In 2016, I graduated from high school, but rather than go directly to college, I decided to take a gap year. As senior year was winding down, I realized that I really didn’t know what I wanted to study, and I wasn’t interested in going to college without any real idea why I was there. It would be like driving down a mountain road with your eyes closed; you’d not only obviously miss the view, but going dangerously – and quickly – off-road would be a near certainty. Plus, taking time off to cultivate skills and experience would help my college application quality.
Not Wasting A Year
I didn’t, however, just want to “waste” the year. I wouldn’t gain anything just hanging out on my parents’ couch … except my parents’ disappointment. I’d be disappointed in myself, too. This time had to be more than just “a year off.” I wanted to do something impactful, pursue something that I was passionate about…when I looked back through my memories to find an experience that had delivered on both characteristics, one stood out above all others: mission trip. Maybe everyone here has already been on mission trips, or maybe you’re tired of hearing about them, but I’ve got to say, they are wonderful. You get to combine the closeness of your church community with the long-lasting impact of volunteer service for a full week. So what more could anybody ask for? Well, I’ll tell you — a mission trip for a full year. And that’s just what I did.
My Gap Year in Costa Rica
I decided on a program in Costa Rica . First I wanted to improve my Spanish skills as well as participate in service projects with other students about my age. I started at a place called Casa San Lazaro, which means “House of Saint Lazarus” in Spanish. Casa San Lazaro is a “comedor,” similar to a soup kitchen in the U.S. I, along with other students, went to Casa San Lazaro every day and, depending on the staff’s needs, did odd jobs or served lunch to kids from the surrounding poor community. The comedor is run by a Catholic priest named Padre Luis. Priesthood usually brings to mind very stoic, no-nonsense figures, but nonsense is exactly Padre Luis’ M.O.! He is the kind of guy who’ll point out some nonexistent dirt on your shirt, only to flick you in the nose when you look down, then flick you twice for “flinching.”
Despite his slapstick antics, Padre Luis’ passion for his work and care for the kids who eat at the comedor is immediately apparent. All our young guests know him by name and give him fist bumps as he walks past. He behaves with them the way a loving father would with his own children. And that’s critical because these children do not have ready access to loving parents. It seems to be the curse of poor communities that abuse — of substances and family members — runs rampant.
Padre Luis, in one of his more serious moments, told us that some children had suffered greatly. I noticed one boy with a large burn scar covering the back of his hand. I don’t know if it was due to an accident or not, or if it was self-inflicted or not; what I do know is that medical treatment would be unavailable because the child’s family, and even Casa San Lorenzo, could not pay. I know, too, that the boy would not get help for the underlying issues that likely led to the injury. Finally, I know that those of us in more fortunate positions will probably never have to deal with such heartbreaking challenges ourselves, but we could and should help those who do. My passion for volunteering and for mission trips comes from the belief that because I can help, I must help.
Taking Time for Decisions
At the beginning of this tale, before my gap year, even before high school graduation, I had one question on my mind; what do I want to study? And now, ladies and gentlemen, I can answer that question…with the same hearty and emotional shrug. I’ve yet to solve the problem, but for now, I’m okay with that. I’ve got half a year ahead of me…who knows what the future holds? And though my search may not yet be complete, I have been immeasurably transformed by my time and the people I’ve met, at Casa San Lorenzo.
Will Klein Wassink is finishing up the second half of his gap year in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. In the fall he will be a freshman at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH.