A life-changing trip opens a U.S. teen’s eyes to the beauty and struggles of a far-off land… and the universal secret to true happiness
Recently, I was given an amazing opportunity: the chance to join my mom on a trip to rural Kenya.
When I was asked if I wanted to take this trip a couple of months ago, I didn’t know much about it, or what to expect. I only knew we were representing the Proctor Gallagher Institute, and that we would be observing the progress the Unstoppable Foundation has made toward building schools and sustainable communities with the resources the Proctor Gallagher Institute has been contributing.
“Sure,” I thought. “Why not?” It sounded like a fun adventure, something new and different.
I soon realized it was going to be much, much more than that. By the end of my first day, I knew that this was going to be an experience that would change me forever.
Within moments of landing at the airstrip in Narok, Kenya, we were greeted by James, a Maasai Warrior. With his beaming smile and warm welcome, I liked him right away. We arrived in camp and were met with singing and more smiling faces. In fact, smiling faces were a constant theme throughout the trip.
The camp we stayed at is run by Me to We/Free the Children. We would begin and end our days at camp with local Maasai and Kipsigi tribe members assisting us with everything. What I noticed at the camp was the same thing I noticed right away at the schools: these people are 100% present when they are with you. We were without Internet or cell service and had electricity for only an hour in the morning and two hours at night. My mom and I turned off our phones and computers and didn’t touch them again until our departure. I think this made us more present as well.
We ended each day by gathering together with the group and sharing the highlight of our day. This was a challenge for me at first, since I was the only non-adult. But it was so interesting to hear everyone truly open their hearts to each other and learn how they were affected by the things they had observed that day. It wasn’t long before I was ready to join in.
On the way to our first school visit, we passed lots and lots of people walking barefoot with loads on their backs or heads, and children walking in torn clothing herding cows. The work they were engaged in looked difficult and tiring, yet every person we passed turned with a bright smile and energetic wave. We were met at this first school by large groups of children that gathered confidently around me, hugging, smiling, holding my hand, asking me questions, and laughing. I was able to connect with these kids with ease; they loved to have their photo taken and then see it on the screen.
After the visit, my cheeks ached from smiling so much. I have never experienced so much unfiltered joy.
It was easy to feel bad about how little these kids have. They lack many of the most basic necessities — things that we in the West take for granted, like clean running water and electricity. Being on this trip gave me a new appreciation for what I have, and how easy my life is in comparison to the lives of so many others, not just in Kenya, but around the world.
Yet it was also impossible not to notice their joy and playfulness in spite of their circumstances. It made me realize that joy is an inside job. You don’t need a fancy phone or the newest car or the latest clothes to be happy. Surrounding yourself with people you care about, enjoying and celebrating everyday moments—that is the real secret to happiness, and the best way to live your life.
This trip also stirred a passion inside of me that I didn’t know existed. Watching and listening to the Unstoppable team and the facilitators at Free the Children talk about their work and goals opened my eyes to the possibility of working in developing countries myself someday, to help secure the safe and healthy living standards that all human beings deserve.
Today, back home in the U.S., my thoughts are filled with memories of our journey. I can still hear the laughter, see the uninhibited smiles and feel the hugs I received from strangers welcoming me into their community and world. These are moments I will never forget. I am so grateful to have gone on this trip, and I know without a doubt that it was only my first of many visits to this beautiful land and its people. I have been touched forever.
Emma Combs is a 15-year-old from Sitka, Alaska. She loves ballet, hiking, and spending time with her friends and family, including her black lab, Bella.