Student Adventures Around The World

Esteban, Ukraine

Map of the Ukraine

Esteban is a junior marketing major in Cox School of Business. He is leading a group of high school students on a mission trip to Ukraine where they will be helping to build an orphanage and visiting prisons, churches, and villages to bring food, clothing, and other necessities.

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August 18, 2006

   It is strange to be back in Dallas. Life is so "normal" here. It is so predictable, typical and full of routine. Even though there are lots of exciting aspects (such as knowing that I am graduating in December, having obtained a great internship position, and being able to hang out with friends and family), I miss being in Ukraine. I miss the people more than anything. I miss my girlfriend and her family (who organized the trip), I miss my friends, and I miss the locals... those "new" friends that were born in the land that was so foreign to me yet so normal and full of routine for them. I miss living in community with friends. I miss waking up in a strange place but knowing that I had a purpose that is bigger than myself, bigger than anyone there with me, and bigger than those we were in contact with every day. I miss not needing a computer or cell phone. I miss caring about others on a daily basis and going completely out of my way to try to make their lives better. I miss the spirituality and deep meaning of everything. I miss waking up and thanking God for letting me do something that meant something even if nobody ever knew I did it (which makes it strange to be here typing about it, or tell a friend about my "experience").

The art of travel
   It's amazing how traveling is such an experience. You absorb everything. From the buildings to the people in the streets and the types of food they serve (and don't) anywhere you turn. Everything is so new and it becomes so familiar so fast, but you still appreciate things you don't when at home. You appreciate what you have and you appreciate what you have back home too. I appreciate the fact that I even got there (it was truly a miracle that I made it to Ukraine; I had all the expenses donated to me, I received my visa minutes before going to the airport, and, it's hard to explain, but I flew all the way there with a flight that had been cancelled the day before - - I still don't know for sure if or how the travel agent fixed my flights).

Steer clear ofnice Babushka ladies with horrid soup
   I remember the Russian versions of American hip-hop songs being played on the small speakers of Ukranian cell phones. I remember the trams and buses full of people. I so vividly remember helping an old lady get on a bus, only to watch her get off upset at the next stop because she got on the wrong bus (because I thought she said "hello" when she was actually asking if she was in the right bus).
   I remember the amazing hot-dogs and cheap ice cream cones, the amazingly horrid soups I pretended to like for the very nice Babushka ladies, the impressive Eastern European buildings, the old men playing chess in the Center, the young girls wearing much less clothing than anyone could imagine, the smoking-and-drinking 12-year-old boys playing soccer as they smoked and drank, the violin players in the street (not to mention the one that never remembered us but would sometimes say "Hail Hitler" with his arm in the air), the internet cafes that became strange and scary dungeon-type "adult" clubs of some sort after 6pm, the bad service one received at most restaurants, and the unreadable and incredibly confusing letters that constitute the Ukranian (Cyrillic) alphabet.
   As cool as having a "3", and a weird X with an extra line in the middle, in your alphabet is, I could not understand a thing. Thank God that I speak English and Spanish. At least I could find my way to a McDonald's by asking people to point towards it. I can't imagine a Chinese man left alone in Ukraine. He'd be lost.

Free to be
I remember being so careless about my appearance, but so careful about my thoughts, words and actions. I wish I could be that way in Dallas. It's as if there's a cloud over SMU (or maybe just the areas that I frequent, or maybe just a cloud over me while in Dallas) that doesn't allow you to be completely yourself. It's harder to say hi to a random person walking down Dyer than to say hi in Ukranian to a Ukranian. Maytbe it's just that when you travel you are unkown and everything is unknown so you are in a way more free and more open to the unknown. I could be completely wrong. Or maybe I'm just thinking too much.. or too little. I'm confusing myself that's for sure.

Elliís dream
   My trip was not one to see the country or to simply do something during the summer. It wasn't to be with friends either (even though that was a big part of it). The truth is that I went because I felt a call to go. I was asked by my girlfriend's family to help lead a group of High School students from Canada. A larger group was going to Ukraine and the younger team needed someone to help them and guide them; planning, motivating and being an example. we were going because there is an orphanage being started over there. There is a building in a small town called Novovolinsk that will be a home to nearly 150 young boys and girls (some orphans, some "social" orphans). The orphanage has the name of Elli-Rose Bartel, my girlfriend's sister who passed away in a car accident almost a year ago. She was 15. She was like a younger sister to me. It was Elli's dream to start an orphanage and to care for kids that have no one. It was her dream and now is becoming a reality. Just typing this makes me feel vulnerable, sad, and takes me back to the worst day of my life. Elli will never see the orphanage (at least not with earthly eyes) but her dream is consistent with what God wants, for us to love each other and love Him. That orphanage is a way of honoring and remembering Elli, of loving God, of caring for the fatherless and motherless (what the Bible calls "True Religion"), and a way of helping a country that is in great need. "Elli-Rose's Place" will be a place of joy for kids that would otherwise live a much harder life. Please check out the website < for more info.
   It was hard over there. First of all because my girlfriend's family was there helping make Elli's dream a reality but Elli wasn't actually there. It was a constant struggle. It was painful. This year has been a very hard one for me. My girlfriend and her family are going through something that many people don't go through. It is hard to share this with anyone. It is hard to type this knowing that maybe 2 people will glance through it without knowing the deep meaning behind each word.

Always drama
   Another somewhat hard aspect about the trip was the fact that I am a 22 year old and I was leading guys and girls from 16 to 18. When you're 16 you can get very tired in another country far from home with other 16 year olds that enjoy and live off of drama just as much as you do. When you're 18 you sometimes don't have much patience or respect for authority (even if your leader laughs when you fart and make dumb jokes) and you want freedom to go where you want when you want. This is not to say that the team I lead was bad in any way, but that it was hard to try to motivate kids that sometimes didn't want to be motivated, and who sometimes didn't want to respond to someone that is not really that much older than them. Still, every single one of them became very close to me. Especially the guys; who became like younger brothers. They wanted to talk about life, about girls, about the future, about God, and just about anything. I slept in the same room with them for a whole month. We showered in the same showers, played soccer together, encouraged each other to speak in front of large audiences, and opened up about things you don't usually open up with just anyone.

Walking the walk
   We did all types of things in Ukraine. We prepared 2 week-long Vacation Bible Schools and 3 carnivals for kids; walked through the streets of L'viv and Novovolinsk; played worship, shared testimonies and stories, and did dramatic skits at churches, plazas, villages, and prisons with boys 8 to 12 years-old; we painted walls; we prepared meals; we visited homes and centers for people with special needs; ate at a castle and the only restaurant in Novovolinsk; taught classes (from ballet and Parkour, to soccer, English and sewing); and took clothes, food and supplies to donate. We did lots in little time. We also stopped by many sunglass "kiosks" but that's another story.

Ministering to prisoners
    My favorite day was one in which we visited a young men's prison (from 14 to 18). We did a drama that is about how God created the world, and created humans; how we are given free choice and choose evil often, but Jesus came to Earth to die and resurrect to give us life and life in abundance, even after death on earth. After that a guy from my team talked about his life. He shared about how he became angry at life and God some years ago. He was rejected in sports, in school, and in his town; and his dad got cancer. He shared about once he had faith in God his life changed. I then got to speak. I talked about how as men we can easily be angered, we can easily lose our temper. If someone hits us we want to hit back, and harder. I said that life was like soccer; you win when you make good decisions. I mentioned how a French player named Zidane made the horrible mistake of hitting an Italian player (with his head) at the World Cup. They suddenly all moved forward. I had their attention. I said that I liked the Bible because it taught how to make good decisions. It also talked about some weird ways of living, such as forgiving others when they hit you (not hitting them back). I talked about how the Romans in Jesus' time killed Jesus just like they killed many "criminals" to achieve peace, their Pax Romana. Jesus didn't bring peace through violence like the Romans did. He brought peace by killing himself. He did the opposite of what a rational intelligent mind would do. The very Son of God dead on a cross. And yet we still believe, 2,000 years later, that He resurrected and He wants us to believe in Him. I told the guys at the prison that God wanted them to forgive others and themselves, and wanted them to repent. To my surprise, about 10 of them came up on the stage and let me pray with them. I had never done something like that. I've seen "altar calls" done at churches and sometimes they can be very moving but other times it just seems so fabricated or weird. Being up there with these guys that lived in prison and might spend many more years there showed me that I myself need to repent and need to forgive others. God was in that room, I can't explain it any other way.

Amazing moments
   My trip to Ukraine was filled with laughter, filled with jokes, filled with amazing moments. I have great memories of the month I spent there. I miss it, and I know that we were there for something bigger than ourselves. One day, one of the four translators that we had came up to me and thanked me for allowing him to be with us and care about him. That guy (he was 16 and an amazing translator and friend) was not the same when we left. We somehow were of positive impact to his life. I know we were for many others too. And they were of much more impact to us than they could imagine. I was not the same when I left. A part of me stayed in Ukraine and a new part of me came to be.

Traveling is an experience that doesn't stop... My adventure in Ukraine was one that I will carry with me forever and ever.

July 24, 2006

Welcome to Líviv
I am in L'viv. Some people think that L'viv is becoming a new Prague in Eastern Europe. I don't know if it's true because I've never been to Prague. It is definitely different from Western Europe. It is a 16-year-old country. It went from being under tsars to Communism with Lenin and Stalin. Then World War II, and decades of being a country dominated by the rich 5 percent of the population while the rest only lived off their work. It is amazing that people lived here with little hope, dreams, ideas or creativity. Lack of freedom can bring a people down and that is perhaps why Ukraine is such a unique country today. It has only been standing on its own since the beginning of the Ď90s. Entrepreneurship is a new concept. Sadly, the rich of the past are still the rich today, but at least now there are opportunities, as well as churches, organizations and people that want change, freedom and love in their land.

A Dream Come True
So I am here co-leading a mission trip. We are 7 guys and 8 girls in the team. They are all Canadian except for me. My girlfriend and her sister are co-leading with me because their parents are the ones organizing the entire trip, which also includes many adults and couples. The main purpose was to come help an orphanage that they are building through a partnership with a local church in a town called Novovolinsk in Western Ukraine (which is by the way, the center of Europe). The orphanage is called Elli-Rose's Place, in honor of my girlfriend's youngest sister, who tragically passed away in a car accident last year. Her dream was to start an orphanage in Ukraine and we are here because we believe God wants us to help make the dream a reality. The Bible says that true religion is taking care of orphans and widows. This is a great chance to do that.

Soccer 101
The first week here we had a vacation Bible school for many orphans that will be moving to the orphanage, as well as some kids from the local church I mentioned earlier. We had games, and stories, and songs and all kinds of things. I also taught soccer (or football) classes for 2 hours every day. It was really fun. I'm not the best at being with kids but it's cool to do something with everything you have. It was so worthwhile.

Cold showers, long bus rides, and blessings
After that, we came to L'viv. We've been to another orphanage, visited churches, played soccer with people that live around the place where we're staying (a place that is usually a deaf school, and is now a sort of hostel for groups), and we even went out to the streets to do a skit or drama about the creation of the world and Jesus' resurrection.

It has been fun especially because none of the guys or girls in the group had ever been on any kind of mission trip. We've been to good old McDonald's and very Ukrainian places to eat. We've showered in very cold water and walked for miles. We've been on long bus drives and places where we never thought we'd be, meeting people we wouldn't have met otherwise, and rethinking life in general. God has blessed us and I hope that we are making a difference. Love can make a difference, no matter who you are or where you are.

Please check out There will be updates once we get back from the trip. If you want to contribute in any way please contact them.

July 1, 2006

The waiting game
I am currently in Canmore in Alberta, Canada. Even though I’ve been here many times in the past (my girlfriend’s home town), I am still amazed by this place. This mountain town is located only 15 minutes from the world-famous town of Banff. If it was winter, I’d be going skiing tomorrow. It’s summer though, and if all goes well, I’ll be on my way to Ukraine next Thursday. I say “if all goes well” because I still don’t have a visa. Being from Guatemala, I am not allowed an easy entrance into Ukraine (in the way that Canadians and Americans are). So I have been on the visa application process for over a month now and I am still waiting. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

I have been in Canada for a week and a half now. We just got to Canmore today after driving around 7 hours from Caronport High School in Saskatchewan. It has been awesome. I met all the high school guys and girls that I will be co-leading with my girlfriend Somerlea and her sister Jessalayne. All of the guys that are going are great, they’re excited about going to Ukraine and they have been planning and preparing for this trip since the beginning of the year. I got to go to a fair, hang out with everyone, and help with the planning and organizing of everything. Even though I’m 7 years older than several of the kids on the team, I feel like we’re friends already. They work out, or play soccer, or like the same type of music I do (Underoath’s new CD is awesome, check it out). They remind me of me when I was 15, except these guys have a desire to do something that few kids their age would. I hope I get to be an example, a leader and a friend to all of them.

Hot dogs and cold cash
We’ve been able to raise some money for the trip. The first thing I did with them was a “bottle drive”. Maybe you know what a bottle drive is but I had no idea. In Canada, you pay a deposit on all cans and bottles and then take them to a recycling center where you get your money back. A bottle drive is basically getting other peoples’ bottles and cans to recycle them, thus getting the money they would’ve paid had they recycled themselves. They asked me for an ID while turning in several bags filled with cans and bottles. I simply said I didn’t have it with me.

Besides the bottle drive, we also had a BBQ sale at a Safeway (superstore). I was the only one over 21 so I was in charge of the hot dog operation. Safeway donated the food, they let us borrow their equipment, and we got to keep the money. I cooked a lot of them but only ate like four of them.

Besides raising money, planning for the trip, and hanging out with the team, I have also been watching the FIFA World Cup. I got to see some of the games with my family before coming here but now I get to watch them with my girlfriend’s dad, who is also into soccer. Soccer is the new football. Oh wait, it always has been ha. I’ve been reading a book by Brian D. McLaren called “The Secret Message of Jesus”. I also started “The Revolution: A Field Manual for Changing Your World”. I don’t want to be an idealist, but I believe that we can all change the world. It just takes love and work. More love than work though because you can work all you want for something, but if you don’t care enough, nothing good will come out of it.

I have also been working on a website for the orphanage that we’re helping. Check it out at I think it’s pretty cool and so will you.

I have a busy week ahead of me but I hope to send another update soon. I’ll hopefully have a visa by then. God bless and thanks for reading.

May 20, 2006

Getting ready
As soon as I get my visa to Ukraine, I am heading to the province of Saskatchewan in Canada. I will be meeting the six high school guys that I will be leading on the mission trip as well as the other teams that are going to Ukraine. I will be meeting with the high school students as much as possible to talk about missions, the culture and history of Ukraine, and ways that we will try to help the people of the area. I will also be meeting with the directors of the mission trip (two of them are actually my girlfriend's parents) to talk about many of the logistics of the trip, as well as the overall plan. After the two and a half weeks in Saskatchewan, all the teams will drive to Calgary, Alberta, where we will begin our journey to Ukraine.

I have been trying to learn about the culture and history of Ukraine. I have already taken a discipleship training school with an organization called Youth With a Mission. I had a three-month training about missions, world views, and biblical studies, and also a three-month outreach in Mexico. That was a big preparation for this trip because I learned much from my leaders and now I have the opportunity to lead, by serving and giving direction and vision to younger guys who have no previous experience with traveling or mission trips.

A devastated country
Ukraine has been devastated in the last century by war, genocide, Chernobyl, unemployment, and poverty. Although I still don't know many of the specifics, I know that we are going to be in the western city of L'viv and several villages and towns in and near the Carpathian Mountains. The western area of Ukraine has had an identity crisis, especially since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. The main reason we are going there is because my girlfriend's parents have partnered with a local church in Ukraine and a Canadian organization called HART to start an orphanage that will open in September to house about 60 children.

A dream come true
The idea of the orphanage came after my girlfriend's family traveled to Ukraine. They saw great need, especially a lack of homes for abandoned children. My girlfriend's younger sister, Elli-Rose, dreamed of going back and opening an orphanage there. She actually had a dream one night where she saw herself living there with a child. Her dreams seemed impossible at the time. Some months after that, she passed away in a car accident. It forever changed our lives. We know that she is in Heaven with the Lord, but it is still hard. Her family soon decided that her dream of going back to Ukraine could become a reality and that it would be a very special way to remember her and do what God has called us to do in the Bible.

     Besides helping to start the orphanage (cleaning, reconstructing, building, painting, planning, etc.) we will be visiting youth prisons, villages, churches, and areas in great need, to help out in any way we can, from handing out food and clothes to sharing a message of hope.

Hope for the hopeless
I hope that I will be able to give hope to the hopeless. I hope that I will be able to give vision to a young group of guys that is willing to give their money and time for something greater than themselves. I hope to share with my girlfriend's family in this dream of giving a home to the homeless. I hope to learn much about the culture of a country that I never thought I'd visit. I hope to become a better person, and to understand Jesus' message in a deeper, more tangible way.

A change of plans
My girlfriend's family was the one with the vision and dream to go to Ukraine. They started to tell people about the idea and soon many high school students got excited about it and said they wanted to come. I was asked to be a leader of the high schoolers. I had planned to go to Germany on a business summer program but after much thought and prayer, I realized that it was much more important for me to go to Ukraine. I am extremely excited about the trip. I am now only waiting for a letter of invitation to come so I can apply for a visa. Hopefully, I will be in Canada by June 20th. We head out to Ukraine on July 6th.