Monday, March 14, 2011

I think I have done this before

Katie and I took 17 students to a foreign country for 7 nights and 8 days by ourselves. Just let that statement sink into your brain. I do not think any public school in the States would allow that kind of ratio.

We very carefully selected the students that would go with us. We only wanted to take the most trustworthy, mature, and responsible students, but personalities can be different outside of the school walls. If they seem emotional or moody at school, they will be more emotional and more moody when you have walked miles in the rain and cold to see a dead man's house.

I leaned this week that as academically gifted as many of our students are, street smarts are a different skill set. Their lives in Haiti are so sheltered, so many things are done for them, that traveling like we did where you are expected to do so much for yourself was probably a good learning moment for them. But it was a very unexpected and sometimes, to be honest, resented teaching moment for me. I did not expect to have to give step-by-step instructions for taking the subway. Step 1 - Get your fare card out. 2 - Put it in the machine. 3 - Take it out of the machine so the turnstile will open. 4 - (And this is very important) walk through the turnstile before in closes again... because if not you have to repeat steps 2 and 3. Why are we having to talk about the steps? We have been doing this for 5 days! Pavlov's theories state you should have been conditioned by now, right?!

I do not mean to whine so much. I had an amazing time and I would do this again next year. The kids were awesome compared to some of the groups of American students I observed when we were out. But I was very surprised at how detailed the instructions needed to be and how closely monitored the students needed to be. The whole time we were gone I kept thinking- I have done this before.

Katie and I have made a small career out of volunteering at a children's camp. The camp played a huge roll in us starting to date again. At a camp with 5th graders, you have to constantly explain in detail everything. You explain multiple times, because inevitably someone is not listening. The questions are often endless and repetitive. And then there is the walking.

At camp, much like in DC, you walk everywhere. The DC students, like our camp 5th graders, have not yet learned to walk as one group to a location. People walk at different paces, but in DC (like at camp) there were always the same 5 kids at the back of the herd. No matter how often you tell them to hurry or how you try to bribe them... the same 5 at the back of the pack. I told one student that if we were all zebras, they would definitely be the first to be attacked by lions, because they were consistently away from the herd and isolated. Lion food.

Katie and I had all the skills to do DC because we have done this camp too many times to count. Katie planned everything so well because she has helped plan camp so many times. I was good at walking behind, making sure no one got lost, because I have spent a decade of Texas summers doing the same thing.

Kate and I  have one person to think for all of this preparation and planning: Sweet Hopkins. (Center, below)
Sweet was the children's minister at church when we first started volunteering. To write a full explanation for how Godly, awesome, and impactful this very tiny blond woman from Alabama was to me, let alone both of us, would be nearly a book in and of itself. But she was a GIANT in our lives. She lost her battle with cancer and went to be with Jesus the month Katie and I were married. But the crazy thing is that I still find myself drawing from lessons she taught me. She still looms large in the way we approach ministry.

For example... about Katie... she had a binder of everything we were doing this week: Google maps of restaurants, confirmations, subway maps, medical release forms, contact information, bus schedules, receipts, invoices, and nuclear launch codes. Every summer Sweet had a similar binder for camp and she distilled that into a smaller binder that each counselor carried with them at all times. Further, Katie and I figured we could take 17 kids to DC because it was only one child over the 8:1 child-sponsor ratio that Sweet preferred for camp. Sweet was an organizational, ministry-running machine and the freaking awesome part is that she has turned out little disciples that apparently are spreading her approach. And this doesn't even begin to describe the remarkable daughters she raised.

My only regret is that Sweet and I never talked about how you counsel kids who have suffered through severe trauma. Three of the kids who came to DC with us lost a parent in the earthquake. Many more lost relatives or friends. Half left Haiti after the earthquake and lived with relatives or friends who are part of the Haitian diaspora. I had hoped to spend time with them just talking about life, encouraging them, and sharing more about Jesus. That really didn't happen like I had hoped it would.

I tried not to be too discouraged about it. I did get to discuss which Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix albums I thought two students should by. I was very pleased when they settled on Physical Graffiti and Are You Experienced.

DC was great. Not in some of the ways I expected, but, as you learn in military history, "no plan survives first contact with the enemy". It was great because the students built relationships with each other and hopefully learned something about history and government. It was great because K and I planned the heck out of that trip and used our super-sweet-ninja-sponsor skills to make sure we actually got back with as many students as we left with, which I think is a big feat. So did my school director- he emailed me that it would be "understandable" if we accidentally left a student in DC.



  1. Ben, your story brought back so many memories. When I took my 5th graders to a one week camp (with 2 other classes), we had a 4:1 ratio. No crowds or public transportation and very structured activities. Lots of whining, and bear stories, or our 2.5 mile hike would still be in progress. Every year we'd say never again. Now those trips are some of my fondest memories, and the people involved some of my most treasured friends. Thanks, God bless.

  2. Oh, Ben. I wept while reading this post. I miss Sweet SO much & I too find myself living out the many wonderful lessons she taught me. I often hear songs that remind me of Sweet dancing at VBS or preparing counselors for Camp Gap. I am so thankful that her ministry & mentoring are helping you and Katie to be successful in your ministry. I am very proud of you for making the trip to D.C. & returning home with all of your "campers!" I am praying that God will continue to bless your ministry in Haiti. Thanks for posting. Michele Baker :-)

  3. Lion food...awesome, will have to remember that!



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