By Chelsea Quackenbush
You plan for months. You hold fundraisers and sell all your stuff. You go to meetings to talk about cultural awareness, new customs and how to travel internationally. You pray and ask God to prepare the hearts of those who you will come into contact with. You ask Him to open your heart to what you’re about to see and experience. You pack and repack your suitcase. Make sure your camera is charged and your Bible is tucked safely in your carry-on.
Finally, you’re ready. You’re ready to embark on your first mission trip.
You meet the Buckner staff at the airport. Board the plane. Fly for eight hours. As you descend through the clouds, your heart starts pounding as you peer out over the foreign landscape.
Am I ready for this? Will I be changed forever? Is what I’m doing really making a difference?
You’re in Peru … Honduras … Guatemala … Kenya … Ethiopia … Russia. You’re on a Buckner mission trip. And more than likely, your life is about to change.
‘Do what matters’
“It’s a mandate,” said Jeff Jones, Buckner area vice president for volunteers, aid and mission support.
Why go on Buckner mission trips? According to Jones, Micah 6:8 is often quoted as the philosophical – and theological – launching point for Buckner missions.
“We see it as a mandate – ‘to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly before your God.’
“We ‘do justice’ by advocating on behalf of others who can’t speak for themselves while we seek to show mercy through the work of committed volunteers,” Jones said. “We orient and develop our mission teams when they go to be focused on the people they’re serving, learning how to change cultures and be relevant to the population that they’re serving.
“And then we want to do all of this without drawing attention to ourselves, without calling attention to Buckner…to make a difference to that one orphan or child or family, one life at a time, in humility.”
Jones said there is “no ceiling” on what God can do through committed volunteers willing to adopt the Micah 6:8 mindset.
“We remove barriers for people to serve the least and the lost. We hold the door wide open for supporters to go and experience the efforts we have going on all over the world. But, to do that, you have to go and do what matters.”
Early trips focus on education
Buckner mission trips started when Buckner began work internationally in the mid-1990s. The first trips went to Russia, Romania and Latvia, and most of the work was done in orphanages. As Buckner grew internationally, it became important to expose supporters and colleagues to the issues in those countries.
“There were a lot of people who said, ‘if we’re going to do this, we need to educate people about the needs,’ and that’s really why our mission trip philosophy was born,” said Susan Williams, Buckner director of international missions. “So the one reason that has remained consistent, in my opinion, is that mission trips have always existed to raise awareness, to teach Americans about the needs of these countries. Otherwise, there’s not really a primary reason for Buckner as a social service organization to be international or to be doing mission trips internationally.”
“As we began to seek ways to provide orphanage support and develop educational programs and community-based programs, we also saw the need to introduce Buckner supporters to our work,” Jones said. “Buckner mission trips became that outlet. We developed them to be multi-faceted in purpose – to help gain support, expose people to those we serve, and to help us do the work more effectively.”
When Buckner was invited in to Russia and Romania, government officials and leaders wanted to learn more about the American models of foster care and adoption.
Buckner worked primarily in local orphanages for several years before creating affiliated nongovernment organizations in-country. As Buckner ministries grew, so did opportunities for mission trips. Soon Buckner began working in African and Latin American countries.
“We can do all kinds of work internationally but to take volunteers internationally, the whole purpose is to teach people about why we should go and to see the huge need in those places,” Williams said. “Ultimately, hopefully, it leads to more international adoptions from those places, more financial support of those places and just a better understanding of the needs of these children and their families.”
After the first several years of doing mission work internationally, Buckner staff realized that it was more important for to find ways to focus on orphan prevention and to provide ministry opportunities to volunteers that would allow for follow-up with the ministry.
Out of that desire to prevent children from being orphaned and to prevent families from falling apart, the Community Transformation Center (CTC) model was born. Social workers began to look at what was causing children to be placed into orphanages and other issues in local families and tried to figure out how to keep that cycle from repeating.
“We really started to see the difference between just sending people to have a great trip versus having all these trips where we knew, at the end of the day, we had done something really good for those families,” Williams said. “And the next trip would build on that work.”
Sending volunteer mission teams helped local Buckner NGO staff members because they were able to oversee the projects and report to staff in the U.S. about what was beneficial to the families.
Buckner developed a list of service opportunities in different countries in order to strategically place groups for effective work and a good experience. There are opportunities for vacation Bible school, sports camps, medical missions and humanitarian aid distribution trips.
“One thing I love that is just getting started are the humanitarian aid drives,” Williams said. “Whether it’s hygiene kits or backpacks and school supplies, it’s exciting to be able to put those things on a list and take them and do a little education. Any volunteer can say ‘this is why it’s important to brush your teeth, this is the difference between clean and dirty.’ That’s the beauty of it. It’s just really basic things that we hadn’t done before. And that makes me so excited. When you talk about life transformation, you have to start with the basics.”
Go in your own backyard
Buckner also coordinates mission projects in its own backyard. It has been doing missions along the Texas-Mexico border for a long time but only recently has Buckner staff realized the potential for its border ministries to serve as a launch pad for the needs in the U.S. – and not just Texas.
There’s always been an “open invitation” to go serve along the border, Jones said. As many as 2,000 people will travel to the border to serve with Buckner this year, he said.
Mission trips to the Valley might look a little different now than they have in the past. Teams still build houses, hold block parties and distribute supplies. But with the existence of the Peñitas CTC, Buckner staff is able to be more proactive with families. Instead of just building a house for a family in the colonias, CTC staff will be able to track the families, create a life plan and walk them through it for true transformation.
“Because so many people have volunteered to serve along the border, it can get a bit chaotic,” Jones said. “We have equipped our staff there to respond to that volume because we want it to be a good experience for everyone. It’s amazing what has gone on in the Valley through our volunteers and we‘re building our capacity to answer that amazing response. Ultimately, we envision offering many volunteer opportunities in the U.S. and we’re developing a good process to support that vision.”
Something for everyone
Buckner has a summer missions program, Project GO!, in which college students can dedicate a portion of or all of their summer to serve with a Buckner ministry abroad. They work with the staff on the ground to teach English classes, do Vacation Bible School or play games with the children. They help care for orphans. They volunteer in the CTCs. They are encouraged to expect the unexpected.
“Missions is a connection,” said Ashley Marble, Buckner missions long-term opportunity coordinator. “Missions can connect you to God’s call on your life to go and serve. Missions connects God to those you serve as you bring the message of His love to those who may never have heard it. And missions connects you directly to the orphans and at-risk children you are serving, letting them know that someone loves them, cares for them and cares enough about their needs to travel across the globe for them.”
Currently, Buckner has Project GO! volunteers in six different countries – Guatemala, Peru, Honduras, Russia, the Dominican Republic and Kenya.
Many Project GO! participants come back with a new purpose in their lives, a better idea of what they want to do with their lives, and sometimes, a new college major, Williams said.
“I used to go through life and wonder: ‘What am I supposed to be doing?,’” said Kylee Piatczyc, a Project GO! volunteer in Peru. “But through a tiny little girl, I have gotten a huge answer. I got that ‘can’t breathe’ kind of feeling… That, ‘This is your answer,’ kind of feeling.
It has been through her that I know God is calling me to work with children with disabilities – specifically those who are at-risk, living in destitution or orphans. He’s called me to work with those who are already so special that they need a little bit more love, attention and care – those who often do not get that love, attention and care that they so desperately need.”
To learn more about Project GO! or other Buckner mission opportunities, please visit itsyourmission.com or call the Buckner missions office at 214-388-1442. To see a current calendar of Buckner mission trips, click here.
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