A lesson in love

Members of the Victory Christian youth group traveled to the Dominican Republic to build a house for a family

Submitted photo The Balaton Victory Christian youth group and leaders pose with the family who they helped build a house for during a recent trip to the Dominican Republic. Also pictured are Youth with a Mission (YWAM) coordinators Missie and Marcos Rodriguez and their children, along with Greg and Keana Andress, a volunteer couple from the United States.


Students on a recent missions trip to the Dominican Republic learned that people don’t have to speak the same language to communicate or show love.

The Victory Christian youth group of 13 students — Kaylee Kirk, Olivia Knochenmus, Odessa Knochenmus, Sydney Lanoue, Lydia Bader, Leah Wernisch, Sidney Karbo, Amiaya Johnson, Calvin Bader, Wyatt Johnson, Brandon Hissam, Elias Lorenzo and Emanuel Lorenzo — traveled to the small village of Jarabacoa to build a house for a family of eight. But the week-long experience ended up being much more than that.

“It was amazing — life changing,” Kirk said.

The Balaton area youth group’s mission trip was organized through Youth With A Mission (YWAM), with Missie and Marcos Rodriguez leading the way.

“Missie is originally from Minnesota,” Kirk said. “She went down for missionary work 17 or 18 years ago and has been there ever since. They have two kids together. They have people come there and build houses for families. Everybody there is in need of something. It’s an amazing group.”

The group of students arrived in the Dominican on June 10.

“We got there late on Saturday night and then Sunday was a rest day, so we got to go see the worksite and go swimming in the river, which was water from the mountain,” Kirk said. “It was just clear as day. Then we got to relax and go to church.”

Kirk added that it was life-changing just to see how differently people in other parts of the world live.

“You always see pictures of other countries, and it’s totally different than here in the United States, but I’ve never see it with my own eyes,” she said. “To be able to see how they live, and just like their lifestyle, is a shock. It pushed us even more because they are so loving and caring and they have almost nothing.”

When the group of high school students arrived, a cement foundation had already been laid and the plumbing was finished for the bathroom. But the rest of the house construction needed to be completed.

“They told us we were their smallest group, building their biggest house, in the least amount of time. Also on our hearts, we had to put together a vacation Bible school (VBS). So in the mornings for the first three days, we’d have everybody go to the worksite and we’d all work on the house. In the afternoons, we split up into two groups. One would go back to the worksite and one would go to the VBS,” she said.

Along with four Victory Christian youth leaders — Ethan Nelson, Colton Citrowske, Jaryn Fricke and Cale Day — and adult volunteer Dana Benson, three translators accompanied the students on the mission trip.

“A translator would come with us to VBS and we’d say something, what we wanted to teach them, and the translator would say it in Spanish,” Kirk said. “The kids loved it. More and more came every day. The last day, we had 40 kids come. It was so cool.”

Kirk said the most challenging part of the mission was when people sometimes didn’t know what they could do to help on the house. But ultimately, it ended up being a blessing in disguise.

“Even though we were the smallest group they’d had helping, there were times where we didn’t have something to do,” she said. “But it was amazing because then we ended up getting to play with the kids more. The kids would show up right when you’d show up at the worksite. We’d give them piggyback rides and play little games with them.”

Kirk said everyone did a lot of charades in order to conquer the language barrier.

“You’d act out what you’re trying to say,” Kirk said. “They challenged us to show God’s love even without speaking to them, so maybe just smiling at them. Communicating with them without even talking can show how much God loves them even without saying it in your words.”

Olivia Knochenmus added that they people they met were very friendly.

“We spent most of our time building the house, but so many people would come up and swarm us,” she said. “We got to love on the kids and take pictures with the kids. They’d show us their toys they made because they don’t have anything.”

Knochenmus said the native kids would use little tires and sticks to play.

“They’d push tires and do racing because that’s what they had,” Knochenmus said. “They had a blast doing that. They loved to show us that. It was really fun. Even with the language barrier, it was all smiles and joy between all of us.”

While Knochenmus had been out of the country on a mission trip one other time, she said this was the first opportunity she had to experience physical labor.

“It was 8- to 10-hour days working on building the house for this family, but it was probably my favorite part,” she said. “I really enjoyed getting to experience hard labor.”

The house was built for the Bautista family, which included the parents and their four daughters and two sons. The pastor at the local church said the Bautistas had been praying for shelter for two years.

“They’re just the nicest family you’ll ever meet,” Kirk said. “They’re just a huge light. Only one out of the eight of them could speak English, but you could just tell — without speaking — you could see God’s love in them. They were so grateful and thankful for everything. They were always there helping with their own house. It was incredible.”

Other adults and children from the small community also gathered at the worksite, either to watch or to help.

“They’d pull out a chair and sit and watch,” Kirk said. “Some would come help with the house. When we’d be nailing boards together the first day and building frames, the kids would come grab the boards and bring them to us, just being like a little assembly line. It was so awesome.”

Kirk acknowledged that the children had “the biggest hearts.”

“They could’ve been off playing with their friends or doing something different, but they were coming and helping these Americans, who don’t even speak your same language, build this house for this family,” she said.

Knochenmus said most of the people she met were Christians who also wanted to openly praise Jesus. Two students in their group — the Lorenzo brothers from Walnut Grove — were also fluent in Spanish, so they helped translate conversations.

“That was really fun for them and so great for us,” Knochenmus said. “They were in their element and the kids loved them. Everyone loves Jesus down there and everyone wants to know more about him. It was definitely an eye-opener to see how some people are living. They are so loving and they have very little. (As Americans), we have so much and we complain. But they are joyful, even when they have nothing.”

Kirk said Elias Lorenzo told her that one of the kids they met was talking about how God doesn’t care how much money a person has.

“The little kid said God sees everybody the same,” Kirk said. “Everybody is just a big jewel in his eyes. It really hit us. These kids, even though they don’t have anything, know that God still loves them as much as he does the Americans who have so much. This culture is just amazing. They don’t take anything for granted.”

Knochenmus said the trip ended up being a lot different than they’d anticipated.

“I thought the trip was absolutely incredible,” she said. “We had a really great time. God used it to work for his good. The Lord doesn’t disappoint. It’s amazing.”

Worship nights and ministry at the missionary house where the group stayed was one of Knochenmus’ favorite parts of the trip.

“We’d gather as small groups every single night for a couple of hours,” Knochenmus said. “Everyone was so transparent, so we got to see major growth in every single person who went on that trip. I got to see friends grow so much in their faith and grow closer to the Lord. I really loved that.”

Kirk concurred, saying “there is nothing more rewarding than seeing people grow in their faith and in their relationship with God.” Everyone that went on the trip did, she added.

“God just hit them with a ton of bricks — every single one of us,” Kirk said. “We’d talk afterward and somebody would share what happened to them that night and we’re like, ‘A volcano just erupted in your life. God is working like crazy.’ It was incredible.”

Though they attend different high schools, the 13 students represented the Victory Christian youth group together. Like Knochenmus, some are from the Marshall area. Like Kirk, some are from Tracy Area. Along with Westbrook-Walnut Grove, there were also students on the trip from Murray County Central and Russell-Tyler-Ruthton.

“Our whole entire youth group got closer,” Kirk said. “People that I barely knew or talked to in the youth group were some of my best friends on the trip. It was super cool.”

Most of the adult leaders on the trip are from Balaton.

“Dana Benson came with for the construction part,” Kirk said. “He knew some Spanish and he knew what he was doing on the house. He’d communicate with Marcos on what the plan was, then he’d tell us what the plan was. He was a huge help.”

The house, considered small by American standards, was actually fairly large in comparison to others in the small community.

“One room is for the girls,” she said. “Then they have a little kitchen and a little bathroom, a room for the parents, a little living room and then a room for the boys. Their bathroom is tiny and they have eight people living in the home. But it’s more than they could ever ask for.”

With so much to get done in such a short amount of time, the duties were split up — unintentionally by gender.

“I helped build the frames for the windows and stuff like that,” Kirk said. “We did a lot of mudding and sanding. They don’t have electric tools, so we sandpapered everything with our hands, with little blocks of sandpaper. You had to sand every cement block so it was smooth. The girls kind of did that, while the guys worked on putting the roof on and building the frame of the entire house.”

The last couple of days, the house was primed and painted on both the interior and exterior.

“We were definitely busy, but it was fun,” Kirk said. “Everybody did something on the house.”

Near the end of the week, the new owners took possession of the newly-built house.

“Everyone worked really hard all the time — no one was really slacking,” Knochenmus said. “We knew our mission and wanted to work hard for the Lord. It was so rewarding, and when we handed over the keys to the family, it was such an emotional time. They were so appreciative.”

Along with the satisfaction of helping a family in need and making amazing new friends, the students will no doubt be taking away other long-lasting memories.

“One of my favorite parts was having the Bautista family over for supper one of the nights,” Kirk said. “We worshipped with them after supper. We’re speaking in two different languages — they have no idea what we’re saying and we have no idea what they’re saying — but we’re worshipping one God. There was no language barrier.”

The students tried new food, had to drink purified water so as to not get sick from the tap water, learned about schools and hospitals in the country and even learned how to play Uno with Dominican rules.

“It’s so much more competitive and keeps it going,” Kirk said about Uno. “If you play a zero, you can switch hands with anybody that you want. When a seven is played, you have to be quiet. If you talk, you get a card. For a nine, you have to slap the card, and the last one to slap it, gets a card. And if you have the exact card, like if there’s a yellow three and you have a yellow three but it’s not your turn, you can play it and it skips everybody up to you.”

Knochenmus said the youth group members played the game at nearly every break.

“We love it,” Knochenmus said. “I’m going to bring Uno everywhere I go. The normal Uno is out the door.”

While some in the group struggled a little with the heat, the 2-minute individual shower time or with the lack of bedding — Kirk and Lanoue ended up sharing a twin size fitted sheet as a blanket after they were assigned to a queen size bed for the week — only one complaint was voiced. Everyone was somewhat annoyed with the chickens.

“If you ask anybody, ‘What was the worst part of your trip?’ they’d say ‘the chickens,” Kirk said. “They were constantly awake.”

Kirk said the squawking chickens could be heard through the open windows at 3 o’clock in the morning. They were also there when they’d get up at 7 a.m.

“In every video we took, you can hear the chickens,” she said. “Everybody has chickens there.”

The Balaton group praised Missie and Marcos Rodriguez and the YWAM organization, which began in 1960 as a way to get youth involved in missions. Currently, YWAM works in more than 1,100 locations in more than 180 countries, with a staff of more than 18,000. Having been passionately involved in the unique experience, the youth group now understands why the organization continues to grow.

“I think every single person on the trip was like, ‘I want to go back. I want to do more,'” Kirk said. “Our hearts are still on fire for God. We just want to do more. We want to be his hands and feet and just keep doing more and more.”