Eye-opening experience in South Africa

Meredith Gallagher

For nearly two weeks over spring break, five senior girls travelled to Konga, South Africa to work in Open Arms orphanage. Started by BSM alum Bob Hickey Solis, the orphanage is a safe haven for the children, many of whom were abandoned by their parents. Ms. Nicole Rasmussen and Spanish teacher Ms. Katie McDonald accompanied the Meredith Lawlor, Jen Deglmann, Melissa Plooster, Brittni Palkert, and Kelsey Jacobson on their mission trip to the orphanage.

For the girls, their time in South Africa was more than just a spring break trip–it was about opening their eyes to new experiences and helping others outside of their immediate community. “Its really important for me to travel and get out of my own backyard because I want to learn about other people,” said Meredith Lawlor, one of the students on the trip. “I think the more I see the more I am able to gain a broader perspective on things.”

Brittni Palkert, another student who went to South Africa, also believes in the importance of travelling outside of the country. Along with South Africa, she has been to Mexico to study Monarch butterflies and to Guatemala to work in the orphanage there. “You don’t really realize how similar people across the world are until you go abroad,” she said. “I think if everyone realized how similar other people across the world are and that there aren’t very many differences between us, people would be a lot more open to other cultures and learning from others rather than focusing on all those things that make us different.”

As well as learning about different cultures, the girls also went down specifically to volunteer at the orphanage there. . “I have always had a really big desire to take care of and help people, said Meredith Lawlor, one of the seniors on the trip. “Thats what has really driven me to do mission trips.” Like many of the other girls, she has gone on many trips abroad before. Many of them–Guatemala, Ghana, and now South Africa–have focused on volunteering.

The trip to South Africa opened up all of the girls eyes to a different way of life. “One image that really stuck out to me was seeing one of the little girls taking medicine to treat HIV every night,” said Lawlor. “We never have to face that here, at least in our direct community, and there it was right in front of me.”

The positive experiences at the orphanage outweighed the negative. “Watching the kids all together at meal time and saying prayer together…was very cute,” Palkert said. “The babies even started saying some of the prayer.”

As well as working in the orphanage, the girls were also able to see a some other parts of South Africa. One of the most shocking experiences was seeing the shantytowns outside of Cape Town. “You go from beautiful mansions, and ocean views, and the Wold Cup stadium, to millions of homes made out of cardboard and tin,” said Lawlor. “The poverty gap is huge.”

After returning home, their experiences at the orphanage has still stuck with the girls. “I think about them a lot,” said Palkert. “Every time beyonce comes on the radio I think of them because she was their absolute favorite.”

All of the students on the trip came away from South Africa with a greater appreciation for what they have. “One of the things the kids would always ask us is, ‘Do you have a mom and a dad,'” said Melissa Plooster, another girl on the trip. “I couldn’t help but realize that I take so much for granted, including my parents.”

“Just seeing how happy the kids were after knowing how heart-wrenching some of their pasts were…made me realize how much strength people have,” Palkert said, “Even kids as young as three and four years old.”

The girls would like to return to the orphanage again some day. “I just feel like the bonds that all seven of us created with the people at open arms is much too strong for us to just go there one time and then never share that connection again,” said Palkert. “I’m already trying to think of when it would be a good time to hopefully return.”