God, gators and gumbo; local teens serve in New Orleans

I could have spent the first days of my summer like any other kid. Going to the lake, relaxing with friends, playing video games. Instead, I was flown down to New Orleans, slept on the floor of an empty church, and told to work. And I couldn’t be more grateful.

  • Tuesday, August 8, 2017 10:30am
  • Life

Enumclaw’s Maya Rismiller spent hours sorting Mardi Gras beads, a task that helps fund Arc, a New Orleans non-profit. Contributed photo

Ben Holland is an Enumclaw High School senior who also attended this mission trip.

I could have spent the first days of my summer like any other kid. Going to the lake, relaxing with friends, playing video games. Instead, I was flown to New Orleans, slept on the floor of an empty church and told to work.

And I couldn’t be more grateful.

My youth group, as well as a couple of adult leaders, from Trinity Lutheran Church in Enumclaw flew to New Orleans for a week-long mission trip from June 24 to July 1. There, we worked alongside youth groups from Kansas and Florida, meeting new people and making a positive difference in that community.

A few jobs and activities included in our trip were helping at the local YMCA, where we taught local children to swim while also getting to know them and generally just having fun; working at a grocery store called Blair’s that was locally renowned for its charity work and donation of supplies to the impoverished; and spending time at the Kingsley home, my personal favorite.

The Kingsley home is a local hangout spot for retired seniors (yes, I know calling it a home seems confusing but it wasn’t actually a retirement home). They provided activities and games to keep the elderly busy and we got to experience all of these while also hearing the incredible life experiences these people had had.

But one of the main jobs that we had was helping out at an organization called Arc, a nonprofit organization in the greater New Orleans area committed to helping those with intellectual disabilities and issues with early development. Arc mainly helps the community by providing respite and supported living care to affected adults and educational planning for children. The hardest and possibly most rewarding job was at Arc.

Maya Rismiller, an upcoming sophomore at Enumclaw High School, began her trip by sorting the many, many, beads of Mardi Gras, a local celebration before Lent. These beads had to be sorted and grouped before being sold back to vendors; this is where Arc generates its revenue to help those with disabilities. It was a consuming, tedious job but Maya and many others were eager to help.

While sorting, Maya became fairly close to a man named John. John was a man with an intellectual disability who had been helped by Arc most of his life. These days he volunteers at Arc as a way of giving back. John was given a wooden cross by Maya as a way of recognizing the work he puts in each day, as is somewhat of a tradition on Trinity mission trips. The cross also symbolizes that this man has in some way changed her life or views by his character, demeanor, or simply his joyous outlook.

When asked about this, Maya responded, “I could really see God’s grace in him because he wasn’t living in the best of circumstances, but he was still so joyful… he really touched my heart with his kindness and compassion.” Her hope was that by giving him her cross she could, “Show him the same love and grace that he showed me.”

The group from Trinity sorted about 3,000 pounds of beads in just two days, helping out immensely at Arc.

In addition to serving at Arc, the local YMCA, Blair’s, and the Kingsley home, the group had enough down time to walk the French Quarter, sit down for beignets at Cafe du Monde and even attend a Voodoo museum tour. But the highlight for most of us was the swamp tour; 33 teens, one boat, and a canal full of alligators. What could go wrong? As exhilarating as life in Enumclaw can be, it was refreshing to see new wildlife and ecosystems in another part of the country.

The tour guide was nothing short of a walking Southern stereotype. From his accent, to the way he wrangled the gators around, he was definitely tough, but a Southern gentleman nonetheless.

Maia Kuruganti, soon to be a junior at Enumclaw High, was one of the lucky few to hold a baby alligator. Its mouth had to be taped shut to ensure the safety of the tourists, but she held it still, in all its scaly glory. The gator had to be held in a U-shape to keep it from scrambling around, so holding it took some poise. One fun fact we learned on the tour was that alligators love marshmallows; surprisingly cute.

We went to New Orleans to serve in various communities but we received something in return.

Something about recognizing how well we have it back home and seeing yourself make a change in people’s lives really puts everything into perspective. It humbles you and teaches you to love your fellow man and help those in need, which is something everyone should learn.

This mutually beneficial connection was the goal all along and leaves us hungry for other service opportunities. Luckily, Trinity sponsors a mission trip every year, so you can seek out new places and people and in the process, help our fellow man. Although you may not be able to travel like the group has, I would still urge any and all of you to participate in one way or another. Trinity also holds food drives and blanket drives. You can even sponsor one of the teens on their trip and you will be rewarded with a fancy souvenir from wherever we go. I hope to see some new faces at our food drives and maybe even on our trip. Until next year, go in peace.

Maia Kuruganti had the opportunity to hoist a baby alligator while on a Trinity Lutheran mission trip to New Orleans. Contributed photo

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