PUERTO RICO – As they approached the house for the first time, Lexi McMahan found it hard to make her way through the yard without getting caught by a plant or stepping on trash.

Coconut trees had grown, unchecked, in a humid climate, and there also were tall grass-like weeds with thorns.

“Brandon looked at us and was like, ‘Start cutting stuff down,’” she said.

With that instruction from her youth minister, the group began its mission work in Ponce, Puerto Rico.

Fifteen teens from Wilkinson Church of Christ’s Fusion student ministry and six adults traveled there July 23 to 30. Lifetree Adventures works with groups seeking a week of service, with a day of sightseeing thrown in.

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Where McMahan’s team worked, a struggling local family welcomed the painting, yard work and water pipe repairs. The family’s parents and several siblings have died in the last year or so. For 19-year-old Miara and her 20-year-old brother who remain, landscaping has been low on the list. Finishing school, looking for work and making it through another lonely day have far outranked cutting brush and tossing hundreds of fallen coconuts.

The community has worried about this family and checked in. Lifetree pairs teams with people who have a need. Please, neighbors said to Lifetree staff, send some helpers here.

The Wilkinson team split into smaller groups to work at three sites. Students who had taken several years of Spanish were split among the groups. A church in the area arranged for a place to stay, and each morning, the groups rode a bus to a community center and then walked to their work assignments.

Irina Ray’s group painted for a couple and their son. She remembers how the woman, Candi, would wait for them each morning as they arrived to brush on more white paint with tan trim.

“She was really happy to see us and kept thanking us for helping out with the house,” said Ray, a senior at Eastern Hancock High School.

Candi also would check on them to make sure they had plenty of water to drink. That was very important with temperatures in the 90s and high humidity.

“It was very, very hot,” Ray said. “I basically sweated through all my clothes every day.”

Youth minister Brandon Grubbs said a nurse had warned the group to take water breaks at 20-minute intervals. Though that sounded excessive before the trip, once there, “it was definitely a have-to,” he said.

Still, by the end of the week, the workers felt better prepared for the tasks ahead.

“By the end of the week, you just got used to it,” said Jacob Stacy, a recent graduate of Eastern Hancock High School.

Back at Miara’s house, there were other adjustments happening. Stacy said Miara went from shyly sitting in the doorway, watching the group work, to joining in with the group and even starting a couple of good-natured paint fights.

“I really thought it was cool to see her grow,” he said.

Caroline Warner felt a shift inside, too. The calling she had previously felt for her life came into sharper focus with each day of the trip.

“The Lord called me to ministry, and I had wondered what that possibly could be,” she said. Now, “I know that I want to do missions as a career choice of mine in the future…

“I just learned from this to love selflessly and to love others as Christ has loved.”

And McMahan, at first intimidated about using the four years of Spanish she took at Eastern Hancock to communicate, also grew more confident. She went from smiles and friendly gestures to more conversation with Miara.

The group took her along on its free day, when it visited a rainforest waterfall, lingered on a beach and ate at an Italian restaurant. The new friends laughed together when the chicken dinner she ordered turned out to be an absolutely huge portion. After Miara had eaten her fill, the chicken was passed around the table a couple of times as members of the group tried it in the spirit of sampling cuisine. “Community chicken” became one of those enduring stories youth groups laugh about from a trip.

On the van ride back, some teens nodded off after a full day. Sitting next to McMahan, Miara fought sleep at first but eventually laid her head on her new friend’s shoulder and dozed.

“That’s when I knew that I was connected,” McMahan said, “and that (leaving) Friday was going to hurt.”

It did; she cried. But the group is trying to stay in touch; Warner, for example, said she texts Miara. Grubbs said Lifetree will send future groups to her to follow up.

Meanwhile, the youth minister faces a decision: Where to go the next time the group embarks on a mission trip.

“A lot of us had a very heartfelt, (Holy) Spirit-filled connection with the people in Puerto Rico,” he said. “It will be hard to pick anywhere else.”

What's next?

For Miara: Youth minister Brandon Grubbs said Lifetree Adventures chooses people for help who have not only a task need but also an emotional or spiritual need, hoping mission teams can connect with them in friendship. Since the Wilkinson team’s trip, Lifetree has sent other mission teams and churches to Miara. “It’s not like we were just there seven days and left,” he said. “They are continuing what we had started.”

For the team: A Puerto Rico woman was intrigued by the team’s work and even took a few pictures. She said she wanted to tell her pastor about it so the church could help like that.

“She said her church did international missions but not in Puerto Rico,” Jacob Stacy said. “It made us realize how much we could do locally as a church. We didn’t think about the things we could do around here.”

Though the first youth “mission trip” Grubbs recalls was work projects in the local community, followed last year by a St. Louis trip and now Puerto Rico, the Puerto Rican woman’s comment was a reminder to the group about local impact, and the church is talking about ways it can keep on helping here.