During the last week of July, I was blessed by going on my second mission trip to Show Low, Arizona. Our trip was to AICM, American Indian Christian Mission. The trip was two-fold: In the mornings we would work and complete projects around the mission and in the afternoon we would visit various neighborhoods throughout the Apache Indian Reservation. The mission is operated on donations.
Throughout the year AICM serves as a boarding school for girls who are in 3rd through 8th grade. Primarily, the girls that attend are from the Reservation. The school is a five day boarding school where the girls live at the mission throughout the week and go home on Friday and return Sunday night. The staff live on site and often serve as house parents. We lived in a dorm specifically set up for teams that schedule in to do work during the summer.
Once we arrived we found out what our work assignments would be. Our goal was to help get the school ready to receive students and the first day of school was only a few weeks away. We would spend about 4 hours a day working in the school. After lunch we would make bag lunches to pass out to the kids after our afternoon program. It was close to the end of the month and we didn’t know how many still had food in their houses.
During the week, some of us waxed floors while others installed baseboards around new floors or tore out tile from floors that were cracked or in bad shape. Three of us were asked to do a special woodworking project where we built a wrap-around computer console in their computer lab. We also did lots of painting, cleaning and helping put rooms back together.
Each afternoon we visited a different neighborhood. It normally took us an hour or more to get to the areas. As we went through the neighborhood the driver would blow the horn and kids would come out and get on the bus. Once loaded we would go to a specific area in the neighborhood and unload. We would sing songs, and present a bible story skit. Once this was over we would break out toys and games. We had roller skates, legos, nail polish, basketball, dolls and bubbles. After around two and a half hours it would be time to take the kids home. As they got off the bus, each child was given two bags containing sandwiches, cookies and milk. Usually, we would get back to the mission around 7pm. Most of us got our nails painted (mine were blue or blue with sparkles) and it took forever to get the polish off. But we had fun.
We found that once the kids hit middle school they were no longer interested in our programs. It appeared to be a sign of weakness to play games and have a good time. Middle school is where gangs become more prominent. We were also told it was easier to be picked on than to be beat up. Where the little ones see hope in all directions, the older students started to face hopelessness.
Most of the industry in the area has shut down, except for a few saw mills and the casino. On the reservation unemployment runs about 80 percent with most people living on subsidies from the government. Alcoholism is rampant and most of the money is spent on alcohol. Kids often face physical and or sexual abuse, and incest is not uncommon. Once the kids hit a certain age there appears to be no hope.
As you go into the neighborhoods, you see vastly different living conditions. The homes close to the casino are in relatively nice neighborhoods. Most homes and yards are kept in fairly good condition. The further away you get from the casino, the worse the housing. Several houses had the roofs caved in or all the windows broken out, but people still lived in them. There were playgrounds, but they were covered in trash, beer cans and broken glass. We normally clean the areas before we get out and play with the kids. It is hard for people to care when they feel there is no hope.
As we went into one area we crossed a bridge spanning a beautiful canyon. Both sides of the bridge were blocked by a ten foot high chain link fence. This beautiful area became a symbol of death for this community where about 80 percent of the young people between ages 18 and 25 committed suicide by jumping from this bridge. As you cross this bridge you can feel the heaviness and sadness that has accumulated there. It is also the only way in and out of the community, so the residents are reminded of what happened every day.
Why do we go there each year? There is a need. We cannot do anything about the living conditions but we can meet other necessities. To some of these kids we may be the only light that they have in their lives. Through our hugs, our silly games maybe, just maybe we are able to help bring some joy to these small ones. Through our prayers and service maybe we can show them that Jesus cares for them and loves them, and that we do to. Through the little we have God will allow us to do great things for his kingdom. Please keep these great people in your prayers.
***John E. Stack is the author of Cody’s Almost Trip to the Zoo, Cody’s Rescue Adventure at the Zoo, and Olivia’s Sweet Adventure.