SUMMIT, NJ -Hilltop City resident Sydney Pearson -- Class of 2020 -- was part of a group of current and former Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child students that kicked off their summer by building homes and raising spirits in a village near Tijuana, Mexico. 

In addition to Pearson, Lindley Hall ’18, of New Providence; Asher Marie Coates ’18, of New Providence; Valerie Nieves ’18, of Berkeley Heights; Caroline Hall ’20, of New Providence; and Tietjen Spoor ’20, of New Vernon; were joined by alumnae Kathryn Flanagan ’17, of Green Village, and Samantha Pearson ’16, of Summit, in a journey to Mexico last month with the Presbyterian Church at New Providence.

The Church partnered with California-based Amor Ministries during the trip, in which upperclassmen arrived on June 24, building two houses, while the underclassmen arrived six days later, helping to build an additional six houses. All students returned stateside on July 8.

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A typical day for the Oak Knoll students included waking up as early as 5 a.m., arriving at the worksites by 7:30 a.m. and returning to the group’s campsite by 6 p.m. Student accommodations, which included tents without plumbing or electricity, helped them experience firsthand the lifestyle of the people they were helping.

Oak Knoll students also helped run a Vacation Bible School for village children.

Hall, Coates, Nieves, Flanagan and Pearson have embarked on service trips with the church in the past, traveling last year to the Red Lake Nation in Minnesota, where they learned about Native American culture while teaching children, providing maintenance to homes and some much-needed TLC to an antiquated church.

Coates called the Mexico trip a “life-changing experience” that built off her involvement of service at the church and Oak Knoll.

Some of her favorite parts of the trip were bonding with the families she was helping.

“The final part to building a house is the dedication, where we pray for the family and give them a Bible. This experience will stay with me forever because it is so humbling to listen to the family express their gratitude,” she said. “This left a lasting impact on me because I know that the family we built a house for will never forget us and I will never forget them, and knowing that means the world to me.”

Coates acknowledged the challenge of adapting to a different lifestyle during the trip, but said she appreciated being able to disconnect from the world of technology and social media.

“It really allowed me to focus on my relationship with God and bond with my team,” she said, pointing to the times where she and her friends would sit around a campfire or enjoy sunrise runs.

“This left a lasting impact on me because it reminded me not to take things for granted,” she said.

Hall agreed with Coates about the benefits of removing herself from modern conveniences.

“It is drastically different from what I am used to, but I can’t complain. The families that we built the houses for have lived like that for their entire lives,” she said. “Seeing how happy they were without all of the luxuries made me recognize that we don't need any of that to enjoy life.”

Hall called the trip an “amazing” experience that “blew away all of my expectations.” She further noted she was able to communicate with the villagers using the skills she had learned in Spanish classes.

For Pearson, “seeing the kids’ faces light up” was extremely rewarding and among her favorite parts of the trip.

“This trip reminded me how blessed I am to be living under a roof, going to a good school and having food on my plate at every meal when others don’t have those luxuries,” she said. “I realized how lucky I am to have what I do and I am so grateful. I can’t wait to go back.”

Nieves agreed and said she enjoyed interacting with the villagers, especially the children, and that the trip helped her gain invaluable experience working in a team setting.

“I loved connecting with the kids and forming friendships with them. It was a great experience overall. This trip definitely made me realize the hard work that goes into building houses and that every member on a team is valuable,” she said.