In November of 2014, I found myself, very spontaneously, on a mission trip to Ethiopia.  I have no medical experience, nor have I ever been on a mission trip, or even left the United States. I had always been moved to help others, and gravitated towards experiences that allow me to learn about other cultures. So when the opportunity presented itself, to be the photographer for a medical mission trip, leaving in 3 weeks; I did all that I could to find myself there.

With the help of many generous supporters, I arrived in Ethiopia with people from many backgrounds and organizations, from both, Global First Responder, and Tomorrow Come Foundation. There were medical and non-medical volunteers, with beliefs of all sorts. In a very brief time we were to procure medicines, books, and building supplies, put on a medical clinic, expand upon the school in the local village, visit and support the most amazing children of the New Hope Center orphanage, and begin getting materials to launch a new sponsorship program.  A program that will enable the local village children to continue their education. I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived. While I’ve traveled all over my own country, this would be an entirely different experience. I was excited and nervous for what might come, and what the demands would be, both physically and emotionally.

Having 3 weeks to raise funds, get vaccinated, pack and prepare, I hadn’t really had too much time to think or worry about it. I just decided to jump. What I found was a world of hope. What first looked like an unbearable sadness, and an immeasurable problem, soon unmasked itself as joy and hope. Joy in the gratitude of what you did have, in mankind, in family, community, and faith; and hope that together, with love and faith, and perseverance, a difference could be made.  One person at a time, collectively we can make a better whole, that self sustains; and in turn grows, giving more help and hope. It is true, what I’d heard many say that, you get so much more on a journey like this, than you give.  Far beyond the obvious gratitude’s and shifts in perspectives, that are surely inevitable, I gained a new purpose.  I was blessed with the chance, to share a few moments of experience with people of an entirely different culture than my own. I was allowed into their lives, embraced.  

We had so much fun, struggling to communicate and learning the language, sharing meals, playing with and getting to know the children, and watching my team treat, and learn more about, the needs of the local people. No trip is without it trials, I lost my luggage before I even got to Germany.  This of course, carried most of my clothes, sprayed with promethean, medical supplies, and soccer balls. On the upside, I still had my camera gear.  Which I did have to split up between team members to get safely into the country. As I was educated by an Ethiopian couple, who now lives in my town, that there was a good chance my expensive camera gear would be confiscated, by customs, upon arrival. That it may be viewed as excess, and kept. Luckily it was a smooth entry, but I was glad to have taken the precaution. While I did not have clean socks, or underwear, or soap; had I lost my gear and been rendered unable to do my job before I’d gotten started, I might have lost all hope. I did pack some emergency clothes and toiletries on my carry on, “just in case”, and guess what, thank God, because in case happened. Next time that ratio will be different.

However, be ready, and be flexible, are terms to be adopted on any trip like this, if only to endure it all with a smile, and remain capable of being most useful. Have more money than you think you will need, the first night’s hotel cost about what I expected the weeks’ worth of hotels to cost. Luckily, I was blessed with a lot of generosity!  I also learned more about the operations of this type of trip. Things like, people’s idea of time, the days it takes to travel around finding and negotiating supplies, how quickly supplies run out, the logistics of arranging guides, drivers, and translators, all have to be figured out. This is the job, frustrating and stressful, and without, nothing would happen. Emotions get high, sleep may be low, but at the end of each day, it’s all worth whatever trials were to be overcome. I saw a team of people with different spiritual belief structures, races, and professions, all choosing to work together for a common goal. The goal of helping people other than themselves.  

Different people that all recognize a simple truth, “I can, therefore, I should”. “I am only so fortunate to have the choice out of Grace”. I could just as easily could have been born right there.  I could’ve been born needing more help than able to. I learned that there are so many ways and opportunities to help and be a part of the solution. That each small bit, really does matter. Each choice I make, brings me closer or further to being part of that solution. Very deeply, I do believe that there is a common thread that runs through us, and connects us all. I believe that as the saying goes, “we are only as strong as the weakest link in the chain”, holds truest for humanity. I believe our peace and happiness is inversely and directly proportionate to each other. The people in the world around us that we don’t see, in our neighborhood and thousands of miles away, are worth fighting for. They are worth sacrificing for. Especially when it remains, that it isn’t really a sacrifice at all. It is a global need and a global good.

Tears and laughter has no borders. Seeing gratitude, and joy, and hope in the beautiful faces of the people of Ethiopia, I hope, will guide my actions continuously. I see their faces and hear their voices all the time. They have made me a better person. They made me realize that, while I was content and happy wandering the earth, enjoying, and exploring; I had barely enough to do for myself and give time to those close to me. I realized that while I live a very non-materialistic lifestyle, it was still a selfish one. When I connected dearly to two children, in particular, that I would have chosen to sponsor, if I had the means, it broke my heart, because I could not.  At the moment, I am unable to provide the help and support that I am moved to. This has inspired me to make a change in my life and apply to nursing school. In doing this I hope I will be able to, not only be more capable of monetary support, but in service as well.  I am grateful for all that I have received from this experience. I have even continued to share experiences with, and learn from, friends I met on the trip, back here in the US. I wish that anyone considering such an experience and goes forward with no hesitation.

Alyson Visgauss

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