Sometimes you think you’re just meeting an old friend for drinks in Los Angeles and you end up in Papua New Guinea for two weeks.
I was 14 years old, a tomboy wearing cutoffs and a bikini top, standing on the scorching blacktop road and my feet were burning, blistering up. Mark was waving goodbye through the back window of his family’s car as they drove away from Shadowood Lake on a hot, summer day. He was 14 too, and we both had tears in our eyes. Mark was my best friend, my neighbor, my brother, my heart, my sounding board, my enemy when he told me things I didn’t want to hear and now he was leaving. His family was moving out of state and I would probably never see him again. This happened in the 70’s and we didn’t have cell phones or computers. We had no internet, no Facebook to keep in touch or track each other down or post photos. He was gone.
Oh well…the car was soon out of view and I realized my feet were burning so I ran to the grass and cooled them off. Then I probably went swimming and decided to grow up the rest of the way without Mark to laugh with, cry with, fight with. I held on to happy memories of running through the woods to his house, sitting at their kitchen table for occasional meals with his parents and little brother, pretending I was part of their family too. I never forgot about him and thought about his family often, wishing them well in my prayers at bedtime.
Thirty-six years later, after marriages, children, divorces, happily remarrying again, making many moves and having several jobs, seeing hundreds of friends move in and out of our lives, we found each other again. Yep, that’s right. I got a call one day from Mark, “My son and I will be flying through Los Angeles from Nepal and we have an overnight layover. If you’re not busy…” You kidding me? I told my husband I was going to see my childhood friend and had no idea what time I’d be home because I wasn’t letting him go until I’d caught up on the entire three decades since we waved goodbye at Shadowood. He laughed and understood.
I knocked on the door of the LAX airport hotel room where Mark and his son, Matt, were staying overnight until their flight home the next morning. As soon as he opened the door and we saw each other, it was like we were 14 years old again. We hugged, we laughed, we punched each other in the arm like dudes. Mark stood well over six feet tall, and so did Matt, both still filthy dirty from their trip, and I was thrilled to be there. It was surreal. Matt was stretched out on one of the double beds, feet hanging off the end, chuckling and rolling his eyes at his father acting so giddy.
Within 10 minutes, Mark had given me the t-shirt he’d brought me from Nepal and we were looking at photos from this amazing trip he wanted to share. I was in awe. He had just spent two weeks in Nepal building a school for underprivileged children with a group called Be The Change Volunteers. It wasn’t his first time doing this, he’d built schools in other places in the world with BTCV and I wanted to hear more. I was captivated. We’d lived so many years apart, yet our missions were the same. We wanted to help people and nothing was too big, too far, too much. I looked at him and said, “I have to do this.” He shrugged and said, “Then do it!”
And so I did. We did. When Mark got back home to Montana, he called me to follow up on my desire to begin building schools all over the world with Be The Change Volunteers. We looked at the planned trips for the year and found one in September 2012 that would work for both of us to go with the group. That was it! We were going to Papua New Guinea, and being geographically challenged, I had no idea where I had agreed to go…and it didn’t matter. I was on top of the world at the idea of going to a remote part of the world to give children hope. Nothing too big, nowhere too far, nothing was too much.
My 50th birthday was coming up and I was elated. I knew I would wake up that morning changed. My life was coming together and making sense and it was a feeling beyond description. I spread the word and in lieu of gifts, I asked for donations for my trip. Thanks to my many friends, co-workers and other loved ones, I raised the money for my trip in no time. I requested and was graciously granted the two weeks off from work, got all of my shots, checkups and malaria meds to take with me. I got hundreds of stickers for the kids, shirts to cover my shoulders and shorts to cover my knees, work boots and flip-flops, sunscreen and mosquito repellant. After three flights and an open, muggy bus ride in the pitch black of night into the jungle, I found myself watching a tribal dance, beautifully choreographed by the children of Omo as a welcome gift to us. One of the pastors of the community also welcomed us with a speech where he mentioned that God had preordained this moment and on the day each of us were born, it was decided that we would come together that night as one culture, one family, one skin color, in order to do something good in the world. To help each other and to love one another. I was transformed. I was home.
It was extremely hot and humid, we showered (sort of) with spiders as big as the palm of my hand, washed our work clothes outside in tubs and hung them on the line but they never dried. We worked hard all day building a school from the ground up, in the hot sun and through torrential downpours, and with the exception of the day my son was born 27 years prior, I had never been happier. We laughed, we cried, we sang songs and played guitar, we told stories and listened to the children tell us stories handed down from their grandparents. We colored pictures, played games and handed out stickers and small gifts to the children each night. I spent time with the ladies as they cooked three meals a day for us, helped them take the dishes to and from the kitchen hut that was yards away from the house they had built for us. By the end of the first week they were teaching me to speak their language, laughing with me as I tried to learn their ways, and lovingly christened me an honorary “PNG Lady.” I was never afraid but always aware of how remote our location was, hearing the sounds from the jungle each night, watching the geckos run up the walls of the rooms where we slept.
Many volunteers join BTCV in order to travel the world and give hope to children by building schools and actively participating in their lives. I sat there one morning with the wonderful group of volunteers in Papua New Guinea as we finished breakfast, rubbed on our sunscreen and grabbed our work gloves, ready to get to work. We were nearing the end of our stay and the school was almost finished. As the discussion turned to other places we’d like to see, I asked Jimi (he and his wife Cristi are our fearless leaders) if I could come back to Papua New Guinea. I wanted to be on “Team PNG.” This project, as planned for the community of Omo by our friend and PNG contact named Martin, is on a 10-year plan with several schools and a community center in mind. I want to be a part of that. I want to watch these children grow up and help them to be everything they want to be. I want them to look back when they are adults and have children of their own, and know that I was with them from the start and I never let go. I want them to know that I care, that nothing is too big, nowhere is too far, nothing is too much to give.
It’s been two years since my first trip and I’m going back to Papua New Guinea with Be The Change Volunteers again this year. I’ve already raised the funds for my part of the trip and it’s all set.
AND I KNOW none of this would have happened if I hadn’t lived a life of challenges and gratitude, heartaches and humor, fear and faith, friends and enemies, loneliness and loving relationships, sometimes despair but never giving up. And hope. Always hope. From waving goodbye at Shadowood Lake as teenagers, to picking up thirty-six years later as though no time had passed at all, two friends, bound by the need to help others. Can’t beat that.