There's beauty in helping others
While those embarking on the Hope Mission Trip to Niagara Falls found the actual historic falls breathtaking, the poverty level in that area of New York took their breath away.
"Some of the people at service organizations told me would see the broken and the beautiful," said Mission Coordinator Terri Myhre, who was one of 12 chaperones and 49 Minneota students to make the trip from July 23-29 to the Niagara Falls area along the U.S./Canada border.
"And we really did see that. The falls are absolutely beautiful, but the community is in bad shape."
Once boasting a population of over 100,000 residents in the 1960s, Niagara Falls is now half that size as heavy industries shut down and people left to seek employment elsewhere.
The Hope Mission volunteers worked relentlessly for many months fundraising in order to make the trip to help those in need and also to participate in a community beautification project there. This is the third mission trip Myhre has been a part of through Hope Lutheran Church -- the first was the Youth For Hope group four years ago to Daytona Beach, FL; while the second trip two years ago in San Diego was opened up to any Minneota students.
This year's group members were affiliated with six area churches; Hope Lutheran and St. Edward's in Minneota; St. Eloi in Ghent; St. John's Cantius in Wilno; and St. Peter & Paul and Bethany-Elim in Ivanhoe.
The group left Minneota on July 23 and traveled to the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport by school buses. They then took a flight to Detroit and from there drove 5 1/2 hours in rented vans to Niagara Falls. Once there, the mission group split into eight smaller groups.
"We tried to split them so there was a variety of ages and both male and female students in each group," said Myhre.
"The work we did there was all pre-planned for us." The various groups were each assigned different duties, such as helping elderly homeowners paint and do some landscape work on their property. "One group would go in and scrape the house and the next group would paint," Myhre explained.
"Another group would do things like pull weeds, trim shrubs and mow the lawn."
They also worked to beautify a recently-established church by pulling weeds, putting down mulch, and planting flowers. And they visited residents in a nursing home, worked in a soup kitchen at a shelter, and at a food bank sorting food before it was taken to a food shelf. "I worked in the kitchen (at a homeless shelter) making and serving food," said Jackson Jeremiason.
"And they were so grateful to get a well-rounded meal for free, even though it was not the freshest food." "The group I was in did a lot of work with weeds and grass and general beautification," said Trevor Belaen.
"And once the work was done, the areas looked much better and cleaner. It was satisfying seeing the transformation."
The majority of the work the mission group performed over four weather-cooperative days centered around community beautification, including at a cemetery or around trees on main street. "I liked helping the community and seeing their smiles," said Thomas Belaen. "I also enjoyed spending time playing games with some of the older people at a nursing home."
Niagara Falls actually borders New York and the province of Ontario, Canada. Because industry has declined on the U.S. side, the falls on the Canada side has encountered the majority of the tourism.
Through social media, television and books, Niagara Falls is thought of as one of the most picturesque and romantic locations in our country. But as the mission workers soon found out, there is another side to it. "What surprised me the most was how very poor and run-down the entire Niagara Falls community really is," said Myhre.
"As we drove through the city, we could see the abandoned homes, the closed businesses, and the need for faith and hope to be restored in the community," Myhre said.
"Even the tourist area is not spectacular. There are some newer hotels and a casino, but I wouldn't call it extravagant." Some of the kids used passports and went over to the Canada side with chaperone Heidi Boerboom, returning with a sense for how much different the two sides are.
Brothers Trevor and Thomas Belaen both expressed surprise at how poor the area was, too. "Many residents said that once the factories left the area, it became a lot poorer," they both said.
When he first signed up for the trip as a chaperone with his son Jackson and daughter Grace, Brian Jeremiason was unsure why a mission group was going to Niagara Falls. "What I pictured in my mind were the falls and tourism," he said.
"What we really found was a struggling city and poverty-stricken population in a beautiful setting."
"I was completely surprised by the amount of poverty," said Cari Pohlen, one of the chaperones who made the trip with her husband Nathan and their children Alex, Emily and Isaac.
"It seemed there were as many boarded up businesses as there were open ones. There were so many run-down homes and areas that appeared to be completely abandoned. There are so many people in need that it's heartbreaking."
What the group learned was that funding has been eliminated for many vital programs because Niagara Falls' population has declined so rapidly, leaving 40.6 percent of the city’s children living below the poverty line and over 40 percent of the buildings in town vacant.
"Added to that is a huge property tax burden; one of the highest in America, which is hurting development," Brian Jeremiason said.
"All of this leads to higher crime rates. Both violent and property crimes in Niagara Falls are the highest in the state. It is definitely an area that needs help, and I’m proud of our group for trying to help."
The three mission trips have all worked with an organization called Youthworks which is designed to connect teenagers to God and others through Christ-centered mission trips. There are six priorities that the mission group's week is focused on: youth, communities, respectful service, relationships, diversity and development.
"It is during our Gathering and devotion times that we see and experience God's call to each of us," Myhre said. "It is during our free time that we are building and strengthening our relationships, and it is during our work and drives that we see, hear and talk about how small things can make a difference.”
"I truly believe that our kids are there for these reasons, and being able to travel to an area they have never been to is an added bonus." Following their work days, the group enjoyed visiting the falls and some of the other tourist spots.
"My favorite part of the trip was the Cave of the Winds (a tour in which you wear a hooded raincoat to visit a cave near the foot of the falls in order to see them up close)," said Grace Jeremiason.
"That was so much fun.” "The memory that I will carry with me for the rest of my life was seeing the impact on the people we worked with in the community. No matter how small the task was, the people's reaction was amazing. Their gratefulness was extremely rewarding," she added.
Jackson Jeremiason said he really enjoyed getting to know the others in his group and getting to see the falls in person. "I will always remember seeing the falls and the fireworks over them," he said.
"Also, the night and day difference with the Canada side and the America side (of the falls)." The mission trip would not have been made possible without the willingness of the students and chaperones to assist others, as well as the support of the local communities here. "We are so thankful for all the community support," Myhre said.
"We had over 3,000 'Likes' on our Facebook page. There were so many people that cared what we were doing. The support was just phenomenal." Hope Mission chaperones: Kim Abraham, Heidi Boerboom, Shannon Brewers, Brian Jeremiason, Nancy Krog, Keven Larson, Terri Myhre, Wade Myhre, Cari Pohlen, Nathan Pohlen, Joe Rybinski, Travis Welsh.
Hope Mission students: Landon Abraham, Thomas Belaen, Trevor Belaen, Nolan Boerboom, Hannah Brewers, Brant Buysse, Chloe Davis, Autumn Dovre, Brock Fox, Lizzy Gillingham, Peyton Gillund, Trey Gronke, Tyler Gronke, Devyn Hansen, Abby Hennen, Morgan Hennen, Thomas Hennen, Grace Jeremiason, Jackson Jeremiason, Jared Josephson, Morgan Kockelman, Chase Korman, Jennifer Krog, Megan Krog, Molly Krog, Ava Larson, Sydney Larson, Olivia Mahan-Deitte, Cole Myhre, Tyler Myhre, Elle Pesch, Alex Pohlen, Emily Pohlen, Isaac Pohlen, Blake Reiss, Landon Rolbiecki, Abby Rost, Jeren Rost, Mitchell Rost, Emily Rybinski, Aleksa Sanow, Cole Sanow, Tyler Schmidt, Jada Sterzinger, Tanner Sterzinger, Logan Sussner, Lydia Sussner, Joe Verschelde, Teagan Welsh.