The academy, a small, nondenominational school, was founded as an alternative to Chicago Public Schools. It accepts high school students from all over the city.
With the help of Youth With A Mission (YWAM), an international volunteer movement of Christians from many backgrounds, cultures and Christian traditions, Chicago Hope Academy took 25 seniors and eight leaders on this trip. The goal of the trip was to take students out of their comfort zones, while also introducing them to other cultures.
“You have kids, in an extreme example, who live 10 minutes south of the city and have never seen the lake,” said Stephen Pagh. Pagh, 26, is a teacher at the school and also a leader on the trip.
The students were supposed to raise $350 on their own, while Bob Muzikowski, the founder of the school, raised the rest of the trip’s expenses from private donors.
For many of the students, this was the first time that they had ever owned a passport, as well as traveled outside the United States. Pagh said the challenge was getting the students to unplug from their daily lives and totally engage in the trip.
“When we got to the airport, we took all of the kids’ cell phones away, which helped,” said Pagh.
The primary goal while in Ensenada was to help rebuild homes for three families. The students and leaders split into three teams for the week, each working on one family’s home.
“Ensenada is dirt poor,” said Fred Ellis. Ellis, 24, is an administrator at the school and a leader on the trip. “It’s not quite like Africa, but these peoples’ houses are built out of just tin and a garage door.”
Pagh and Ellis compared the homes for the families to the average size of just one American garage.
Ensenada is in the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico, just 78 miles from San Diego. It has a population of nearly 280,000 people. According to the CIA, 18 percent of people in Mexico live beneath the food-based poverty line, while more than 47 percent live below the asset-based poverty line. Many of the families in Ensenada live below this line.
One of the most emotional parts of the trip took place when the families were given the keys to their new homes.
“The people we built the house for were crying when we gave them the keys for their houses, and their houses were only a tenth the size of mine,” said Torrance Johnson, 17.
Johnson said he was nervous about taking the trip. He was afraid that because he wasn’t able to speak Spanish and had never taken part in building a house, he wouldn’t enjoy the trip. He said he wanted to stay home and play video games with his friends rather than go.
“The trip was an amazing experience,” said Johnson. “It had a huge impact on me and made me realize that I have a lot more going for me than I think. Having the reward of the trip be to provide for this family for years to come was a different thing and something that I feel good about.”
The finals two days were spent debriefing at Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. The time was spent relaxing and reflecting as a group on the week they had spent in Ensenada.
Chicago Hope Academy is a private, non-denominational, college and life preparatory school. It is located on the southwest side of Chicago on Bowler Street near the intersection of Roosevelt and Ogden Road.