Say "spring break" and "students" in the same sentence, and many people think of hedonistic vacations. But for some young people from the Kenai Peninsula, spring travels have become occasions for serving God and humanity worldwide.
As families celebrate Easter this weekend, at least two groups of high school students are abroad doing mission work in Russia and Mexico. Other groups recently returned from Nepal and Peru.
The experiences touch young lives at the deepest levels, opening their eyes to how the affluent, materialistic life here contrasts with the poverty in most of the world.
"We've been taking our own children for years," said Jan Shields. "I know it has changed their lives."
Shields and her husband, Don, returned April 3 from one week in Peru. Three central peninsula teens were in the group that accompanied them to the Quechua Indian community of Ayacucho, where the Americans are sponsoring a school.
The Shields got involved through their work as teachers at Cook Inlet Academy and through Soldotna resident Janeice Knight, who does charity work among Peru's poor. This is the sixth time they have gone to Peru and the third time they have taken teens.
The first youngster other than their children to make the trip was Charlotte Hillyer, now 14 and an eighth-grader at CIA. This year she returned for her third trip.
"I just love it. I want to go back so bad," Hillyer said.
She got involved when Don Shields was her sixth-grade teacher. She was so enthused about the prospect that she badgered him to take her along, she said.
"I've been interested in the mission field since I was really little," she said.
The Shields were reluctant to take students on their first trips, because the area had been plagued by violence from the Shining Path revolutionaries. But it has become safe in recent years, Jan Shields said.
Having Alaska students along makes extra work for the adults on the Peru mission, she said, but the organizers view the education and inspiration teens receive as well worth the effort.
Augie Lindow from Kenai Central High School, Danielle Duncan from Soldotna High School and a girl from Montana also made the trip. The teens worked with children in a vacation Bible school and helped with registration for the regular school, which begins its academic year in April.
This was Duncan's second trip to Peru. Lima's modernity and huge size compared with Anchorage impressed the 15-year-old. But Ayacucho was a different story.
"It's really remote," she said.
Prejudice against the Indians and the poverty bothered her, but the people made a favorable impression.
"They are really sweet people," she said. "They don't know how poor they are. They don't know what they are missing."
Seeing how poor people live is a real eye-opener for American teens, the travelers said. The contrasts prompt the young people to ponder the materialism in our society and the requirements for true happiness.
"Americans take a lot for granted," Duncan said.
"When you see how happy (the Peruvians) are with nothing, it kind of breaks your heart. It's nice to see God can still work in those people."
Peru is not the only place to inspire such insight. Brad Cason, pastor at North Kenai Chapel, took five Nikiski Middle-Senior High School students to Nepal for 18 days last month. They returned to Alaska March 30.
The Nikiski group visited the gritty city of Katmandu, the outlying town of Pokora and hiked in the Annapurna area. They distributed clothing and visited schools and villages in the Hindu nation in the Himalayan mountains.
"It's a big difference from America," Cason said. "They get more of a world view."
Teen missions from the Kenai Peninsula are quite international. As the Nepal and Peru groups review their adventures, two other central peninsula groups are still on the road. Sixteen students from Skyview, SoHi and KCHS are in Juarez, Mexico, with leaders from Peninsula Bible Fellowship. They are building a house for a family in the border town and plan to return to Alaska Tuesday.
Meanwhile, six students from CIA and one recent alumnus are on their way back from the ninth Russian school mission trip to Birobidzhan in eastern Siberia. The group, working with Samaritan's Purse, flew into the port of Vladivo-stok, then traveled inland 18 hours by train. They stayed with host families and delivered gifts to orphans, said Rhonda Orth, school secretary at CIA. The group is spending the weekend in Seoul, South Korea, where it planned to celebrate Easter in the world's largest church, which has a congregation larger than the population of Alaska. They plan to return to Alaska Monday.
Such trips give the teens a new perspective on how vast and small the world can be at the same time.
Hillyer said her sister is one of the students now in Korea, and the two of them are amazed at how far they have traveled and how many diverse people they have met. They say when they hold hands, they feel like they are reaching around the world.
"We've been everywhere," she said.
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