Area high schoolers had the opportunity to take part in an experience of a lifetime during a First United Methodist Church youth mission trip held last week in Alaska.
The senior high school youth group takes part in a mission trip every year but every three years, they go on a larger trip, said Sarah Borgman, a Christian education and youth director at First United Methodist Church in Columbus. The seniors who are active in mission trips plan where they get to go and this year, Borgman said, the kids wanted to go somewhere with a cooler climate.
The mission trip group – consisting of eight boys, five girls and six chaperones – left for Palmer, Alaska, on July 16 and came back July 23. Palmer is located north of Anchorage. The kids ranged in age from incoming freshmen to newly-graduated seniors. The group isn’t only First United Methodist kids; there were teens from outside the Columbus community and with different denominations.
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According to Borgman, this year’s trip was one of the best they’ve ever had – and the most unique. They worked with a different organization whose focus is veteran based.
“We worked for The 98 Fund, which is an organization started by the class of 1998 from West Point,” Borgman said. “They had quite a few of their classmates that died serving in the military – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and many other places – and they wanted to do something to help the families that lost someone.”
The effort started as a scholarship program, she noted, to help the kids – but also the parents – that were left behind. Organizers realized that more was needed.
“They were talking to one of the moms and she was talking about how her two boys really missed their dad and the things that they were going to do with their dad that they never got to do,” Borgman said. “Just listening to her talk, they realized they could do that. They could help those boys do those projects that they were going to do with their dad.”
That’s when a retreat center was established in Alaska at which gold star families – those who lost an immediate family member during military service – are helped through their grieving process.
For the mission trip, the kids took part in a variety of tasks at the retreat, including putting soffits on some cabins, doing electrical work, building a protective platform for a generator and propane tanks and laying rock around the cabins.
Borgman noted the individuals in charge at the retreat made a lasting impact on the mission trip kids.
“When the gold star kids come, they partner up the kids with a person who served with their mom or dad that died. So they spend the whole week with someone who knew their parent and they have that mentor then for life,” Borgman said. “For us it was almost like the same thing. Even though we didn’t know these guys, we hadn’t lost anyone parent-wise. It was almost like they were that for us.”
The men were great at explaining the process behind why things were being done a certain way, she added. For example, instead of just telling kids to chop wood, they explained what it’s being chopped at a specific angle, what it was being used for, etc.
“The kids really want to go back. None of them wanted to leave,” Borgman said. “They wanted to stay and keep working and help them out more. I think just because of these four guys that were there that week, just teaching them and encouraging them.”
Connie Kramer, a Platte County woman who served as a chaperone for the trip, said this year’s trip helped the kids learn the importance of honoring veterans, as well as working together.
“They learned carpenter skills and electrical skills and landscaping skills,” Kramer said. “And just learning how to work together and through all kinds of conditions because it rained almost every day, all day long.”
In the mission trip group itself, there were some gold star individuals. Each night, a gold star ceremony was held for the fallen family members.
“You take the dog tags and you nail them to post and you ring the bell,” Borgman said. “Because they say that in the Jewish tradition, you die once but you never want to die twice, and the second death is worse than the first. The second death is when your name is never mentioned again, and you’re forgotten. They never want to forget these people who have already sacrificed so much.”
They had also planned to climb the “gold star mountain” and hang the dog tags up at its top but were unable to do so because of mudslides. However, Borgman added, the men at the retreat said they would do it for them once the weather was more favorable.
The group worked for three days and had two days to visit the sites that Alaska has to offer. Kramer said they visited a veterans memorial museum, an aviation museum, a wildlife preserve and went on a glacier cruise.
“It was awesome,” Kramer said. “The landscape, it’s just beautiful. There’s nowhere that you can look that you don’t see a mountain or the beauty that God’s created.”
Thanks to the work of those on the mission trip, gold star families can further benefit from the retreat.
“This week there’s a group of 18 gold stars at the camp and so some of the work that we did, helped get ready for those gold stars to be there,” Borgman said.
Hannah Schrodt is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.