Students with Kirk in the Hills start planning for their annual trip to Orange Walk, Belize, six months in advance.

Students with Kirk in the Hills start planning for their annual trip to Orange Walk, Belize, six months in advance.

Photo provided by Kevin Krawczyk, of Kirk in the Hills


Lessons from a global textbook

There’s more to student travel than just paperwork

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published April 18, 2018

 From left, Charlie Eriksen, Sam Klein and Will Myers, all participants in the Kirk in the Hills youth ministry program, aid a local worker, far right, to pour cement to build the only Christian church in the community.

From left, Charlie Eriksen, Sam Klein and Will Myers, all participants in the Kirk in the Hills youth ministry program, aid a local worker, far right, to pour cement to build the only Christian church in the community.

Photo provided by Kevin Krawczyk, of Kirk in the Hills

METRO DETROIT — Whether it’s to build on their education or to spread their faith, some teens just have a need to seek out an adventure.

When it comes to mission trips or foreign exchange programs, parents might need to swallow hard at the price — and, of course, at the thought of their baby going abroad without them.

Kevin Krawczyk knows that well. As the director of discipleship at Kirk in the Hills Presbyterian Church in Bloomfield Township, he’s counseled dozens of parents whose students have committed to going with the church’s youth program to Orange Walk, Belize, to help a sister church in the poverty-stricken agricultural community.

“We stay a week, and it’s a big whirlwind for the kids,” Krawczyk said of the trip that involves construction work on a church for the sister ministry, along with organizing and executing an intensive Bible study for local children. “It’s a leadership role for our youth, so hopefully when they get older they can step into their next church or maybe social work program and say, ‘This is easy. I’ve done this. It’s just about spending the time, and the rest is just details.’”

Preparations for the trip start at least six months in advance, he said, with a myriad of meetings, paperwork and phone calls with both the high school-age students and their guardians. Krawczyk said the keys are communication and transparency with the whole family so that the traveler and Mom and Dad back home all feel like they know and trust the chaperones. 

“We start conversations for the June mission trip the November prior. We try to make it easy for parents so they know exactly what’s happening, and they feel like they know me and feel like they can reach out to me,” he said, adding that parents should be honest with themselves about their student’s readiness to travel alone. 

Once the plane takes off, Krawczyk sends out electronic updates on the students’ activities several times a day. Chaperones have cellphones on them at all times so parents can reach their teen as needed, though the participants themselves aren’t allowed to bring their devices, in order to ensure that they’re not distracted from their mission.

“I share demographics with the families before we go, so they know where we are and that we’re in a safe area. I take pics of us taking off and landing and have them follow me on social media,” he explained. “And the parents need to trust me, but the biggest piece is to make sure your child knows the chaperones and is comfortable with them. Do they feel like they can trust those people? If they’re not comfortable, that’s not a good setup.”

Krawczyk said parents should ensure that the adults accompanying their child abroad have their ducks in a row in case of an emergency, such as insurance that guarantees a paid flight home if someone needs to return immediately. He organizes the travel through a specialty organization called Praying Pelican Missions, which arranges everything from bus transportation to and from the airport to housing and clean water on location.

“The buses have to be ready; the food needs to be clean; the water needs to be purified,” he said. “If you brush your teeth with tap water there, you will end up in the hospital.”

Parents can visit the Praying Pelican Missions website to learn more about the efforts taken to keep students safe.

The same can be done with World Heritage Student Exchange. The two-way exchange program finds opportunities for American students to travel and study in another country, and it also places students from around the globe in homes here to study in the United States. 

 “Of course we do background checks and check for any issues with the family where a student might be staying — issues with child abuse, drug activity, mental illness, financial ability to support a student — all those things,” said Jennifer King, Michigan coordinator for World Heritage Student Exchange.  “We make sure all those portions are really in place. While a home doesn’t need to be perfect, since we’re talking about a cultural experience here, it does have to be a clean environment where kids will be safe and healthy in the house.”

Beyond that, King said, the organization thoroughly vets potential host families to make sure everyone in the house has the right intentions when volunteering to take in an exchange student.

“We want to find out why a student wants to go abroad and why a family is applying to host. We need to know the motivation on both sides,” she said. “There’s no financial gain for a host, and any organization that pays a family to host, in my opinion, won’t provide a positive experience. The student will never really feel like the family wants them there. Even the little 10-year-old boy living in the home needs to be on board. If anyone has reservations going in, we need to know why so we can make sure everyone involved is excited to make it a worthwhile experience.”

King and Krawczyk said that once the passports are in order and the immunizations are administered — something Krawczyk advised should be done at the recommendation of a doctor and not a travel website — the opportunity can be life-changing.

“I was an exchange student myself in high school,” King said. “There’s a difference between simply learning a language or a culture from a book and immersing yourself in it. It brings your understanding to a whole new level and can really be an asset through college and into the workforce.”

Krawczyk said the benefits to a teen’s heart can be as profound as they are to a résumé.

“Our ministry is formed on breaking the barriers we put up in the world. The differences we see in faces and color that make us think we can’t talk to someone else are silly; they’re facades,” he said. “Jesus came for us all. To go to parts of the world and help someone, and feel like they’ve served someone else but see how they’re not heroes, just family helping family, just feels right.”