Just weeks after the earthquake ravaged Haiti, our minister outlined the relief efforts our congregation and the Methodist church as a whole had contributed to the disaster. Amazing! He then went on to say the church was sending a team to a remote village in Panama in just 4 weeks as our next outreach effort. Right then, my two oldest children nudged me in church, “Can we go?” I quickly “ssshhhed” them and said we could talk later. Well little did we know that God was opening the first door of many for us to embark on a life-changing journey of travel and service to the remote village of Cienaguita, Panamá. Our first trip was a construction and relational mission where we also taught vacation bible school and fell in love with the people. While our church had served this community for over two decades through medical and construction mission trips, this was the first team to ever stay at the camp. Accommodations were minimal, water was scarce, and insects were everywhere! And, the hospitality was great. Before we returned home, we were already trying to figure out when we could get back, what we could do to help serve this beautiful yet desperately impoverished community.
Fast forward 14 months…Harlan (my husband) and I return and realize the deep need and desire of the locals to begin learning basic English. So, our outreach leader said, “Go for it!” And, I did. I began gathering information on ESL (English as a second language) curriculum and instruction. I reached out to the local school in Panama, I advertised for spots on our inaugural Language Initiative team (which filled up in days) and began fundraising efforts.
In 2013, I led a team of 10 high school and college students to the village of Cieneguita, Panamá under the direction of Rhett Thompson, to teach an intensive English course at the school. What we found were over 200 villagers who had a genuine thirst for learning English as well as a school whose teachers desperately wanted the tools to teach the required English (though had very few).
In 2014 we assembled another great team of college students and set out to begin tweaking the curriculum to mimic the one required by MEDUCA, (Ministry of Education). We collected supplies, made mountains of copies and returned to build on the project. Then, in 2015, same thing: tweak, improve re-write, collect and GO!! Over 30 youth have traveled, taught, learned, served and practiced their Spanish in a real life context while meeting a great need in the lives of the community of Cienaguita. They have touched lives, and sparked the desire to learn English in just about every child in the village. “Hello, my name is!” is a favorite of the children! And the school supply song taught by Lindley (you’ll hear her story soon!)
Through our work in this village, others have heard of our work. During a trip this summer, I prayed to God that He would show me the direction for this project. Was it MY dream or HIS will? I prayed. I looked. I talked.
I walked. Doors opened. The message was clear “serve the least of these by providing opportunities through the instruction of English.” During my trip, I sent Lindley a text that said, “Doors are Open.” To which she responded, “I’m in!”
Fear, doubt, uncertainty have all run through my head. But so has, “This is what I have for you, Gina” has too. I think it’s time I listen to HIM. I am more certain that ever of my purpose. I was MADE for this. And, I’m ready to GO.
Sophomore year of college proved to be a very trying and difficult time for me. Filled with many questions about where I was headed and what in the world I was meant to do, I began to search. Growing up, I ALWAYS told my parents that I was going to go on a mission trip, and help the less fortunate. And while they were always supportive of my dreams, there was a persistent thought in the back of their heads that my disdain of leaving home for long periods of time would most likely inhibit my ability to go abroad. Come sophomore year, though, I knew that something had to change. Through lots of prayer I came to the realization that I was made for so much more than my current lifestyle permitted me to achieve. I vividly remember the day that I called my mom from college and told her that I HAD to go on a mission trip. I did not care where I was going, or what I was doing, but I needed to feel like a part of something bigger. My mom began doing research and through friends found that Gina Winn was in charge of a mission trip to Cienaguita, Panamá, where the mission was teaching English. Luckily, I have always had a passion for learning Spanish and planned on it being my minor, which it later was. I knew that I was equipped to help, and asked my mom to sign me up.
This was the craziest, most instinctive thing that I had ever done. I was never one to go anywhere without people that I knew. This trip was going to be a super vulnerable time for me, but I knew that by putting myself out there, I would be rewarded with an inexplicable feeling of worth. And I was right. The trip to Cienaguita changed my life (I know it sounds so cliché, but if you ask anyone, they’ll tell you). The children there have so much love to give, and give it so freely. The whole entire team was so accepting of me and made me feel like I had known them forever. I have never been as passionate about anything as I am about helping those kids. The situations that they are in right now– that they were born into, are things that we could never even imagine. For them, the only way to insure a better life is to learn English and attain a job, giving them the ability to sustain their family.
After the first year there was no question in my mind that I would be going back. So sure enough I was back in Panamá in May of 2015, teaching the children and creating bonds that span over fifteen hundred miles. Throughout the trip Gina had been bringing up how she would be headed home for two weeks and then would head back to Cienaguita with a High School team. She asked me if I wanted to join her, and I said that I would love to, but I would really have to think about it. What was happening to me? The girl who would not leave her family for a weekend, God forbid go to camp, was suddenly considering spending a month in a foreign country speaking a different language. I really started to think about this and what had caused my transformation. Then it hit me– this was home. The love from this community was parallel to the love from my family. And who am I to deny the opportunity to teach my new-found family for another two weeks? I had my answer. I would be back to teach for another two weeks in June.
In July of 2016, Gina texted me that she wanted to start a non-profit to really allow the education of these types of communities to be brought to the next level. In August she went to Panamá to check and see if there were doors open for us, and when there were, I immediately said that I was in. I know that this journey will prove to have many obstacles along the way, but the passion that I have for the betterment of the lives of these children will help bring out mission to fruition.