By Blake Ells
For 15 years, Briarwood Christian School has had a mission program that has allowed its students from all walks of life to visit and serve Central American countries.
The two oldest trips led students to Nicaragua and Guatemala. A trip to Haiti was added a year ago, and this year, for the first time, a group spent its spring break in Panama.
“There’s been so much interest in the program,” said high school principal and boys soccer coach Dr. Shawn Brower. “We’ve had more kids that want to go than space for them. So in the past year, we added a trip to Haiti, thinking that three trips would be enough. And there were still more students that signed up wanting to go on a mission trip over their spring break. So we added the trip to Panama.”
A fifth trip will be added soon, with the baseball team visiting Cuba.
Over the course of the week in Panama, Brower and his students traveled to the village of Gamboa by taking a boat up the Panama Canal. They visited an inner city Christian school in Curundu, leading children’s programs and feeding students at lunch. The boys among the group did manual labor at a site where a church was being erected. And they visited a rural public school in the mountains at Nuevo Pareso, where children as young as elementary-aged walk up to two hours to school each day and families live without electricity.
“The first few days, (the children) were very excited to see us and they were very engaged,” said senior boys soccer player Jacob Badalato. “When we visited the village in the mountains, we spent time with a group of kids that doesn’t really see a lot of outsiders, so they were a bit more shy and timid; a bit hesitant.”
While the boys on the trip did more of the heavy lifting, the girls interacted with children through music and crafts. They showed students how to make headbands out of old T-shirts and led singalongs.
“(In Curundu) they loved making the headbands, and they love to sing,” said junior girls soccer player Sydney Grace Edge. “They love to dance and play games.”
Among the students on this trip were four players from Brower’s own boys soccer team and the girls team, two tennis players, a girls golfer and representatives from Briarwood’s show choir and cheerleading squad. Just Edge had previously participated in the mission program, visiting Guatemala.
The new destination came together a bit accidentally, as the original plan was for Brower to lead students to an orphanage in Mexico. But a level 4 security warning rerouted the mission, and on short notice.
“That was in January, which is kind of late to come up with another plan,” said Brower. “But before I announced that we were not going to Mexico, I started doing some research. I have a good friend at Score International, which is a sports ministry that travels to a variety of countries. He suggested Panama for a group as diverse as ours, and every day has been a different day.”
While many of the students that the group from Briarwood Christian interacted with don’t have the same advantages and opportunities, they found that they had much more in common than they could have imagined.
“It’s been really cool to see other people and see that they’re just like us,” said Badalato. “They’re all very similar to us. They do the same things we do, and they enjoy the same things we do. We’re really not all that different.”
The language barrier proved much easier to cross than the group, which is not fluent in Spanish, expected.
“The experience has been great,” said junior girls tennis player Holly Hancock. “They’re really no different than us. They speak a different language, and I don’t speak Spanish – hardly at all – so communicating through laughter and having fun without words was impactful for me and for them.”
At the end of each day, after the group had dinner, they sat down for an hour and shared with each other what they learned. Brower offered words of encouragement, and the group bonded over their shared experiences.
“We’ve made tons of memories,” said sophomore boys soccer player Braxton Tubbs. “It’s brought all of us closer together. It’s a group of people that I have never really spent much time around, and we’re coming home with tons of memories and pictures to talk about.”
To learn more about the mission programs at Briarwood Christian School, visit briarwoodchristianschool.org/missions. ❖