While most people bring back souvenirs from their family vacations, not all return home with the kind of things one Vestavia Hills family came home with after visiting Africa over the summer.
The Champions traveled to Africa as part of Young Life, a Christian ministry that has outreach programs for students in the U.S. and in 70 countries around the world. While there, the Champions ran a camp for African children, raised money for more children to attend the Youth Life Africa camps, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and learned a lot about themselves in the process.
“We went with the attitude to give as much as we could, but we got back so much more,” Greg Champion said. “I think we were changed by the time we spent overseas.”
Greg and Laura Champion said they wanted to spend their family vacation with their three children — 17-year-old Sarah Baskin, 15-year-old Abby and 13-year-old Luke — on the mission trip to Kenya and Tanzania because they wanted to give them a chance to serve others.
“We wanted to do more than have a family excursion,” Greg said. “We wanted to expose our children to other cultures and to show them how important it is to serve others.”
During the first part of the trip, the Champions worked for a month at Tenwek Hospital in Kenya, where Greg, a gastroenterologist at Brookwood Medical Center, volunteered through World Medical Missions.
While helping their father at the hospital, the Champion children watched the births of premature babies and then, weeks or sometimes days later, watched as the underweight and sick infants died.
“I babysit a lot here at home, and when a baby died while we were there, it really struck me how healthy babies here are and how we can take that for granted,” said Sarah Baskin.
Laura said it was a blessing for her children to see the disparity in healthcare between what they are used to at home and what they witnessed in Africa.
“When the baby died, it was tough on all of us, but it was something they needed to see to understand what the people there go through every day,” she said.
After working at the hospital, the Champions set out for Camp Arusha in Tanzania to organize and run two Young Life Camps for 800 African children.
Before the trip, the family raised money to pay fees to allow more African children to attend the Young Life Camp. It cost $15 per child to attend the camp, Laura said, an amount that seems astronomically expensive for most families in Africa.
“It doesn’t seem like a lot of money to us,” she said. “Just think about how much parents here spend to send their kids to camps every summer.”
The Champions worked with other Young Life missionaries to give the campers three meals a day, fun activities and messages of God’s love for them during the four-day overnight camp.
“For many of the African children, the camp was a great adventure,” Greg said. “Most of them have never slept in their own bed, most never get three meals a day and many of them don’t have parents.”
The Champion children said they were amazed at how happy the African campers were to be there.
“They were all happy and they don’t have anything,” Luke said. “They were always singing and dancing and laughing.”
Abby said the Africans’ gratitude really struck home when the family went out to do community service in the villages near the camp.
“You’re out in the middle of nowhere and they are living in huts, but they are still so thankful for everything,” Abby said. “It really makes you thankful for what you have.”
Greg said he learned a major difference in the way Americans approach relationships and the way Africans do.
“Here we are often enamored by projects and material things and activities,” he said. “But they are more about building relationships and often have a fuller life than we do.”
The whole family said the trip opened their eyes to the need to slow down instead of rushing through life.
That was especially true when the Champions set out to climb the highest mountain in Africa to help raise money for more African children to attend Young Life camps.
To cap off their trip, the Champions spent six days climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, which is 19,341 feet above sea level.
“On the mountain, they have a saying, ‘Pole-pole’, which means ‘slowly slowly,'” Laura said. “It is the way you make it up Kili and the way the African people live their lives.”
Luke said he liked the slower pace of life during his time in Africa.
“It seemed like you had a lot more time to do what you wanted to do,” he said. “There’s a difference, because here I’m always doing something.”
For more information about Young Life Africa, go to http://africa.younglife.org.