In my experience, going on a mission trip was extremely challenging. Not only was getting there challenging because of financial restraints, but in the group I traveled with I was the only one able to speak both Spanish and English. I learned both languages as child, but even on my first day I could tell the difference in dialects between Cuban-Spanish speakers and Costa Rican-Spanish speakers
The natives guessed my Cuban heritage after having only spoken to them for five minutes. It became apparent to be that the bubble I filled out on Scantron forms labeling me as "Hispanic" in the U.S. was far too broad. Each Hispanic country posses it's own traits that make it unique. It was my inquisitive nature to focus in on the tiny details in Costa Rica that allowed me to form such a connection with the children I worked with and to learn what makes this specific country unique.
During my week stay, I got to know the children on an intimate level. The majority of those whom I connected with were teenagers, and had many of the same struggles teenagers in the U.S. face.
In order to help these teens, Gators for Christ (the organization I went with) held a three-day camp for the Costa Ricans.
I will never forget how amazed the entire volunteer group was by the transformation of the children in such a short amount of time. I formed bonds that are so strong I still communicate with them on a day-to-day basis, but I was not the only one. After several hours of connecting with the group, the barriers of Spanish or English washed away. Conversations were being had with volunteers who couldn't understand a word of Spanish, but the conversation partners would come up with new ways to communicate. Whether it was hand signals or just shouting out random phrases until something clicked, deep conversations were had about faith, life and love.
One of the 12-year-old girls would not speak the first day. During the first small group session, I had to pry for a few minutes to get her to give me a simple yes or no answer. The next morning, she had a conversation with an English speaker that completely opened her up to the entire group. I'm not sure what was said, only that tears and hugs were shared, and from that point on she would not stop talking to me or telling me stories about her family. I could feel the love radiating off her smile, and even if she had been the only one to do so the trip would have been worth it. Luckily, a transformation was visible in a huge percentage of the students.
After the camp, we traveled to a church in San Jose to help bring more of the community to services. We walked around in silly costumes handing out flyers and danced in the streets for hours. The next day, we put on a play of Noah's Ark and set up carnival games for the kids. It was a huge success, and the church leaders were pleased with the turn out. It was extremely hard to leave. I was sad to be leaving paradise, but more afraid that the relationships I formed with the Costa Ricans would slowly weaken when we didn't have easy forms of communication every day. Thankfully, I still communicate with the girls I was closest with each day, and they tell me that the impact my group created is still felt in the church. I am grateful for the opportunity I had to touch lives in Costa Rica. I always tell the girls that I came to touch their lives, but I was more touched by theirs.