Summer anything but quiet for Maple Valley teen

Jenna Johnson, right, and expedition teammate Morgan Dunham work together on a service project with HEFY in Ecuador.  - Courtesy photo
Jenna Johnson, right, and expedition teammate Morgan Dunham work together on a service project with HEFY in Ecuador.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

For soft-spoken, 17-year-old Jenna Johnson this summer was anything but quiet.

Last year Jenna surprised her mom, Kathy Johnson, when Jenna approached her parents about going on a missions trip to another country, something she had never done before.

“I was in shock,” Kathy said. “I was like, ‘You want to do what?’ You’re really shy, you don’t talk to people you don’t know.”

But Jenna was determined to go, so her parents gave their blessing.

“It’s expensive to go,” Kathy said. “It’s like $3,000, so we told her if she raised half we’d pay the other half.”

“I babysat, a lot,” Jenna said of how she raised the funds for the trip. “All of last summer and all of last year. All the time.”

Jenna’s conviction to go on a trip came after a friend’s older sister went on a trip with Humanitarian Experience for Youth, a program for Mormon youth to travel to other countries to do service projects. Stated goals of the program include “to complete a character-building service project for those living in extreme poverty,” embracing culture, and building friendships within the church, according to the HEFY website. Trips are open to students 16-19.

“I’m Mormon and it’s run by people from our church,” Jenna explained. “So it’s very focused on service and focused on coming closer to Christ, so I knew it would be aspects of serving and then aspects of the church too.”

Jenna applied last year for a trip to Ecuador this summer.

“They ask you a bunch of questions about yourself and then they give you a spot on the trip,” Jenna said of the application process.

She was one of 18 students on the trip, in addition to two peer leaders in their early 20s and two parent chaperones — none of whom she knew.

“I chose Ecuador because (of) looking at the different kinds of service they do in each place,” Jenna said. “And in Ecuador you get to help build houses there and you also get to work with — they have an orphanage primarily for disabled and special needs children there — and so you get to work with the kids there.”

Kathy said the reality of sending her teenager across the world didn’t hit her at first.

“I didn’t really think about the fact, until I was putting her on the plane,  that she was going to be thousands of miles away in a different country,” Kathy said.

Jenna set off on the multiweek expedition, as HEFY calls its trips, on July 9, meeting up with the other team members at JFK airport in New York.

“They were from all over the US, actually,” Jenna said of the other students. “We had some from Utah, California, just all over.”

The first couple of days of the trip were spent sightseeing and getting to know one another in the Galapagos Islands. After snorkeling and swimming with sea lions the group headed to Ecuador where they helped build houses and volunteered at orphanages.

“Every day we would just get up by 7:30 a.m. and be at the work site by 9:30 a.m., and we’d be there and we’d either have a shift at the orphanage or building houses every day from 9:30-4:30 p.m.” Jenna said.

They worked on the houses alongside locals, chiseling brick and mixing and pouring concrete, among other activities. At the orphanage they played with the kids and helped with the everyday caretaking routine.

As for going with a team of peers she didn’t know, Jenna said they got to know each other quickly.

“They put you in work groups to work together for the different shifts, either at the orphanage or the work site, so you get to know everybody really well.”

Asked if she’d go again, Jenna gave an emphatic, “yeah.”

“I learned a lot about the power of serving people and how happy it makes both of you,” Jenna said. “The program is HEFY — Humanitarian Experience for Youth — and their main motto is “Changing lives through service.” I thought that was really powerful to see how it changes you and the children.”

Working with the kids at the orphanages and the relationships she got to build were the two aspects of the expedition that Jenna said stood out to her the most.

“It was also really cool to see all the people you’ve never met before and see how good (of) friends you become,” Jenna said.

One of the challenging aspects of the trip was the language barrier. Thankfully, Jenna said, the peer leaders were both fluent in Spanish and were able to translate for the group. Between that and the little bit of Spanish she knows, Jenna said they were able to bridge the communication gap.

Jenna added that when she came home in late July, she arrived with a greater sense of gratitude.

“It made me really appreciate the things that we have and also it made me appreciate my family a lot,” she said. “When you see those kids who don’t have any family at all and then you come home to yours that you’re with all the time, it makes you really grateful for them.”


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