Jolynn Park spent her summer digging ditches, chopping down trees and thrashing tall grass with a machete while fending off mosquitos and dodging poisonous snakes in the swelter of a strange and remote country.
And she loved it.
Jolynn, a 15-year-old junior at River Ridge High School, traveled to Papua, New Guinea, courtesy of Teen Missions International, an interdenominational Christian organization that she joined last year.
Founded in 1972, Teen Mission sends thousands of teenagers each year all over the world, mostly to developing nations, to work on projects such as airstrip clearing and hospitals and church construction. Students also can join evangelistic mission teams, sharing their religion as they travel to vacation Bible schools throughout the world.
Jolynn, who lives with her parents, two sisters and brother in New Port Richey, chose to go to Papua, New Guinea, situated off the coast of Australia, to help clear and expand an airstrip so medical supplies could be flown in.
First, however, she had to raise $3,500 for the trip. Friends, relatives and church members helped with that. Then she had to spend two weeks in boot camp training at Merritt Island, the site of Teen International headquarters.
Park, along with 30 members of her team and five chaperones, slept in tents and cooked their own food at boot camp. They ran obstacle courses and learned the practical skills that would help them survive in New Guinea.
In a country that offers no creature comforts and where gasoline costs about $30, there would be no heavy equipment, no bulldozers, tractors or backhoes, to help complete their mission. Park got a crash course in construction, learning how to pour concrete, lay bricks and handle the tools she would have to use, shovels, axes and machetes. "Boot camp was really hard _ really tough and disciplined. It was a shock," Park said, noting that about 10 youths dropped out.
After completing boot camp, Park bid her family farewell and began her seven-day journey to New Guinea. She was allowed to bring only 32 pounds of clothing and personal belongings and one pair of construction boots. Over the next eight weeks she would hear from family and friends only twice, when supplies were flown in.
The camp and work site were located along the Sepik River in New Guinea. The murky waters provided a home for crocodiles and was also the place for bathing and washing clothes. If there was a lack of rainfall, it might be the only source of drinking water.
Although Park had been prepared for the primitive living conditions at boot camp, there was still adjusting to be done. As she crawled into her sleeping bag that first night, she could hear the rhythmic beating of drums in the distance. It was a nightly ritual for the local inhabitants, who once were headhunters. "I was really scared then," Park said, "And on another night, when my tentmate and I could hear a wild boar grunting and tearing at something outside of our tent. We sat on a cot huddled together and crying. But then, the morning came and we just laughed about it."
Five days a week, the young missionaries canoed up the Sepik to the airstrip where they labored in temperatures that sometimes reached 110 degrees. There was time off for Bible study and lunch.
Saturday mornings were spent cleaning camp. Saturday afternoons were designated as "free time." Some of the teens would read or write letters while others gathered around the lone basketball hoop for a quick game.
Sundays were a time for worship services and entertaining the locals who seemed intrigued with the biblical puppet shows held in their honor. More often, they were attracted by the Western food and clothing. "They would just help themselves to our laundry hanging on the line to dry," Park said. Sometimes while canoeing down the river, a native would be spotted on the banks wearing a familiar shirt or bathing suit. Before long, "laundry guard duty" was assigned.
After the group successfully completed its mission, the students headed for home, first stopping in Australia. There was finally time for rest, relaxation, sight-seeing and shopping. It was also time for debriefing _ a period that prepared the teens to go home to their family and friends.
Aside from learning about a different culture and how to give of herself, Park said she came away with something more. She established close relationships with people who just weeks before were total strangers. "These people became my family for a time", she said, "And we worked well together."
"I also learned more about the power of prayer. When you're not sure of your circumstances _ whether or not you'll have water or if the supply plane will come or not _ you pray. God answered my prayers, and now I'm more established in who I am being a Christian. I know it's okay to take a stand."
Park's summer spent in New Guinea might prove to be a turning point in her life. After graduation, she hopes to attend Moody Bible College in Chicago, a school that trains students for missionary work. "There's a need for missionaries out there," she said, "And that's what I want to do."