bianca Salaris assists with one of the school activities in Bogota, Colombia during a mission trip in March. /Photo supplied by Chris Weir
Bianca Salaris, a Grade 11 student on the trip, said this was her first time in South America and decided to go to help other people “and show them God’s love.”
She noticed small differences in culture, which gave her a chance to look at things from a new perspective. For example, she said the people she met ate more slowly than the Haliburton visitors did.
“It’s a simple thing, but it shows that they value and enjoy conversation with friends and family more than we do,” she said.
A trip to an orphanage stood out for Bianca. The children had disabilities and had been taken into the care of the institution after being given up by their families. She said her heart went out to the children and that it reminded her of how lucky she is to have a loving family at home.
“I would definitely recommend for young people to visit Colombia. I think that it’s an important trip. One where you are able to help people, as well as grow,” she said.
Nick also said the trip to the orphanage was the experience that stood out for him the most. He said he assisted with feeding a boy so hungry that he ate four portions of food, all the while crying.
“And only after the last bite did he stop crying. When he was done, he reached out and took my hand. Who knows, he might not have had physical contact with someone like that in weeks. It was such an amazing experience, just holding his hand and smiling at him. A face of pure joy, love and most of all hope,” he said.
Nick said the trip inspired him to continue travelling.
“If I went anywhere though, I would want to go to Colombia again. I feel like there’s so much more for me to do there. I would love to help in other places as well but my first priority is Colombia and the ministries we visited,” he said.
Weir said he intends to continue organizing trips. “I loved it and I’m going to do it again,” he said.
He thanked the community for the donations and the supplies that made it happen.