I recently took a break from getting my psychology degree and became a student missionary in Peru. For 10 months, I lived in the Amazon jungle at an orphanage for girls from abusive backgrounds. When I first arrived we had nine girls, but with time we were able to increase our capacity to 19. The hired workers would work eight-hour days, but I was with the girls day and night. This meant that I quickly went from learning their names to learning which kid was going to have trouble sleeping at night, which one would protest brushing her teeth, and who was going to hug me in the middle of an important task. The kids called me a Spanish name for sister, but occasionally called me: Mamá. My time in Peru quickly stopped feeling like a student missionary experience and turned into spending time with my family.
Since the orphanage is self-funded, during the spring and summer break we had short-term mission groups come to help us. The group would start a construction project and leave half of it for the locals to finish. This wasn’t always because their time was up, but rather because they chose to take a jungle excursion. Some of the girls would get really excited about their visits, and others not so much. The oldest girl and I would give each other a look of “here we go again” when a new batch of Americans would walk through the door. She would leave my side for a minute to give them the obligatory hugs and greetings. In a way, it was the girl’s job to make the volunteers feel like they were doing something meaningful. The kids who would get really excited about the newcomers were mostly excited to see what gifts they had brought with them. Just as the volunteers looked at the girls as “poor unfortunate orphans,” the girls looked at them as “odd, fascinating white people.” Seeing that interaction made me feel grateful to be past that point and feel more like family to these girls.
Advice For Missionaries
A few pieces of advice I have for short-term missionaries: Go there to work. If you want a vacation, that’s fine, but don’t conceal that desire with a mission trip title. It’s not fair to those who are relying on the service. Since it’s not a vacation, it is inconsiderate to complain about hard labor or the food you eat. These are the everyday realities of people who will probably never have the option to experience anything else for their entire lives. I learned that if you work to humble yourself in such ways, you will find that the culture you are visiting is actually doing many things right and even better than what you are used to. For example, I have never felt a sense of community as strongly as I felt in Peru. I’ve realized how much of that we are lacking in the United States. But if the short mission suggestions I’ve mentioned don’t feel doable for you, that’s alright. There is nothing wrong with simply donating money and supplies. Doing so often allows for your generous resources to be directed where they are needed.
I do want to mention a few good qualities to short-term mission groups. Sometimes the girls would get attached and even cry when short-term missionaries left. After all, extra love is extra love. Also, a new group presence was a fun change of pace at times. Often the girls would ask me if someone from a departed group had sent me videos or texts, and it fills me with guilt to know that they are asking similar questions about me now.
Working with volunteers can leave holes when they leave. I hate the expectation that missionaries ultimately leave. I understand that is the plan from the start but I encourage anyone considering becoming a missionary to consider the feelings of the people you go to serve. Oftentimes at the beginning they see newcomers as a change in routine. If you stay long enough for that to change, it will deeply hurt when you leave. Ultimately, I do believe that the pros outweigh the cons, because even though we miss each other, I found a family in my girls and they found a family in me. I will forever be grateful to learn that found family is possible.