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So What if You Don’t Know Them? Smile Anyway!

"My priest just told us, smile at people, even if you don’t know them."

Justin Cho, Contributer

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Cho (left) pictured with an orphan named Karla from Casa de Angel.

Justin Cho had no idea that his ten day trip to Guatemala would result in the way it did over August of 2017. The 17-year-old senior at Park Ridge High School attended a mission trip to a Guatemalan Catholic orphanage “Casa De Angel” in San Jose, Pinula. Cho admits that initially, the main purpose of his trip wasn’t to just cleanse his spirit and bond with the orphans as a matter of fact, his reasons could be perceived as selfish. “At first I was just going on the trip to get a good topic for my college essay, hoping that I didn’t catch any diseases or get too many flea bites,” he said. Butwhat came after the long plane rides and the hours without eating would take Justin by complete surprise.

As soon as the youth group arrived at the orphanage, Cho was already regretting his decision to attend the trip. “The first night was awful. I had been on transferring flights all day and I had overpriced airport food for lunch and dinner. When we got to our ‘housing complex’ for lack of a better phrase our room smelled like death and the bathroom floor was covered in dirt.” Battling through hunger, insufficient sleep, and lack of his beloved cell phone, it seemed as if this trip was never going to end for the volunteer missionary.

Andy, one of the babies supervised by the group assigned to babies

At the crack of dawn, counselors woke up the students.  “The orphanage runs on a strict schedule. Morning prayer starts at 6:30, then breakfast at 6:45. After that the kids go to school from 8 to noon,” he explained. Cho’s first encounter was with a fellow 17-year-old girl named Christina. “I was nervous to meet the orphans, but I had a slight advantage over my contemporaries, as I had taken Spanish as an elective for the previous five years. It was harder to understand the language coming from a native as opposed to an American, but I eventually got the hang of it.”

Throughout the course of that first breakfast, Cho made friends with a bunch of different children at that same table, and came to the realization that they had more in common than he thought. “It took me a while but I was able to learn a lot of the stories about the kids and why they ended up here.” (Which shall remain confidential) After breakfast and the kids went to school, the youth group was split up into smaller miniature groups to complete different tasks around the orphanage. “One group was assigned to provide assistance supervising the special ed. class, another group was assigned to watch the babies while the [aunts] did chores, and the last group was assigned to manual labor. There was a playground set that had been sitting in the park area for years that had been never put together. Our job was to clean and put it together.” Cho and his group didn’t get to complete the task over the course of ten days, but the native construction worker they worked with said he was able to take care of it after their departure.

12-year-old Joseline.

When the clock struck twelve, the children got out of class and the youth group had the rest of the afternoon to spend with them. “Even though we met the kids for the first time at breakfast, after school is when we really got to bond with them. We had three hours until lunch at three, four and a half more hours until dinner at seven-thirty, and then the kids went to bed at eight-thirty. We still sat together during meals, but we spent less time talking because everyone was starving.” Initially, Cho had no idea how he would kill almost nine hours without his phone, television, baseball, or anything he was used to at home. Before he had time to finish thinking, though, a random twelve year old girl hopped on his lap. She started hugging and smiling at him- Cho couldn’t have been more flabbergasted. “I was so confused. I kept thinking to myself, ‘I don’t think these kids know that hopping on any stranger’s lap is terribly dangerous!’ But then I remembered they were in a guarded orphanage, so they were relatively safe. I didn’t know how to react, so I just smiled back at her for the time being.” Initially, Cho didn’t know that she was only twelve because she was so small. Many of the kids at the orphanage were smaller and shorter because of extreme malnourishment. Although they were awake for fifteen hours, they could only eat three small meals a day, waiting five hours between each. “It’s so shocking how such a big heart could fit in such a skinny body,” Cho said. After a few seconds, the girl asked, “Como te llamas?” Cho responded with his first name. “Justin, I said.” The girl, being unfamiliar with American names, replied, “Yustine?” They both laughed for a minute before the girl introduced herself to him. “Me llamo Joseline.” “Que linda,” he replied. The two proceeded to converse for hours until lunch. “I could’ve talked to any of those kids for the rest of my life without having to do anything else,” Cho stated sadly. “It’s surprising how informed they are about pop culture even though there is no form of media or news in the orphanage. When we talked about favorite songs, we found both of our favorite songs were “Despacito.”

Group photo with some members of the youth group and some of the children.

During weekly preparation meetings that the youth group held before coming to Guatemala, daily activities were planned such as games, face painting, and other time killers that were really just for the kids and students to get to know each other. “The activities that we planned couldn’t be any more boring or generic. It’s the presence of the kids that made nine hours feel like five minutes for ten days. When evening arrived and the sun was setting after what felt like the blink of an eye, it was dinner time.” When asked about the food, Cho said “the meals are actually somewhat mediocre. There’s enough to feed everyone, but the orphans only took so little. I never understood why.” After dinner, the orphans showered, brushed their teeth, and changed into their pajamas. Then, they came out to play with the youth group for a little bit before it was lights out.

Pamela (left) and Lorena (right) a week after the youth group’s departure.

The rest of the days were filled with the exact same schedule with the exact same hours, with the exception of different activities in the afternoon, but Cho said he never got sick of it. “When you aren’t constantly working towards a goal such as bettering yourself for a sport or studying for school, you find that time moves much slower. And when your phone, TV, and computer aren’t there to distract you, the kids are really all you need to have fun. On the third night of the trip I was already crying from how difficult I would thought it would be to leave Guatemala.” Cho started sobbing at a nightly mass which eventually lead to bawling. But as the rest of the trip went by, Cho really started to remember that he had a life back home, and it was time to return. “Saying goodbye to the kids at the end wasn’t actually as hard as I thought it would be. It definitely hurt having to leave them and wait a year before having to see them again, but I realized that I had a life to get back to here in the U.S.” This experience has greatly affected Cho’s outlook on life and this train of thought on meeting people. “One thing I missed about Guatemala is that you didn’t have to know anyone in order to interact with them physically and verbally. You could basically walk up to anyone and hug them, and they’d probably hug you back. But here in America, if you even look at someone’s child the wrong way, you could be perceived as suspect. Relationships that took me a day or two to make over there would probably take me a few weeks or even months to make here.” One thing Cho did take back with him though, was to just smile at people. “My priest just told us, smile at people, even if you don’t know them. Don’t go up to everyone you see and just smile in their face, but if you happen to be next to a certain someone for a while and you match eyes, just smile. The worst that could happen is he/she gives you an uninterested or creeped out look and walks away.” Cho has found that closing himself off from other people wasn’t the answer to feeling safe. As a matter of fact, the opposite has appeared to be true. “You’re going to have your share of fake and real friends. You can’t prevent other people from crossing you. It’s going to happen and it’s just a natural part of separating your real friendships from your fake ones. This senior year I’m going to try to make changes. If I see someone in the hall that is an acquaintance, I’ll look at him/her and give a smile, instead of looking away and awkwardly avoiding eye contact.” After his spiritual experience at Casa De Angel, Cho recommends that everyone give a smile at a stranger, even if it may feel awkward at first. There’s nothing wrong with having a bunch of acquaintances that could be potential friends in the future.

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