When I told my friends and family last fall that I had decided to use my prize money from winning OCR World Championships to travel to India on a mission trip, I think they honestly felt like it came a bit out of the blue. But I didn’t feel that way at all. I’d been feeling compelled as an athlete to do something “more” for a while.
Being an athlete can be a very selfish job. It’s always about you, your nutrition, your exercise, your recovery and sleep. I guess I’d been feeling that as one of the top females in the sport, I was in a bit of a spotlight and in a position where I could be a role model for the sport’s younger generation. Basically, I was in a position to make a difference, so I didn’t just want to sit on my behind and let the opportunity go to waste.
Lindsay on why she felt compelled to make a difference
So, I’d been searching for a way to make that difference for a while. I volunteered at different charity events as an ambassador, but I was having trouble finding that one thing that really and truly inspired me. I’d met Steve McCollum at races a few times, and we stay in touch via social media. Steve works with an organization called Back2Back Ministries, who run children’s campuses and orphanages around the world. Steve had a booth set up at a race one day, and he mentioned the ministry he worked with would be traveling to India that year. Bam, that was it. Maybe it’s that I’ve always loved kids, or that India was on my bucket list of places to travel, but for some reason I can’t quite put a finger on, I felt immediately compelled to go.
I had no idea what to expect. I’ve always wanted to go on a mission trip since I was a little girl, but if you had asked me before the trip what it was I’d be doing (and many people did), I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. I think I expected to do more manual labour, building homes or installing water filtration systems. I learned from others on the trip that every mission trip is very different, even if it’s with the same company. Sometimes, a whole trip will be dedicated to a build, but other times you won’t do any labour at all. In the end, I only helped construct a badminton court and a garbage burn pit (India has no garbage dumps, so to speak, so they pile all their garbage and burn it. This pit I helped build will help keep a sanitary environment at the children’s home). The remainder of my time was spent visiting children’s schools and feeding homes, feeding the kids lunch, and just spending time with the kids to give them the attention many of them had lacked through childhood.
I realized pretty quick that Back2Back orphanages are so much more than regular orphanages. First off, many orphanages in India will have the children sleep on the floor, crammed together because there isn’t enough room for the number of children they’re trying to house. They’ll feed the kids, but not a properly nourishing diet. Sometimes they attend school, but often not, and there is no focus at all on the child’s emotional development. At the Back2Back orphanage, children have their own beds. They really try and recreate a family environment. Children share a “home” with a small number of other girls their age and have a caretaker who looks after their individual group. They are fed a nutritional diet and also taught about nutrition and how to cook. They go to school each day, and Back2Back walks them through their educational development well past college. One shocking thing I learned is that many of the kids aren’t actually orphans, they just come from places where their family can’t afford to feed them. Back2Back encourages regular contact between the child and their birth family. All this was incredible to see, and really gave me hope that these children’s lives would be turned around. However, I think the most important way Back2Back helps these children is through dealing with their emotional needs.
As soon as I arrived on campus, the staff started taking us through a course about child trauma and how it can affect the brain. I won’t get in to the nitty gritty details, even though what I learned was mind blowing, but basically many of these children have been through some intensely hard times in life before the age of 5 years old. Malnourishment, neglect and abandonment, being surrounded by alcoholism or behavioral issues, abuse, even kidnapping. When a new child shows up on campus, often they’ll have crazy outbursts or behavioral issues that stem from having had to cope with too much and not knowing how to deal with it. If adults have trouble dealing with these issues, how is a 5-year-old expected to? Back2Back helps the children through these issues in some pretty special ways. They don’t even use regular forms of punishment. You can’t give a kid a time out who’s experienced neglect or abandonment and expect it to work. Instead, for example, if a child misbehaves they’ll say, “Would you like a do-over?” The child learns to recognize when they hear these words that they’ve done something wrong, reflect on what it was and how they can fix it.
They work hard every day to make the children feel loved and cared about, and it does make a difference. One lady I was on the trip with had been before, and a little boy of 2-years old had just arrived last time she was there. Apparently, he was an emotional wreck, but just one year later he was constantly smiling, laughing, and even making jokes.
What makes Back2Back so special
All that to say, my job while on campus was mainly to make these children realize that even someone who’s never met them before cares about them and feels they have a worth. I did this by colouring with them, playing soccer, setting up obstacle courses, you name it. I’d spend every spare moment with the kids and really started making some good friends. At the start of the week the kids were more distant, but they’re very curious and constantly asking questions. By the end of the week, they’ll hold your hand on a hike or give you a hug, you have inside jokes, and have shared some secrets. The thing I worried about most, was “How am I supposed to leave?” I was so worried that I’d just be another person who showed up on a mission trip, helped for a week, and then left these children to continue with their daily struggles. A friend I was on the trip with explained to me that her first trip, she had the exact same worry, but someone told her “You can’t look at it like that.” When you show up, these children understand you’ll only be there for a week. They don’t ever expect you to stay, and it’s actually much harder on us to leave than it is for them. They just continue on with their daily lives, go to school, study, make dinner, while I leave and my life has been changed forever.
I wasn’t exactly sure what I’d been called to this campus in India to do, but I didn’t expect that my daily exercise habits would have such an impact on everyone around me. Each day, I’d go perform my running laps around the campus, starting at 5:30am and running until the children left for school around 7am. Once the kids woke up, they’d come outside and say “Good morning Sister,” while I continued sprinting in circles. On my second morning, I looked up, and one of the girls was running back and forth across the rooftop while I ran in circles below. We looked at each other and burst out laughing. To me, I was just trying to squeeze in some daily training at a time when it wouldn’t get in the way of any of the days other activities, and I assumed they’d see me as a crazy lady for doing it. But instead, the children asked me how my run was, why I run, how I train. It nearly brought me to tears when a girl approached me and said she wanted to be a professional badminton player and wanted to know what she had to do to get there. It turns out a few of the children had high aspirations in sport. Their choices are so limited by how their education system is set up. Essentially, they go through to tenth grade, and then take one exam, the resulting grade of which will dictate what they do for the rest of their lives. What if they don’t perform well under pressure, or don’t excel at written exams? If they get a poor grade, they have to work in hard manual labour jobs that pay next to nothing. If they get a good grade, they can become a doctor, and so it was no surprise that when asked what they want to be when they grow up, nearly every child said “Doctor.” They don’t have music or art class, so careers like photographer or graphic designer would never even cross their mind, much less to be an athlete. I felt really driven to help inspire them and help them see that their choices aren’t limited. One of the reasons these campuses love when mission trips come is so we can teach the children about all the opportunities available to them.
I had the pleasure of meeting so many strong,piring women. One lady runs a girl’s home by herself, as well as a school and feeding home, while her husband is content to support her and let her shine. This is pretty unconventional for Indian culture, but was so obviously what this woman had been put on this earth to do. Another woman suddenly became a widow in charge of a school of 120 children, but shoulders the responsibility so gracefully every day, donating her pension towards whatever the children need and keeping virtually nothing for herself. The thing I found most inspiring of all while there, was that these children have been through so much, but they don’t hang on to it. So many of us as adults have a dark cloud hanging over us for the hard times we’ve been through in life, and let it cause sadness or anger, but these children have learned how to forgive and find true happiness. I know you’re thinking, “Oh just wait until they’re older, kids are resilient. Their issues will start coming out once they’re old enough to understand.” Many of these kids are through their teens, though, and in to their 20’s, which I would argue is definitely old enough to understand.
The thing I found most inspiring of all while there, was that these children have been through so much, but they don’t hang on to it.
People say you can’t go home the same person after a mission trip, and it’s true. After seeing how people live, walking by literal “tent” cities made of sticks and ripped blankets with no toilets or drinking water. If it weren’t for the feeding homes who supply the children with their only meal of the day, those children wouldn’t eat. The people who run the feeding homes don’t get paid to do it. I saw the nomadic tribes who make a living off picking garbage and are considered “untouchable” by the rest of society. They live in the garbage they pick, and the children play in it, with no future or hope for a different life because society won’t let them in. But what I didn’t expect was to have the kids I met teach me so much. They’re still so happy despite what they’ve been through. Indian culture is so warm, thoughtful, and respectful. The men are constantly offering you things to make sure you’re comfortable, clearing your plates for you or offering you more food. If someone arrives late to a meeting, the meeting stops to greet that person instead of being upset with them for being tardy. I learned to really appreciate what I have instead of letting it be a point of stress or a chore when I have to maintain it. I learned that people are the way they are because of something they’ve been through, so if someone is acting out not to judge them for it. I learned patience, humility, and to find happiness in the smallest things. So, if you say to me “I’ve been considering doing a mission trip,” my response will always be that everyone should experience it at least once, because your outlook on life will be changed for the better.