Mission Trip to Puerto Rico

[Editors’ note: the following is a reflection written by two youth group members from St. Mary the Virgin, San Francisco, about their recent mission trip to Puerto Rico.]

The youth group mission trip this year was a lot of fun and definitely a great success! After an all night flight, we landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and were met by our loving guide for the week, Hector. Exhausted, we drove to our home for the week: a beautiful home in the city of Luquillo, in the northeast corner of Puerto Rico. We spent our down time here bonding over card games and playing pool. After we had a short time to settle in, we left for a tour of the area. Hector and our driver Nick showed us around Luquillo. We ended up on a beach nearby and indulged in water that was delightfully warm, naps on the beach, and some ice cream from a passing vendor. After our time on the beach we came back to our house to a wonderful meal prepared by Hector’s son and wife, who lovingly cooked delicious dinners for us all week. 

The next day we went to Las Cabezas de San Juan, a nature preserve on the island. Las Cabezas protects several different ecological areas. We were given a tour of the amazingly diverse beauty, which included a mangrove forest, cliffs overlooking the ocean, beaches, and the oldest lighthouse in Puerto Rico. After our tour, we started our service with the group doing archeological work in Las Cabezas. We were given huge bags full of rocks, shells, and fragments of bone and pottery from an excavation site on the beach we had visited. We sifted through, cleaned, and sorted the material while getting to know one another better. After our work for the day was done, we got to go to the beach next to the nature preserve and take a much-needed swim to cool off. 

We were lucky to be able to go back to Las Cabezas. This time we got to work directly in the excavation site. We split into two groups and tackled two different projects. One group stayed in the archeological site and dug up various shells and pieces of pottery dating back to the year 300 CE. The other group took buckets full of dirt from the site and sifted it out in the ocean to find the shells, pottery, and pieces of bone. Halfway through the day we switched so everyone was able to experience both jobs. After our work for the day was done, we took a more extensive tour of the area around Luquillo. We learned more about the various communities and were told about some of the hardships that they face. 

After our time at Las Cabezas, we reflected on how we viewed service and how this experience challenged our views. Many of us said that we felt that service was doing things that directly benefitted someone who was less fortunate than ourselves, such as helping with kids or building things. Honestly, many of us felt that we hadn’t been engaged in service, especially after the first day at Las Cabezas. During one of our nighttime debriefing sessions we really explored what service really is and how many forms it can take. We realized that during our time at the nature preserve we had been of service in many ways. We had served the people working with the archeological team because they rely entirely on volunteers. Because we were helping preserve history that could be washed away by rising oceans, we were serving those who this historical information would benefit. This was a turning point for many of us as we realized just how many different forms service could take. 

On the fourth day of the trip, we went to the Boys and Girls Club of Loíza. Loíza is a city in Puerto Rico with some of the greatest poverty and largest gang membership. When we arrived, we were lead into the club’s rec room where we introduced ourselves to a group of at least 100 kids, and then they all swept us away to play. For the rest of the day we got to wander around with the kids playing dominoes and Just Dance 2 inside or braving the heat to join them outside in basketball and jump rope. When it was finally time for us to leave, it was a sad occasion. The older kids parted with us gracefully, with simple goodbyes and a few hugs, while a group of younger girls followed us to the vans, jumping on us, and refusing to let us go.

The next day, we got to meet Rebekah and Brendan Yoder at the Evangelical School for the Deaf in Luquillo. They are an American couple who have moved to Puerto Rico from Virginia because Brendan was a pilot who needed to be on call in the event of oil spills. They had heard about the School for the Deaf before moving, and when they got to Puerto Rico, Rebekah decided that she wanted to work there. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to spend any time with the kids that the school serves because school was out for the summer, but that just meant that we could focus all of our energy into fixing up the school itself. We were given a tour, and then quickly broken up into three groups: digging a drainage ditch and scraping and painting two different parts of the school facility. It was hot, dirty work but we all really got to feel the effects of the work we had done that day, especially while trying to scrub paint off of our hands using paint thinner and rags. The projects we did were difficult and extensive enough that Brendan and Rebekah could not have done all of it alone, and it felt good to be able to be of service to them and the school.

We left the School for the Deaf shortly after lunch, and headed to El Yunque National Forrest. El Yunque is protected by the National Forest Service, and is actually the first forest ever to be nationally protected. Nick, one of our guides for the week, has spent countless hours in El Yunque and shared his passion for the forest as our tour guide. As he led us up the mountain toward the top of a set of waterfalls, he showed us how to make natural bug repellent from tree sap and told us how to catch giant crawfish from the streams at night. When we finally reached the top, we got a chance to really feel the difference in temperature between the rain forest and the beaches by swimming in the waterfall. Where the beaches were so hot that the water felt like a bath, the rivers in the rain forest were so well protected from the sun that the waterfall was freezing cold. We splashed around in it for a bit and then quickly dried off and headed back down the mountain.

On the Saturday before we left to come home, we got to spend an entire day in the beautiful city of Old San Juan. Colorful and full of life, Old San Juan was definitely a highlight of the trip. The first thing we did was hop on one of the city’s free public buses and ride to our first stop, El Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Originally built by the Spanish to protect Puerto Rico from invasions, the fortress was now a huge tourist draw, with beautiful views and interesting architecture. After that we split into three groups to wander the city. We stopped by the Catedral de San Juan Bautista, a cathedral dating back to the 16th century where (more recently) American pop singer Jennifer Lopez was married to celebrity singer-producer Marc Anthony. We ate delicious Puerto Rican food for lunch, accompanied by our staple Piña Coladas (virgin, or course), and stopped into a ridiculous number of souvenir shops to find that perfect thing to bring home for our friends and families. The small groups rendezvoused for a quick group picture in the Plaza Colón, and with that the day ended and we were shuttled back into the vans to go home.

We finished out our time in Puerto Rico with an amazing day on a catamaran. We visited two different reefs where we got to snorkel and absorb the absolute beauty of the biodiversity of the ocean. We saw more species of fish than we could count—including two barracudas. It was a truly unique experience for everyone. Unfortunately, a day spent on a boat and floating in the water came with a few bad sunburns, but even with those it was a successful last day. Our flight home left San Juan at 2:45 a.m., and you can bet we slept soundly.

Trips like these are transformative for those who participate in them. On Sunday, September 28, the Mission Trippers preached about the impact of their work at all services. We had such a great time during this week of service and bonding, and would like to extend our sincerest thanks to those who made it possible.