If you've been following along with me here, you may be familiar with my 2016 mission trip to Panama with Eleven22. That trip was absolutely incredible and had an enormous impact on my life. Fast forward to 2018 and I was called back to Panama but this time as a trip leader. And once again......life changed.
Come along with me and take a look at The Church of Eleven22 Panama B 2018 Mission Trip!
So I really have to start with this before I get into anything else. Two trips now and it's official, the people of Panama have set up shop and now have a permanent address in my heart. Including one little girl in particular who, moving forward, will be a major part of my life. Her name is Krislyn. She is 7 years old and was clearly the reason I was meant to go back to Panama. Let's start with her, and then I'll take you through the rest of the trip.
So if you ever go on the Panama trip with Eleven22, you'll get to participate in the Manos De Fe Family Assistance Outreach. Manos De Fe translates, "Hands of Faith" and it is a Christian ministry based in Caisan, Panama founded in 2008 by Julie and Gary Proctor from Jacksonville, FL. (To keep things simple, I'll refer to Manos De Fe as the "Mission House" or "Mission Partner" from here on.) The program involves bringing things like food, soap, toothpaste and medical supplies to families in the area that are in pretty desperate need. The program helps to get them back on their feet and as families graduate out of the assistance program and become self-sufficient, they have the opportunity to transfer services to another local family.
When I went to Panama the first time in 2016, one of the first homes that I visited on the program was Krislyn's. (Although on that trip I never learned her name or went inside the home.) I remember seeing her for the first time as she curiously peeked her head out through the front door. Once she worked up a bit more courage, she stepped all the way out and I got this picture of her. We dropped off the food, said a prayer for the family and then left. I truly thought that was probably the last time I would ever see her again.
Of all the images I got during that trip, this one by far left the biggest impact on me. Probably due to the fact it was my first trip after becoming a parent myself and I have two daughters of my own. But it just stuck with me in a way I am not real sure I have words for. It's almost like it's been imprinted on my soul.
Fast forward to 2018 and my first opportunity to do the Family Assistance Outreach for this trip just so happen to be Krislyn's home again. Now keep in mind, I had absolutely nothing to do with which homes I'd go to and when. There were others on the team who had already started going to other homes in the area before I had my chance to go on one. And even when it was my turn, the Mission Partner is still the one who selects the different homes to go to each day. We just go wherever they tell us. So once again, I did not choose to make her home the first family I went to. It was chosen for me. And none of them would have known I had that strong memory of Krislyn from two years prior.
Now, I am not someone who believes in coincidences. In other words, I believe there is a God, and he has everything planned out ahead of time. So I don't believe it was an accident that almost two years apart (to the day) that the very FIRST child I see on the outreach is the same one that had left that big impact on me from before.
So as I walked up to the house once again, memories from the previous trip started flashing through my mind. As we approached the door, I started to think to myself "I wonder if that same little girl still lives here." We knocked on the door and kindly called out "Hola" and when the door opened up........there she was........two years older......and with a look just as striking as before.
Right away something just started working in my heart. After the rest of the team had moved on to another family's home, I stayed behind with one of the mission partners and a translator and we had a chance to go inside the house (something I did not have an opportunity to do on the past trip) and learn more about their family dynamic. When I stepped into the home and saw how incredibly small the living space was (about the same area as my kitchen) it was terribly sad. Krislyn, her three siblings and mother all share the space. The dad is not a part of her life and it's likely she has never even met him. Then we pulled back a dirty old bed sheet hanging on a wire to act as a curtain and I saw the bedrooms, if you can even call them that.
Then my heart pretty much broke in two.
It was at this moment that something in me started saying that I was being brought back to this girl for a reason and I needed to step in and help them more but wasn't quite sure how yet. Eventually we left the house to catch up with the team but the thought of sweet Krislyn stayed heavily on my mind the rest of the day. But once again, I was starting to wonder if that was the last time I'd see her for the rest of the trip, or quite possibly ever again. In fact, I began to heavily regret that I had not stopped to take a picture with her and I missed an opportunity. The thought was eating me up all night after that.
The next day, I had just returned with a small group from a morning outing and I was making my way back into the mission house for lunch. When I opened the front door, much to my surprise, there was little Krislyn standing right there looking at me in a pretty dress with a little bow in her hair. I can't even tell you the excitement that I experienced in my soul in that moment. I think I started saying to her (in english of course) Hey there you are! You're here! It's you! (Which she wouldn't have understood at all.) But I was just extremely excited. Of course, I had to stop and get a picture with her this time JUST in case.
(Notice the orange sticker on her dress. Keep reading.)
Quick rewind, when I went to Panama in 2016, there was a guy on the team with me named Paul Martinez. It was his first ever mission trip. In Paul's own words he will tell you "I did not even want to go." But thank goodness he did because like many others who finally work up the courage to try one of these trips, it changed his life. Paul is the President and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Northeast Florida. After he saw the conditions down there and being moved in his heart to act, he decided to turn the mission house into the local chapter of Boys and Girls Club for Panama! So not only does it help serve it's missionary purposes, but now during the week they house 57 local children each day to come after school to receive hot meals, homework support, English lessons, technology training and more. And when you live in a part of the world that has virtually nothing, that means this is a BIG deal to these kids. There are no movie theaters, theme parks or arcades around. In fact, most of these kids have no clue those things exist. So if you get to be a "Boys and Girls Club" kid, you are envied by all the other kids around town! There is simply no other opportunity that exists like this available to these children.
Ok so all that being said, slightly confused on how Krislyn could be there, I later found out that the mission house is fronting the money to allow some of the kids to come to the program after school but that little orange sticker on Krislyn's dress meant, she was one of the kids that needed a sponsor to pay for her membership otherwise eventually she'd be unable to keep attending. So after some thought, prayer, and sending the pictures of her room to my wife back in Jax, she gave me the go ahead and said "Let's sponsor her!" So by the end of the trip, I went back to Krislyn's home and had the rare privilege of telling the mother in person that I had decided to pick up her daughter's sponsorship. Some tears were exchanged along with some hugs. It was one of the most fulfilling and incredible experiences of my life. And I'll NEVER forget it.
So much more gratifying than a Carnival Cruise or Sandals Resort. Nothing wrong with doing those things, I like being on boats, I'm just saying.......it can't compare.
So before I take you on the rest of the trip, here are just a few more images I captured of this sweet precious girl who now means so much to me. I would also like to point out that the next wedding I am hired to shoot, 100% of the cost will go towards Krislyn's sponsorship. So if you're reading this and know someone getting married, let them know about this unique opportunity to help! ALSO, her little brother still needs a sponsor as well. So if you're feeling any kind of tug on your heart, just visit www.manosdefe.org and click on DONATE to help him too! It is only $40/month to sponsor him. A few less cups of Starbucks and maybe eating at home once or twice a month and you've just massively increased this kid's chance of making a life for himself. And I can guarantee you that you would not trade the full feeling you'll get in your heart for that temporary feeling you'd have in your stomach even for one second.
Want to learn more about kids who need sponsors? Watch this short interview from the Principal of the Club.
Ok back to Krislyn...
Did you notice her shirt said "FOLLOW ME" on it? Again, I do NOT believe in coincidences. ;)
Ok, thank you for taking the time to read all of that. I hope it did something for you today. Now let's look at the rest of the trip.
So one of the most intriguing parts of places like Panama is that there are still pockets of families that are practicing a cultural way of living that has its roots in the Ngobe (No-Bay) Indian tribe. I am not exactly sure how far the culture dates back but in present day Panama, it has unfortunately resulted in prejudice among some the local communities.
Ethnically speaking, there are not any differences that I am aware of between Ngobe Panamanians and the other Panamanians. Economically speaking however, it is quite clear that families who still practice Ngobe culture are considered to be "less than" or a lower class of people. The Ngobe hold tight to their cultural roots. Therefore very few of them are able to own land, have the appropriate government paperwork and are unable to attend school which puts them at a great social disadvantage. In some cases this has resulted in many families with children who live in homes with dirt floors, no electricity, and inadequate water supplies. And furthermore, this means many of the kids are malnourished and when they get sick they are unable to obtain simple medicines to treat their conditions. One family below even recently lost a baby due to these circumstances.
One of the Mission House's initiatives in Panama is to bridge the gap between the local people groups by showing love and respect for the Ngobe families regardless of their socioeconomic class. Efforts like this can take years to see changes happen in cultural behavior but I am happy to report that cracks in the barrier are starting to show and they are now seeing more and more Ngobe people interacting with the other locals and even some being hired for open jobs. This is a BIG deal. But the challange is still an up hill climb.
Julie's heart for the Ngobe showing up here as she begins to tear up and pray for this girl. Julie and her husband Gary founded the Mission House and are truly some of the most inspiring people I have ever met.
The Boys on the Hill
So this is not just some clever name I came up with for the section of the blog post. These kids have actually become known in the area as "The Boys on the Hill" because, you guessed it. They live on these steep hills.
The exact details escape me now but, the story goes something like, their family is extremely poor but has been picking up some farming jobs on the various hills in this part of the land but about every 9 months once the work is up for that project, they have to pack up and move to another hill. It just rips your heart out for these kids. True survivors.
Here are some more families in the area who are struggling to make ends meet but with very little resources available to get the help they need. This first family below also had some particularly sad circumstances they were going through. The grandparents at this home were keeping their 4 year old granddaughter because her mom and dad did not want her. (They had left her behind for a party life in Panama City.) We brought them food and supplies and prayed for the best outcome for the child. The gratitude of the grandparents was shown to us when the grandfather went into his chili garden and picked us some fresh chili's. For a family with so little, this was a BIG gift from them!
95 Years Young
This man was born in 1923 making him 95 years old. And this is where he lives and sleeps. Sure makes me feel silly for ever complaining about the luxuries I own. Every day he slowly walks several miles from here down to the village area although I don't remember exactly why. But spoiler alert, it is very HOT in Panama and it rains every.....single....day. And not just a light drizzle. Torrential downpour. So when it starts raining, if he's not within several yards of cover, he gets soaked. Every day.
The most humbling thing I remember from meeting him was, although he lives in a house that is about the size of a small bathroom, and he has a significant amount of joint pain and health problems, when we asked him what he needed prayer for, he replied by saying he didn't want prayer for any of his own needs, and to simply pray and thank God for our visit to him. Pretty remarkable really. Don't let that scoot passed you too quickly.
Clase de Musica!
So one of the big plans for me personally on this trip was to get some of the kids exposed to playing musical instruments. Music has always been a big part of my life and I love to pass it on to others. Especially kids. On my last trip in 2016, I gave away a guitar to one local boy who later on went on to become an amazing musician and to this day sends me emails saying what an impact it has had on his life.
So we set out to do the same by teaching some guitar and keyboard to the little ones throughout the trip. My hope is that one day some of these kids will pass on the same to future generations as they remember the first time they held a guitar when some random white dude in a Star Wars t-shirt showed up one day and showed them how to hold a G chord.
Local Schools and Generosity of Others
So one of the other big plans we had for this trip was to bless the local schools with some much needed supplies. Once again, resources in these areas are very hard to come by. And one of my amazing co-leaders Jamey has a big heart for helping teachers and students. So we collected a bunch of school supplies back here in the U.S. and loaded them up in extra suitcases to give away in Panama. This is just one of the local schools we helped out. We started the day off with me totally butchering the song "Happy and You Know it" in Spanish (hey it got the kids laughing) and then later donated the supplies to the teachers. The response was awesome.
I need to do a special shout out for my AMAZING co-workers at St. John & Partners Advertising Agency for all of their support. Look at all of the stuff they sent me down to Panama with. (https://www.instagram.com/stjohnpartners/) These are just some of the faces of the kids you helped. Thank you for your generosity! You are quite literally the answer to these people's prayers!
Throughout the hard work and long days, we did find some time to break off and enjoy some sights. Including one town called Cuerro Punto that had different villages, shops and a steep hike up one of the mountains with an incredible view for the payoff. Not to mention 60 degree weather that felt amazing.
Cami finding an unexpected souviner.
Co-Leaders and New Friends
My amazing co-leaders, David and Jamey Burns. Two people who now mean a whole lot to me! It was a privilege to serve along side you and lead this brave and bold team together! Thank you for being shoulders for me to lean on. I truly hope we get the opportunity to lead together again in the future. I am forever grateful for you two. Your hearts for Panama are as big as those mountains behind us. And I know you will both continue to do incredible things with your ministry in the years to come!!
To finish up, I thought it would be fitting to end on this. You may have noticed the older guy throughout the pictures with the cool safari looking hat. The one that looks kind of like Steve Spurrier (and actually kind of sounds like him too.) Two years ago was the first time I met James. I had no idea what was about to hit me. He is one of the most brave, courageous, humble and selfless people I have ever been around. I vividly remember the discussion we had one night when he gave me his back story. He was living in Texas working hard to make a good living. He was running his own business and things were going really well. As it grew and grew, he continued adding on more staff and hitting bigger and bigger sales numbers. He was quite literally living the American Dream. Business was going well. Really well.
Then one day something in him changed.
In his exact words to me that night he said "I couldn't get satisfaction from those things anymore." So he gave it all up, left the business behind and moved down to Costa Rica where he now resides. In the years since, he spends his time driving his pickup truck between Costa Rica and Panama getting to know all of the families in the assistance program. And he is the one who drives the different mission teams to each home and arranges the bags that have the various foods, soaps and medical supplies for each family. And he does it all for either no pay or virtually nothing. I've never seen anyone quite like him before.
Thank you James for your inspiration, devotion and your love for Jesus that has left me strangely jealous of the life you now live. I hope to be like you are when I am older.
Hasta La Vista...Baby
If you actually read all of this, please tell me so I can A) personally thank you and B) buy you lunch. Trips like these mean A LOT to the people who go on them. So any time someone shows even a little bit of interest in hearing how they went, believe me, the person you ask about it will be THRILLED that you said something.
It can be challenging to go off to another country like this and spend a week in the trenches in some of the poorest conditions imaginable only to come back home to an American lifestyle that can suddenly seem very.....well, selfish.
At the time I am typing this, I am personally experiencing some of those feelings. Although I know in a couple weeks from now I may resort to my own selfish ways of thinking. So I cannot judge anyone. But if this trip has left any kind of impression on your heart, I STRONGLY encourage you to ask more questions about how you can be a part of one of them too. Just talk to anyone who's gone on a mission trip, specificially with Eleven22, and they will all tell you the same thing...... I wouldn't trade it for the world!