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Maddie’s Musings: Mission Trip 2011 – The Youth of UCCLM Meet the Hmong Kids of FIRM

By Madalynn Amos, United Church of Christ of La Mesa

     When I was younger, say two years ago, I thought everything was always okay for everyone.  Sure I knew about gangs and stuff, but I had never had any contact with them.  My youth group and I went to Fresno on a Mission Trip in July of 2011.  Our objective?  To run a Vacation Bible School (VBS) for refugee Hmong children.  I was the youngest and the quietest.  Needless to say, I kept to myself.  I was shy, doing what I had to do alone.  I liked being alone reading my books, being in the background.  But then I met a handful of Hmong kids who changed my life forever.

     It was the early morning of July fourth, 2011, Independence Day, and I wasn’t going to be with my family.   I was going to be in a car.  I walked my yellow lab with my dad.  We didn’t talk like we normally do.  I tried to contemplate leaving him and my family; it was hard.  Jake, my puppy, kept looking at me, reassuring himself that I was there.  When we got back I ate my breakfast and went to the bathroom to brush my hair and teeth.  After I finished, I looked at my face.  I wasn’t smiling.   I looked dead serious and guarded against the world.  I shook my head and the doubts inside it then walked briskly out to the car.  After a quick licorice stop, we rode to the church.   I tried to ignore the pounding in my ears that comes when I’m nervous.  As we pulled up to the parking lot, I saw Meg, Liz, Eileen, Tripp and Pastor Mary Sue waiting for me.  I gritted my teeth as I jumped out of the van to say my goodbye to my family.  I told them how much I’d miss them.  After my goodbyes and a quick prayer from Mary Sue, they hopped back in the car and drove out of sight.  Sighing, I squared my shoulders and jumped into the back of the rented Suburban.  For six hours I went over the little Hmong I had retained and wondered how much English the kids knew.

     When we got there, it was 107 degrees Fahrenheit.  We met Rev. Sophia DeWitt in the lobby.  She told us more about the Hmong culture.  When we were done, we went on the hunt for a Red Robin.  Three endless buckets of fries later, (Thanks, Tripp) we went looking for fireworks.  After a fantastic display we drove past row after row of tents as we returned to the hotel.  I thought, “These are people’s houses.”  I rode back to the hotel stunned.  In the morning we went to FIRM, Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries, for a cultural introduction.  When we finished, we went back to the hotel to plan.  That evening, the United Church of Christ of La Mesa Youth Group met the kids of FIRM.  I was so nervous, with a nervousness like that before you plummet down the first hill of a roller coaster.  When I jumped out of the Suburban I saw them for the first time. 

     That night was probably one of the best nights of my life.  I was not nervous anymore.  The FIRM kids were amazing.  The only thing they wanted was to be right next to you and for you to listen to what they had to say.  We led a group of about fifty kids through songs, prayer and crafts.   After two hours, I was sad to see them leave.  I hadn’t needed to be worried, about this or anything else.  What happens in life will happen.  The kids were all so funny, vying for our attention like puppies.  They had grown up with horrors – gangs, vermin in their houses and lead in the candy that they eat. I had been afraid that these kids would be different because of their background.  But they weren’t.  The kids were just that – kids. We hosted the VBS three other nights and, at the end of each program, built a bridge with our hands to “keep them safe” on their return home.

     Friday was the last day of the festival.  Some of the other volunteers erected a homemade slip’n’slide.  They held hoses on a tarp and sprayed it with soap and water.  I stood with the rest of the youth group at the edge of the tarp.  From here the blue tarp, now wet and foamy, looked like a miniature frothy sea.  One by one the kids took turns running and leaping onto the tarp, speaking in rapid Hmong.  They reminded me of seals jumping into the Arctic Ocean.  I looked around at the battered building, the sidewalks covered with soapy water and ants and the huge menacing chain link fences surrounding the yard, but all I really saw were kids being kids.

     Just by watching these kids, I learned how to open up.  To share with the world what I had to offer.  I watched as those kids walked out of my life, leaving only a lasting impression.  As they walked away, a few of them turned around and waved.  I waved back, already thinking how much I would miss them. 

     As I write this, I realize how much I have changed.  I am more open, letting the waves of the world wash over me instead of fighting the current just to fight it.  I also recognize that people will come into my life at the most unexpected of times, change my life, then leave.  These kids were raised in an area where horrible things are the norm.  Yet they were so happy.  I miss them.  I miss Gina, Kao Chua, Mae, Bee Vang, Chu and Jeong.  I will always miss them and I am forever in their debt; they reminded me how to be a kid.  Whether they remember me or not, I will never forget them.  I am a different person today because of a handful of seven-year-old Hmong kids.

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