written by: Glen Warchol photos by: Adam Finkle
Teens embark on a unique rite of passage.
Tiffani Witt remembers the culture shock of returning to her Davis County school after a week in the impoverished Mexican mountain village Queretaro. “My first day back, one of my friends bought sushi for lunch, and I heard her complaining that one of the rolls was broken,” Witt recalls. “I went off on her. ‘Where I was the kids have to grow their own beans to eat!’ I yelled. I had to apologize later.”
Such is the price of going on a Choice Humanitarian expedition to a village in extreme poverty. “You have culture shock when you get there and culture shock when you get home,” says Ellie Israelsen, who spent a week in the Guatemalan village of Chiriquitzac. “I see it in myself all the time. I was complaining the other day about my Netflix account not working and realized I was being ridiculous. The people in my village have the same cup of mush everyday and do the same work every day and wear the same clothes every day. I have first-world problems. I think back to them to humble myself.”
The villagers trained the North American visitors to help on their projects. For Ellie, it was building a school. For Tiff, it was constructing stoves, chicken coops and other necessities of rural life. “It’s about sustainability,” says Ellie. “Choice wants the village to understand what they are doing, so that if there’s a problem with it or they want to do it for another village, they don’t need us.”
Choice carefully prepares its “expeditioners” for the cultural impact. “I realized I wasn’t there to be their savior, and no one on the trip was,” says Ellie, now 17 and a junior at Skyline High School. “We were there for a cultural experience. We taught them a lot of things, and they taught us a lot of things.”
Lessons included the girls’ position in the world as privileged Americans and how to help without condescension. Tiff and Ellie were awed by the power of women, even in extremely patriarchal cultures. “The women in the village have an important role. They want to do something, they just don’t know where to start,” says Ellie. “The women were the ones who taught us what to do during our visit. The women made things happen.”
At the same time, the 17 year olds learned how dependent they were on their own families. “My mom thought I was overly independent and stubborn,” says Ellie. “But when you’re sleeping on a concrete floor, you have to rely on your family more. It humbled me.”
Tiff’s siblings all had gone on humanitarian trips and the same was expected of her. “I was a little bratty with my family,” the junior at Davis High School says. “Then when I saw the village, I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I realized in the village how important family is. Especially after I saw the impact of mothers on their families. Women had a huge impact on their children’s lives. I realized what my mother sacrificed for us.”
“After you leave, you’re bummed because you think there’s so much to be done,” says Ellie. “But it’s the interactions between people—the change of mindset is just monumental. Even if you don’t make a big difference, like getting them out of poverty—you give them hope that change is possible.”
“These people had nothing, but they offered us their homes,” Tiff says. “You leave them with the possibility that they can do more, and they can do it by themselves.”
Ellie and Tiff, are now members of Choice’s Youth Board where they help raise money for humanitarian projects. They’re looking forward to their next expeditions.
See more inside our 2017 November/December Issue.