Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series that will publish this week about a recent seven-day mission trip to the Quimistan Valley through the Honduras Agape Foundation. Today's article will focus on the mission team from St. John's United Methodist Church.

When leaving the San Pedro Sula airport, the van carrying 15 excited, chattering Aiken residents grew quieter as they began taking in the sights of Honduras.

A few “wows” were murmured as they looked through the tinted windows at dilapidated homes and litter lining the roads, police standing in the streets with assault rifles, horse-drawn carts and people roaming through traffic selling small souvenirs or fruits in efforts to make a little money.

That was the beginning of one of the most memorable and touching spring breaks that this group had ever experienced.

The Honduras Agape Foundation

The trip was organized through the Honduras Agape Foundation, an Aiken nonprofit organization that was initiated in 1999 as a foreign mission ministry of South Aiken Presbyterian Church to help the Quimistan community rebuild after Hurricane Mitch tore through the country and destroyed many homes.

The mission of the foundation expanded from reconstructing houses to offering education assistance to children and teenagers, building classrooms or other necessary structures for schools, providing dental care, conducting a water cleaning project, installing justa stoves in homes for cleaner air and sharing the creeds of Christianity.

Several local churches are now involved in assisting the efforts of the Foundation.

Each year, several groups head to Honduras to help with construction, hold vacation Bible school and to interact one-on-one with the individuals who the Foundation is helping.

The mission team

The group consisted of mostly teenagers and their parents who are all members of St. John's United Methodist Church. Michael Norton, who has been affiliated with the Foundation for quite some time and is a frequent visitor of the Quimistan Valley, was the team leader. Much of the team never had traveled to Honduras before, and, by the time they left, many of them wanted to go back.

St. John's Youth Director Jimi Whitesell said he was intimidated by what he saw initially when leaving the airport because it looked to be a bit dangerous, but, by the time he got to the lush, green fields of Quimistan and started to meet the people, he felt a sense of friendliness and warmth surrounding the group.

“It's like they know you are there to help, whether you are helping them or someone else in the community,” Whitesell said.

When going to the various villages, the team always put aside some time to play with the children.

Bottles of bubbles, flying discs and tennis balls were packed away in some of the team members' backpacks as icebreakers just in case the children were a bit shy. That wasn't a problem at all as the children excitedly gathered around team members as soon as they arrived.

Whitesell said one thing he noticed was the amount of happiness stemming from the simple gesture of handing one of the children a tennis ball or installing a swing set at a school.

“The smiles ... and the joy was just heartwarming,” Whitesell said. “They were so grateful for that sandwich, for that ball, for that meal.”

This was team member David White's second trip with the Foundation, and, to him, community service is habit-forming – it's something he can't imagine not doing. White said he likes participating in Honduras Agape mission trips because it offers an opportunity to feed those in need physically and spiritually.

“The trip does both because we're pushing the Christianity aspect and giving them shelter,” White said. “I'm personally working on finding the balance.”

Participating in the mission trips also gives a face to the Foundation and those who are offering assistance from afar.

“They know that someone outside is caring for them,” White said. “You show these people that they are worth caring for.”

The youth team members

The trip included six youth members – Addie Reed, Allie Norton, Abby Ray, David Ray, Kaylee Crenshaw and Sydney Goodlove.

Whitesell said watching the youth getting their hands in the dirt during construction and interacting with the kids was a pretty fulfilling part of the trip.

“To actually be the hands and feet of Christ ... I love watching them do the work just so they know that they can make a difference regardless of their age,” Whitesell said.

The trip was quite a learning experience for the younger members of the team. Reed, 13, was strongly impacted by the sights of those individuals who barely have a place to call home or didn't know when their next meal would be.

“I wanted to be able to give them (the children) a toy but couldn't, and also seeing all of those people in the streets – I never realized I could feel that sad,” Reed said.

But despite the lack of possessions, Reed said she noticed that the children were happy and always smiling.

David Ray, 13, was impressed with the fact that everybody seemed to connect through playing sports such as soccer, despite differences in personalities and cultures.

Crenshaw, 15, said she noticed the children are a lot more active in Honduras and actually interact with each other, unlike many kids in America who depend a lot on text messages and online social networks.

Norton, 16, said she initially was concerned by the fact that she didn't know much Spanish, but that didn't negatively affect her experience at all.

“Dios te ama – God loves you,” Norton said. “Even though there is a language barrier, there's a connection.”

The teenagers were deeply touched by the faith the people in the Quimistan Valley have despite their troubles. Goodlove, 17, who also has traveled to Guatemala and wants to spend her life doing mission work, said when attending a church service in one of these countries, the congregation thanks God for everything it has, even though what it may physically possess is not much.

For Abby Ray, 16, who was on her second trip to the Central American country, Honduras is a spiritually uplifting place.

“Once you come down here, you always see God, looking at the kids and looking at the houses,” Ray said. “This is where I find God.”

The end of the journey

Before boarding the plane, the team took a few moments to say goodbye to translator Daniel Reyes and the Foundation's Maynor Castillo who helped guide them through the trip. There were a few tears, and the moment was bittersweet as the team members were ready to go home, but sad to say goodbye to their new friends.

Team member Nancy Reed said there were many memorable moments on the trip, but there was one that really stuck with her.

That moment was with Suyapa Castillo, a friend of the Foundation.

Castillo's husband, Edwin, assisted the nonprofit with the construction of homes.

At the end of a church service that the team attended the night before they headed back to the United States, Castillo, who speaks very little English, gently took Reed's arms and simply said, “Remember.”

“We will remember them,” Reed said. “And, hopefully they will remember us.”