Illinois Wesleyan students dedicate summer of service to those in need

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Jeff Neukom

Rebekah – Swaziland:

Junior Rebekah Smith spent two months living in Swaziland, Africa with Adventures in Missions, an international Christian organization. During her time there she taught preschool, did street ministry and worked with hospice. With a smile, she noted, “Every day when I arrived at ministry I was greeted with hugs and small children yelling, ‘hello teecha!'”

Swaziland is a hurting nation plagued by AIDS and poverty. Of the 1.2 million total population, 250,000 are orphans. The HIV positive rate is nearing 40 percent and medical treatment for any illness is hard to afford. In the face of their adversity, however, Smith noted, “Despite the pain and poverty sweeping the nation, these people have more joy than anyone I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.”

Most of her time was spent at Murray Camp Care Point, which is set up to help children in need. The care point provides free schooling for children aged three to six, a safe place to go after school and a meal in the afternoon.

“Most of the kids in my class only had two outfits, and their clothes were ill fitting and torn to shreds,” she said. “The meal they were fed in the afternoon was often the only substantial meal of the day. This care point is a God send for their lives.”

“My team lived down the hill from a family of orphans. Every day when we walked home they would run down the hill and jump into our arms. I really miss the country, the culture and the people who became my friends.”

The predominant languages in Swaziland are SiSwati and English.  Most of the educated adults are fluent in English, but the children and the less educated didn’t know much.  As Rebekah and her team became immersed in the culture, they started picking up words and phrases in SiSwati, which made for easier communication with those in town.  They also learned worship songs in SiSwati that were sung at church and with the students.

The team lived in a three bedroom house with 22 people, cooked over an open flame and didn’t have running water.  To shower, they poured cups of freezing cold water over their heads until they felt marginally cleaner.

Cows, pigs, goats and chickens roaming around their yard, and sometimes the chickens would come into the house creating quite an adventure for the students.

Rebekah found life in Swaziland to be very simple and beautiful.  One of the fifteen year old girls said something very wise to her when Rebekah asked about her daily schedule.  She said, “Life is so short, you know.  So we need to spend our time with people we love, and we should never be in a hurry to go anywhere.”

Blake – Brigades:

For the first two weeks of June immediately following May term, junior Blake Beehler journeyed to Honduras as part of the Wesleyan Brigades chapter. Fourty-three students accompanied him, as did several nursing professors, doctors and other health professionals.

Global Brigades is a worldwide organization with chapters across the States and Europe. It was founded by students at Depaul University in 2004, and has quickly grown to become larger than the well-known Peace Corps. Beehler noted that their focus is “on holistic development and sustainability.”

While these terms are employed by countless organizations and affiliations, for Global Brigades, their goal is to not only help develop better living conditions, but also to make sure these conditions are maintained over a long period of time.

Wesleyan has two of the nine brigades here on campus—the Medical brigade and the Public Health brigade. The Medical Brigade was deployed the first week in Honduras, and their focus was on the distribution of vital medicine to the community, but also the imparting of knowledge so that the members of the community will continue to improve their living conditions. The team lived in a dormer style compound owned by Global Brigades. While there, they had to acclimate to life without air conditioning and hot water.

Upon arriving, their first task was to sort the various medical supplies they’d brought over on the plane to make for easy distribution across the course of the week. After they’d finished this, the team went to visit local orphanages, where many children live because their parents cannot afford to house them. Beehler noted with a smile that, “It’s so much fun playing with the kids. They’re so happy to see us, and it really brightens their day that we visit.”

For the next three days, the team distributed the supplies they had at a medical station. People came from nearby villages to get supplies. Everyone who received supplies was registered with local Brigades, and they had to provide medical history. The team checked vitals and recorded what they encountered to help with long term diagnosis.

The team focused on parasites that would spread through unclean water, but they also had gynecologists on hand to administer pap smears and ultrasounds. They also had dental supplies, including fluoride treatments and catchy songs to help youth maintain dental hygiene.

After this week, the Public Health Brigade was deployed in Honduras, and had a heavier focus on smaller villages who didn’t get as much attention. A few students from Medical Brigades stayed for a second week, and they were joined by 10-15 students for the week.

The focus for their week was on construction. The team installed concrete floors, which are much easier to clean and maintain than the adobe that is very common there. They also set up “eco-stoves” which are more efficient, burning less wood and providing better ventilation to avoid inhaling smoke. Lastly, the team organized sanitation stations, which included showers, toilets and “pillas” (which were essentially storage units).

One of the goals for Global Brigades was to setup springs and trenches to shuttle in clean water; one of the most common afflictions in these villages results from unclean water, something we in the United States are unfamiliar with.

Even in the short two weeks they were there, the IWU Brigades and the groups they partnered with made a significant difference to people who truly needed it. Beehler noted, “It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had. We had a unique opportunity to build personal relationships with the people here, to build special bonds with people from an entirely different part of the world. They thanked us over and over for our help, and we were thankful to be there.”

Christine – Gambia:

Wesleyan had another student, junior Christine Kim, travel to Africa this summer. Unlike Rebekah and Blake, she did not travel with a longstanding organization or through a university program. She went through a local church back in her home state, Life Creek Church in Wisconsin, who partnered with Open Door Presbyterian church from Virginia to provide assistance to West Africa Missions in Gambia, Africa.

Christine and her team were also forced to adapt to different living circumstances, as it was often extremely hot during the night with no air conditioning or fans. The area was also rife with malaria, so they had to sleep under the shroud of mosquito nets. There were 15 other girls with her, which meant four girls to a room in the small living quarters.

The children that lived in the West Africa Mission compound were often there by unfortunate circumstance, as many had parents that could not afford to house them. Many of the parents that chose for their kids to be there were of Muslim religion, and thus they did not support the Christian teachings of the school. They would send their kids there to learn math and English but would order their children to ignore the religious teachings. Sadly, there were cases where parents disowned their children because of their decision to adopt a different religion than Islam.

For many, it was an early college or boarding school experience. Typically, students whose parents were able to afford them living at home only got the opportunity to go home for the holidays. For months, the compound was their home—from there, they would travel to whichever nearby school they attended, be it pre-school or middle school.

They spent their time doing service work that was almost a combination of the work done by Blake and IWU Brigades and Rebekah with Adventures in Missions. The first week was spent providing assistance to teachers and missionaries in the area, as many of the teachers had not left the country to seek higher education and were limited in their English speaking.

Waking up early became routine to Christine and her team, as they would rise before children started classes to do their devotional. After that, they would journey to the pre-school and provide assistance with math and English and then they would share a bible story.

After this, the team would head over to the local middle school, Canaan International. Here, the students were older and a bit more independent, so the team had to be conscious of acts of rebellion in class. For the most part, however, they found themselves building bonds and becoming attached with the students in a way unique to these types of trips.

The second week, the members of both churches set up health clinics with limited over the counter medicines available. The clinics operated like a small Minute Clinic, with pharmaceutical supplies and a wound station. This was immensely helpful to the local towns, as they were able to serve over 300 people during their short stay.

An aspect that ties these three trips together is the lessons that Rebekah, Blake, and Christine took away. Meeting and living with people in circumstances so infinitely different is eye-opening, to say the least. On the impact of her trip, Christine commented, “Whether or not someone has a faith, it’s important to open our hearts to the world, especially countries in need. You learn to appreciate what you have, and it builds you as a person. You learn that it’s more rewarding to help others than to help yourself.”