, Maranatha Volunteers International
Call it the power of a Seventh-day Adventist school.
Eighteen years ago, Adventist volunteers built a school in Changuinola, a humid coastal town of about 30,000 people in a northeastern corner of Panama.
This summer, a group of 150 young volunteers traveled to the bustling Changuinola Seventh-day Adventist School to construct two new classrooms — and to work on two churches that have sprung up as a result of the school. The young people also assisted the community in other ways, including by treating dogs, cats, and chickens at a free veterinary clinic.
A local church leader, Melania Peña de Barria, was speechless after volunteers constructed a new church building for her congregation during their July 22-Aug. 3 mission trip, organized by Maranatha Volunteers International.
“I feel very happy, excited, thankful. I don't know if I should laugh or cry,” said Peña de Barria, a founding member of the Finca 6 church.
Her congregation had been meeting without a church home for eight years, gathering in homes, a community center and, most recently, in a vacant grocery store. On the final Sabbath of the mission trip, a joyful congregation worshiped in their new building with the young volunteers.
“These young people have taught us many important lessons,” Peña de Barria said. “They give their money, their time, to come do something for people they don’t know. They inspire us. … To see them, that they do it from their hearts, renews our energy.”
The teens volunteered as part of “Ultimate Workout,” Maranatha’s annual mission trip for young people that aims to stretch them physically, mentally, and spiritually by placing them in situations outside their comfort zones where their focus is only on service and Jesus. Ultimate Workout, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, also organized a second mission trip in June, renovating Milo Adventist Academy in the U.S. state of Oregon.
Maranatha is a nonprofit Adventist-affiliated organization that coordinates the construction of urgently needed buildings with volunteers who seek a short-term mission experience.
The Changuinola school project started 18 years ago when Maranatha volunteers built the main part of the campus at the request of the Adventist Church in Panama. The school, which had opened in a local church in 1992, had outgrown the space quickly and required a proper campus.
In the years since Maranatha built the main building, the school has added numerous classrooms to the structure as its enrollment has swelled past 450 students. Ultimate Workout volunteers added two more classrooms this summer.
“We are very happy that Maranatha came back after 18 years, and we are very thankful for the Lord and for Maranatha volunteers who have had the willingness to help us,” said school principal Nebelka Reid.
The school is also credited with sparking a growth in Adventism in the surrounding community and has been linked to the establishment of two new congregations, Finca 6 and Las Tablas.
One Ultimate Workout team focused on Finca 6, while another worked on the Las Tablas church, located in the heart of Changuinola’s banana plantations. Earlier this year, Maranatha volunteers constructed a sanctuary for Las Tablas, and the Ultimate Workout team finished the project with a coat of paint.
Down the road from Las Tablas, another team of volunteers painted the Guabito Adventist Church.
Trishany Adams, a teen volunteer from Jamaica, said she was thrilled about being able to serve others but she especially cherished worship time with the other teens. Volunteers attended morning and evening worship services filled with songs, Bible studies, and raw testimonies about God’s presence during the mission trip.
“The worship experience is the best experience,” said Adams, who also volunteered last year with an Ultimate Workout team in the Dominican Republic. “I can’t even describe how it is to just come close to God and approach His mercy throne.”
Aside from construction, teens assisted in medical and veterinary outreach, and children’s ministries. Each day, outreach teams organized in various neighborhoods to offer various programs.
This was the first time that an Ultimate Workout trip included a veterinary outreach component, inspired by a direct request from the Changuinola community. Maranatha asked Becky Childers, a veterinarian from California, to organize an animal outreach program. Working with a local veterinarian and other Ultimate Workout staff, Childers and a team of teen volunteers cared for more than 300 animals — mostly dogs and cats but chickens, cows, and pigs, too — over the course of two weeks.
“The amount of animals we’ve seen has been pretty incredible,” Childers said. “We’ve seen anywhere from 30 to 90 animals a day.”
Veterinarian outreach may seem like an unusual ministry, but Childers said it offered teens a new way to look at service.
“I think it’s really showed that you can love and care for a person by caring for things that are important to them,” she said.