Traveling to serve, not for self

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Katelyn Johnson, student at Utah Valley University, interacts with children at an orphanage in Kenya, Africa. (Katelyn Johnson)
Katelyn Johnson, student at Utah Valley University, interacts with children at an orphanage in Kenya, Africa. (Katelyn Johnson)

Travel with a service component has become more prevalent over the past few years. It’s not just traveling to Europe or backpacking in a different country; it’s traveling to give back to society.

According to nationalservice.gov, volunteer growth has been increasing over the years and was named the top travel trend by Conde Nast Traveler in 2013. The trend is growing rapidly, especially among college-aged students and families.

BYU graduate Jesse Valentine embarked on a month-long trip last year to South Eastern India to try and make a difference in the Leprosy Colonies. She traveled with a study abroad group for BYU nursing students to Ecuador, Ghana, Finland and India. Valentine said India “called her name,” and she desperately wanted to go there.

“We did 3.5 weeks of medical mission work in the colonies and in the boarding school,” Valentine said. “A lot of what I learned and experienced is hard to put into words … since being home from India, I have had the hardest time finding real meaning in my life. I spent a month of my life where every waking moment was a new opportunity to serve and to love.”

Valentine said it was different than anything she had experienced, and it was difficult to watch the people suffer.

“In India, there is a socially debilitating stigma attached to leprosy. Not only do others believe that you have done something very wicked in your past life to have this disease in this life, but they treat them as outcasts,” Valentine said.

Valentine said one of the hardest parts was coming home to a bed, with a pillow, a family and a roof over her head.

There are still more than 700 leprosy colonies that exist today. Friends who told her about the life changing experiences, inspired her to go and help others.

“Serving others is an experience that changes you, no matter where you serve,” Valentine said. “If you are really digging deep within yourself and serving others, a fire lights inside of you and warms you. You can feel it long after the experience is over.”

Valentine’s first service trip sparked her interest to go again in 2017, and she encourages others to go as well.

Utah Valley University student Katelyn Johnson, 21, and her family went to Kenya to work with orphanages in the slums. “It wasn’t a regular, relaxing trip. It was intense,” Johnson said. “No matter how much you try to prepare for it, nothing can prepare you to see how many people are homeless and seeing people with skeleton bodies. The way they live is so shocking.”

When Johnson left for the trip she had a mentality focused on saving the world. When she got there she felt helpless because there were so many Kenyans in unfortunate conditions. “There were so many people in need, and I was just one person,” Johnson said. “That was hard.”

Johnson explained that the kids and the orphanage have hardly any money, so they sleep under a tin roof and eat one meal a day.

“My family went in and brought books, fruit and soccer balls. We wanted to bring candy because that’s what we love, but they really just needed nutrition.”

An orphan receiving school supplies at an orphanage in Kenya, Africa, where Katelyn Johnson, a Utah Valley Universty student, voulenteered. (Katelyn Johnson)
An orphan receiving school supplies at an orphanage in Kenya, Africa, where Katelyn Johnson, a Utah Valley Universty student, volunteered. (Katelyn Johnson)

Johnson and her family split up and taught them English and sang and read to orphans while they were there. She said the orphanage personnel wanted to show them their “school library.” But upon entering, she said, there were only about 10 books in the little room. So Johnson and her family went out to get the children some more books.

Johnson said it was hard arriving there but also extremely hard to leave. “On the way home, my family and I stopped in London. Stopping in London and then coming back to America, I just felt so guilty. If I brought those kids back with me, they could not even imagine my life. If they saw my car, my house or the food I eat … it was hard.”

But Johnson said she is happy knowing she made a difference while she was there.

“I could not comprehend how happy these kids were. I look at my life now and think, ‘How can I ever complain?'” she said. “It breaks my heart because these kids have nothing. But they are the most thankful and happy kids.”

Johnson said she learned they were so happy partly because they lived simple lives. The littlest things made the kids happy.

“I think if we can all focus on the simplicity of life we will realize how good it can be and be thankful for what we do have,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the owner and founder of the orphanage does his best to keep them safe and has created an amazing community of love among them. The founder wanted to start a school, but so many of the kids that would come to him had no parents or guardians, no place to sleep and no place to go, so he took them in.

“They obviously taught us way more than what we taught them,” she said. “We will always remember them.”

Johnson is in the process of starting an organization to have others be pen pals with those from the orphanage in Kenya so they can give back without having loads of money. She said she wants a way for these kids to be able to feel the love and support from others.

Johnson said the experience has taught her to not take things for granted. She now tries to live by the quote, “Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.” Although Johnson knows she can’t change the whole world at one time, she knows she can give back to one person at a time. That makes a big difference in her outline.

“I think a lot of times people feel like they need a vacation … go on vacations to get a break from everything and rejuvenate and find yourself,” Johnson said. “I feel like there is no better way to do that than to go on a service trip. When you’re serving, all your problems and cares go away.”

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