A group of Mercer University students -- John Carroll, Melissa Crain, Ashley Devane, Jessica Hunnicutt, Amy Williams and Pam Willingham -- recently returned home from a summer trip they'll never forget.
They didn't vacation in a high-rise hotel on a sandy beach or ride a cruise ship with their best college pals. Their destination was Guatemala, where they worked with the youth of two impoverished cities, Xenacoj and Santa Marta.
The students spent two weeks doing mission work at churches and schools in the two Guatemalan cities. Crain and Hunnicutt planned the trip through the University's Baptist Student Union.
"Since Jessica and I went on our trip to Southeast Asia two years ago, we wanted to plan another international mission trip, giving other college students the same opportunity we had to explore the various missions opportunities outside of the U.S.," Crain, a senior biomedical engineering major from Clarksville, Tenn., said. "We hoped this would open their eyes to all the needs overseas."
The six Mercer students agreed the trip was truly an eye-opening experience. They were stunned at the vast poverty they encountered in Guatemala. Many of the children they worked with lived in houses with dirt floors and some came from homes made of tarp strategically located next to city dumps so they could scavenge for food.
"I've always known that America is rich and that we are well off. But there's something totally different about seeing this widespread poverty," Carroll, a Waynesboro resident, said. "It hurt me to realize how much I did have."
The students' knowledge of Spanish was limited, but they were able to form relationships with the young people in Xenacoj and Santa Marta through what they called "sports evangelism." The Mercer students played basketball, soccer and volleyball with the Guatemalan youth at community parks and outside churches.
"Sports provide a great avenue for reaching out to young people," Hunnicutt, a Macon resident who graduated from Mercer in May with a degree in history, said. "Plus, it's a lot of fun."
Carroll agreed. "We learned laughter can really break down culture and language barriers," the Mercer junior majoring in Christianity and the University's program in leadership and community service, said.
The students also teamed up with missionaries and went into local schools, where they performed Bible dramas and gave personal faith testimonies with the help of a translator.
Willingham, who graduated from Mercer in May with a degree in psychology and political science, values the relationships she was able to develop with the young people in Guatemala. She hopes during their short time together she and the other students were able to show the young people in the impoverished communities that they are loved.
"We weren't there to convert them," the Orange Park, Fla., resident said. "We were there to show them that they are loved and to plant seeds that the children might be able to use in the future."
Devane is a junior from Macon majoring in business. Williams is a Macon resident and graduated from Mercer in May with a degree in communications and history.