By Merrie Sue Holtan
Photography by Janssen Photography
The five young men gathered around the conference table. They thought, reflected, commented, and shared how the global experience had transformed them and their faith. All five seniors graduated from Hillcrest Academy in Fergus Falls this spring. All five played for the successful 23-5 Hillcrest Comets basketball team, who nearly made it to the state tournament.
“Except for that game against Battle Lake,” says one of the players, almost smiling, “We would have been there.” The sport, stats and season seemed insignificant, however, as they looked back on their senior trip to the Dominican Republic taken shortly after their season ended.
Coach Gregg Makes It Happen
Every year, boys’ basketball coach and history teacher, Gregg Preston, organizes a senior trip to Hillcrest’s sister school, Ebenezer, Santa Fe, Dominican Republic. This year’s trip, open to the entire senior class, had 21 seniors (out of 43) and 10 adult chaperones. The annual living history trip grows from Gregg’s love of coaching, faith, service, and teaching.
“This trip has been a real eye-opener,” Gregg says. “It gives me, our faculty and students a chance to see beyond, to see with new eyes what we have and our responsibility to others. The trip gives students understanding and they in turn give water, food, and share the Gospel with dignity.”
The entire community, families and relatives step up to help students raise funds for the trip. Businesses such as Nelson Ford sponsor a ‘drive for your school’ campaign to raise funds expressly for Ebenezer.
Gregg, who has been at Hillcrest for 26 years, began his vocational journey at University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, and later earned his master’s degree in European History at NDSU. He coached basketball at U-W Eau Claire and Eleva-Strum High School in Wisconsin before coming to Hillcrest. He wraps his day around topics such as European History, especially the Italian Renaissance to the present, American History, the last century, Classic Greek and Roman History, the Philosophy of Religion, Sociology, and Advanced Placement European History classes. Then, in season, he hits the basketball court for practice and games.
The trips became much more personal for Gregg, however, when eight years ago, he and his wife, Marie, adopted an 11-year-old girl, Susana, from Chihuahua, Mexico, to join their three biological children, Tony (19, currently serving as a missionary and learning Spanish in Ecuador), Daniel and Gabriel. He says it was a long and difficult process to adopt Susana and explains that she is from the ancient Tarahumara tribe in northern Mexico.
“We first began taking student trips to Mexico and worked in orphanages, soup kitchens, schools and poor neighborhoods through the organization Christian Outreach International, in the Chihuahua area,” Gregg says. “For safety and political reasons in Mexico, we switched to the Dominican Republic seven years ago.”
Team Impact – Micah, Jared, Evan, Jee Hoon, Jacob
Come fall, the five young men gathered around that conference table are heading in separate directions.
Micah Jones will head to Northwestern in St. Paul, Jared Christenson to M-State Moorhead, Evan Malmstrom, to Alexandria Technical College, Jee Hoon Park, to Penn State University in State College, and Jacob Isaac to Grand Canyon University in Arizona. They have been bonded by basketball and sealed by the impact of the Gospel and the Dominican trip. The boys tell about meeting once a week for two months to prepare and bone up on their bible curriculum and Spanish so they were ready to share with the Dominican schools and communities.
“We wanted to be able to deliver the message respectfully, “Micah says. “For example, we learned discussion starters. We found the Dominicans open and more than willing to discuss and share their feelings about life and death.”
The team traveled as a group to about three places per day. They found the orphanage for the disabled children to be especially difficult emotionally.
“Many of the children were not really orphans,” Jared says. “Parents could not care for them, so brought them to the orphanage. We helped to feed the kids, take care of them and just be a presence.”
Jee Hoon could see the happiness and joy the children found in little things, and says it’s easy for us to feel sorry for ourselves. He saw the children themselves showing empathy for each other, as they pulled in other disabled children who were left out to be closer to the boys.
“The nursing home was yet a different experience,” says Jee Hoon. “We sang with them, and one guy just wouldn’t stop singing.”
“These 80-90 year olds were brought here because no one could care for them,” Isaac says. “I remember the older women offering us seats and the incredible joy with dancing and singing. One blind man could recite any bible verse by memory.”
Every night the group debriefed during devotions giving them a sense of unity in God’s calling for the whole trip. As an “extra” to the entire trip, Evan and Jee Hoon were baptized in the Caribbean Sea.
Of course pick-up basketball showed up on the schedule, and the team delivered basketball nets for the school.
“We played outside the place we stayed,” Isaac says. “It was a chance to play ball, connect with the 25 or so teen boys who showed up, be kind and love them. We know that winning is not the most important thing, but the joy we have is to serve and honor God.”
Overall, the boys observed how excellent the Dominican girls were at softball and the boys at baseball.
“Bat and ball sports rule there,” Jared says. “We brought bats and balls with us as well as shoes, food and extra money to provide staples for one month where we visited.”
The Hillcrest team stayed in a guest house with one dormitory style sleeping room for men and one for women. An on-site caretaker provided for all their meals.
“There weren’t too many amenities,” Evan says. “Lots of cold showers and a battle of roosters early every morning.”
The group also visited a state-run Haitian refugee immigrant camp, which provided low income labor for the sugar cane fields. The boys saw 6 and 7–year-old children taking care of the babies, a culture that had been corrupted, and many people who had lost hope.
“It was a bit discouraging to visit with the people, and hear they wanted to live their lives as they wanted it now, and worry about faith later in life,” Micah says. “We wanted to bring them hope.”
Return to Minnesota
Since returning to Fergus Falls, the traveling team has shared for chapel services at the school and also given presentations at local churches, youth groups, and businesses that supported them. The boys remember the love the Dominicans showed them, and it made them think how they can reach out and form new relationships in their own Minnesota community. They agree it was more than a mission trip, where “when it’s over it’s over,” like they had gone bungee jumping or something. It’s a commitment to not letting “the least of these” fall through the cracks.
“In your spirit you know there’s a difference,” Joon Hee says.
Hillcrest Superintendent, Jeff Isaac, who also traveled with the team, says Ebenezer School has also seen a transformation over the years.
“It used to be a ratty, falling down building, with dirt roads, where they didn’t own the school land,” Jeff says. “Now five years later they own the land, have concrete buildings and the pastor and family there are transforming young lives. The government has taken notice and is paving their roads and building a public school nearby to follow the successful Ebenezer model, which models itself after Hillcrest. We are also partnering to bring wells and clean water to the area.”
“It’s a very compelling land, vibrant and interactive,” says Coach Gregg. “We really want to invest in people and encourage them to live as God intended them to live.”