As I get older and older and those innocent days playing with action figures slip farther into the past, the steps towards adulthood only seem to escalate. The traditional milestones that define growing older are, of course: learning to drive, your first job, the over-anticipated senior prom, and of course the fretful ACT/SAT test days. However, those moments are just events, they don’t change you; they mature your image not your mind. The true accomplishments that lead to maturity cannot be anticipated. For me that life-changing event occurred last summer, when I helped lead a team of 23 teenagers to Nepal. A journey that taught me more in the space of 8 weeks than any AP class ever did.
I went on my first Teen Missions trip in 2012 to Tanzania. When you hear about a mission trip, traditionally, you picture a week-long “good deed vacation” of sorts. Where team shirts, selfies with the disadvantaged, and lame stories abound. That’s not Teen Missions. When you sign up, what you know is gone. Your trip starts with two weeks training in Florida’s worst swampland. You sweat constantly, no A/C, no phones, no connections, just you and your team. The mask you put on each day at home is discarded. Your team sees each other as equals, because, for once, you truly are. You see each other cry and throw tantrums. Covered in mud, sweat, and overcome with fatigue. The harsh conditions allow you to be closer with your teammates than you can ever be with your best friend back home. This is truly amazing.
So after that first trip I decided that once I turned eighteen I wanted to lead a team. I wanted to give a group of teenagers the same experience that changed my life three years earlier. I had no idea what was to come. One of the first and hardest things that I learned was that a leader must learn to balance friendship and leadership. You have to create situations for growth. It’s challenging, more challenging than anything else. As a leader, I learned what is truly important. You must care for people, ask them how they are doing, make sure they are drinking water, make sure they are told how much they matter. Never, never make fun of anyone. There are more than enough people for that job. Pay attention to the quiet kids, they are too often overshadowed. During the first few weeks of my trip, a boy on the team was very, very quiet. Sometimes the louder teammates would cause him to become almost invisible. I’ve totally been there. I made sure to talk to him every once in awhile, ask how he was doing. When I did, he had so much to say! He wouldn’t stop talking about everything that he enjoys. I love it when that happens, nothing is better than watching someone getting excited about something they are truly passionate about.
Every teacher, soccer mom, coach, or boss will say: “Lead by example.” They are right. The problem is, leading by example isn’t a choice. It just happens. Everyday, my team of twenty-three mirrored the actions of the team leaders. Even your mood affects theirs. So I learned to get over myself. To be someone that was worth following; after all a leader is just an ordinary lad who inspires.
When you grow up, so much changes. You learn more and more. It’s scary it really is, but I can’t help being excited for whatever’s next. However, nothing has taught me as much as leading, or rather learning, from that team of 23. They all taught me something new, I love them all. I can hardly wait until I get another chance at an experience like that one.