It was the first night of Workcamp. Some 400 high school students and their adult leaders gathered in the auditorium for our evening program. I was serving as the MC, and I waited backstage for my cue to come on.
The theme that year was “Ignite the Light.” We talked about the different uses of “light” in the Bible, and we used that metaphor throughout our programming, too. So for fun, the first night, we decided to light up a disco ball and play some disco music. Then I’d come charging out with a big ol’ 70’s style afro wig on and do some wild disco moves. The point of this craziness? To show how God’s light sometimes appears in surprising ways. (Plus it would be a good rowdy crowd-pleaser the first night.)
So backstage I waited…giggling to myself at how much fun this would be…and I heard my cue from the Music Leader…the disco ball lit up…the cheesy disco music played…and I went charging out on stage!
And ran my forehead smack into the cross.
I hit it hard, too. I’m sure there’s an illustration in there about not seeing the cross and being whacked by it. But at the time all I knew was a bright flash of light in my head. I made an audible noise. And then realized where I was. So I went ahead and performed my dorky disco moves while the youth cheered.
Apparently they hadn’t seen me crack my head — they were looking over at the disco ball on the other side of the stage. By the time they noticed me and my big wig, the forehead vs. cross incident was over. But during a break I got an ice bag and put it on my aching head. It was so red, and it hurt so bad I held the ice on during the whole program. As the days progressed the welt swelled up and turned ugly dark colors (think: Klingon). A couple nurses were present, so they checked me out and pronounced me healthy but dumb.
And I lived.
While most people won’t get hurt that way on a mission trip, there are plenty of other ways for kids to get hurt. Mission trips involving construction have ladders, rusty nails, circular saws, roofs to fall off of, and all sorts of dangers. Non-construction mission trips have their own dangers to be concerned about. International trips might have you dealing with unsafe drinking water or disease. You could be serving in high-crime areas or remote areas with little access to emergency medical care. And of course, you’re taking teenagers who seem to have a knack for getting hurt.
At our camps, the number one cause of injuries are people goofing around at the lodging facility.
If you haven’t noticed it already, you soon will. Parents are extremely concerned about the safety of their children. More and more churches are passing strict safety guidelines with requirements such as the kind of vehicles you travel in and the number of adults who must be present. You probably didn’t sign on for this, but managing the safety of your young people is one of your top concerns.
So here are a few tips to help you take home the same number of teenagers you take with you on your mission trip, with all their parts intact and working…
1. Use medical forms for each person. Know who has asthma, who can’t have penicillin, and who’s allergic to cottage cheese. Know who’s got what medicine and when they have to take it. Also, because of HIPPA laws, you’re required to keep this information private and not share it with anyone who doesn’t need to know. The other adults on your trip need to be aware of this. Keep the forms with you at all times. If someone needs to go to the hospital, take the medical form along.
2. Take a well-stocked first-aid kit. In every church I served, there was always at least one person who thrilled at the idea of managing the first-aid kit. It’s a good job to delegate to another adult. Make sure you have plenty of bandages, wraps, topical ointments, and everything else. Some items expire after a certain length of time…keep it all up to date.
3. Recruit good adults, and screen them and train them. At our organization, most major issues we encounter during our trips are related to adults, not the youth. For some adults, the stress of a mission trip with teenagers is too much, and they can’t handle it. You can’t afford to take warm bodies, you need good people. While some denominations these days seem to think adding more adults is the best way to reduce the risk of misconduct with young people, I believe a smaller amount of adults increases the quality of care your young people receive and reduces the likelihood of taking adults who don’t “get it.” One adult for every five students is fine. Do a national background check on all adults. If you take an adult with a history of child abuse, and that adult offends on your trip, not only does the young person suffer, but you and your church can expect a hefty lawsuit. Meet with the adults frequently before the trip, and train them on your expectations and how best to care for the young people. Set clear expectations of what the trip will be like.
4. Use a reputable organization concerned about your teens’ safety. Using a third-party provider to manage the logistics and details of your trip not only saves you a lot of hassle, it also increases the safety for your group. A good organization will have your group’s well-being in mind and plan for things like secuirty, emergency management, and safety training. You should be able to tell right away from an organization’s website how they handle safety issues. If you’re not sure, call and ask. Or ask someone else who’s used that organization before.
5. Set the rules and enforce them. Youth don’t like lights-out and staying together with the group, but they’ll like getting hurt or lost a lot less. If you’re doing construction work, rules about good shoes, eye protection, and dust masks (for scraping lead-based paint) will keep everyone healthy and happy. Minors are not permitted by law to operate slicers and power saws, either. Being a stickler for the rules won’t be what you like most, but it’s part of caring for your teens.
6. You and your adults are the chief safety officers. Be alert for safety issues at all times. This isn’t only when you’re serving, but it also includes traveling to your destination and playing together. If you ever have even one iota of concern in a situation, intervene immediately.
Mission trips can be safe and exciting adventures to serve others and grow closer to God. But be smart.
And here’s another bonus — the more you demonstrate to parents how their children’s safety is your highest concern, the more credibility and support you get from them.
And watch out for that cross.
Doc Newcomb is a pastor, youth pastor, and Program Manager for Group Workcamps Foundation, a non-profit organization that provides a variety of short-term mission opportunities for church youth groups. Contact Doc at firstname.lastname@example.org