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Langley church youth group gathers life lessons during a humanitarian visit to Gabon
Six members of a Langley church youth group are back home and seeing life more clearly after a 16-day summer mission to Gabon in Equatorial Africa.
“The best thing was being able to experience another culture as deeply as we did,” said Shelby Ball, 17, of Freeland. “It made me appreciate everything I have a lot more.”
“To see first-hand everything we’d read about and seen on TV is very sobering,” said Michael Berry. “It was very humbling.”
Berry, 24, is youth pastor at Langley’s Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. He and his wife Jenna, 22, who is assistant youth pastor, led the group on the August adventure to Africa.
Along with Ball were fellow South Whidbey High School seniors Natasha Kamps, 17, of Langley and Shannon Craig, 17, of Clinton. All three intend to incorporate their experiences into their senior school projects.
Both Berrys also attended South Whidbey High School, he graduating in 2003, she in 2005.
Completing the group was Jason Craig, 20, Shannon’s brother, who graduated from South Whidbey two years ago.
The group helped out at medical clinics, worked on building projects in villages and lent a hand with orphans.
They ate local food, usually involving chicken with two types of rice, and a root soaked in water that was served either fermented or non-fermented.
They wore local clothing and got to know a lot of local people.
They experienced the sights, sounds and smells, including the ever-present aroma of garbage, in a country that, despite pockets of extreme poverty, is considered to be one of the most prosperous in the region.
On their first day, Michael Berry said, they passed through villages filled with dirty houses, piles of trash, leaky faucets and naked children playing with flat soccer balls and broken plastic bottles.
But they also encountered a lot of laughter, wide smiles, sprightly singing and general good cheer.
“The kids were fun to hang out with, full of energy and full of life,” Ball said. “They were really happy even though they were living in a place like that.”
“We were a little scared at first,” said Jason Craig. “We didn’t know what to expect or how to prepare for the experience.”
“But people were extremely welcoming and generous,” he added. “They wanted to chat with you and share their stories.”
The travelers said they met new friends they intend to keep up with, and all said that the experience changed their lives.
None had been out of the United States before, except to Canada.
“I think we’re all hoping to go back,” Jason Craig said.
Gabon, in west central Africa, is about 104,000 square miles and has a population of about 1.5 million. The relatively small population and abundant natural resources make it one of the richest nations on the continent.
Although there are more than 40 ethnic groups with their own languages and culture, the official national language is French. About two-thirds of the population is literate.
While religion wasn’t the central focus of the trip, Michael Berry said he was regularly invited into homes to lead prayer in his limited French.
“They just wanted a little attention from a Westerner,” he said.
The South Whidbey group stayed at an international CMA center just outside Libreville, Gabon’s capital and largest city.
From there they branched out during the day to nearby villages to work on construction projects, assist a traveling hospital medical team and to help out at Hope House, a facility that cares for about 25 orphans.
Michael Berry said reading glasses are in big demand in the poorer villages due to a pervasive degenerative eye condition, and that medical treatment is minimalist at best, often consisting solely of ibuprofen.
“It’s pretty simplistic,” he said. “So many things could be fixed with modern medicine.”
Their visit took place during the winter dry season, so the temperature wasn’t extreme, and there was little rain, although the humidity remained relatively high, Michael Berry said.
Shannon Craig said one of the highlights for her was helping out at the orphanage, playing with the children and assisting in the building of a bigger house.
“We also gave them the extra money we raised for the trip,” she said.
Kamps, too, was taken with life at the orphanage.
“I was impressed with the slowness of time, and the way they can be content with what they have,” she said.
The CMA group chose Gabon for outreach after meeting with visiting residents of the country, and with missionaries who had worked there, Michael Berry said.
He said the church youth group has about 50 members, and has participated in other programs in the United States and Canada. It helped out in the aftermath of flooding in southwest Washington, and in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.
The students said their Gabon experience will color the way they think about the world as they move on to the next phases of their lives.
Jason Craig is studying construction management at Edmonds Community College and hopes to start his own building business.
“It opened my eyes to a different part of the world,” he said of the trip. “It showed me that people around the world are basically the same.”
Ball said he is keeping up a correspondence with a 19-year-old Gabon man named John.
“I’d definitely love to get back there in the future,” he said.
Shannon Craig said she hopes to have a business someday that would concentrate on helping orphans overseas.
“It was really hard to say goodbye to them all,” she said of the people she met in Gabon.
Kamps may have been the most affected by the experience.
“They definitely influenced my future career,” she said. “I hope to return there some day. I felt the call to be a missionary.”