A group from St. John Lutheran left Saturday for southwest Alabama to help with improvement projects and church activities. The group includes (top row, from left) Robin Burkman, Kirk Franck, Larry Kiewel, (second row, from left) Michael Miller, Marcus Giesen, John Karl, Sam Karl, Ricky Fogarty, John Franck, Jonathan Pressley, (third row, from left) Luke Siemon, Aiden Ladd, McKenzie Koepp, Madison Lark, Cassidy Burkman, Ally Ann Fink, Adriana Craswell, Alaina Craswell, Jacob Siemon, Cole Vechinski,  (fourth row, from left) Katelyn Schmit, Emilyn Siemon, Dana Baker, Alyssa Baker, Danielle Hron, Alexander Vechinski,  (bottom row, from left) Andrea Jeurissen, Emily Pintozzi, Danika Schroeder, Torbjor Schroeder and Mary Pesta.
A group from St. John Lutheran left Saturday for southwest Alabama to help with improvement projects and church activities. The group includes (top row, from left) Robin Burkman, Kirk Franck, Larry Kiewel, (second row, from left) Michael Miller, Marcus Giesen, John Karl, Sam Karl, Ricky Fogarty, John Franck, Jonathan Pressley, (third row, from left) Luke Siemon, Aiden Ladd, McKenzie Koepp, Madison Lark, Cassidy Burkman, Ally Ann Fink, Adriana Craswell, Alaina Craswell, Jacob Siemon, Cole Vechinski,  (fourth row, from left) Katelyn Schmit, Emilyn Siemon, Dana Baker, Alyssa Baker, Danielle Hron, Alexander Vechinski,  (bottom row, from left) Andrea Jeurissen, Emily Pintozzi, Danika Schroeder, Torbjor Schroeder and Mary Pesta.
They’ve been told the heat will be excessive, the humidity unbearable. But for a group of youth who left St. John Lutheran Church Saturday and return next weekend, the experience will prove memorable.
A group of 24 youth and a half-dozen adult leaders left Belle Plaine for Bayou La Batre, a city of just over 2,300 residents in southwest Alabama. Almost eight years later, the community still suffers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina past hurricanes and an oil spill that devastated the area’s fragile fishing-dependent economy.
The median income for a household in Bayou La Batre is $24,539.
The per capita income for the city was $9,928. Almost one-fourth of the city’s families live below the poverty line.
By comparison, Belle Plaine’s median household income in 2011 was just over $70,300 with about 3 percent of the people living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The Belle Plaine youth will spend days during their week in Bayou La Batre painting and working on cleanup projects. They’ll also participate in vacation Bible school-like activities during their off hours, said Kirk Franck, one of the organizers and parent leaders of the St. John Lutheran youth group.
For the Belle Plaine youth, the trip is another opportunity to experience youth in less-fortunate parts of the country and share faith, culture and experiences.
Sam Karl, 18, has been on four previous trips -- Denver in 2009, Yakama Wash. in 2010, Niagara Falls, N.Y. in 2011, and Milwaukee, Wis. last summer.
“I started going on mission trips because some kids from my church who went on previous ones said it was really fun. My first mission trip in Denver was a blast and I’ve gone every year since,” he said. “The trips are really fun because you get to go outside of Belle Plaine for a week and make a difference in another community by helping people.”
On these trips, Karl has fed homeless people, worked with kids and senior citizens, painted houses, performed yard work, and helped out at homeless shelters. “Going on these trips, I’ve learned not to take what I have in my life for granted because there is so many people who have it worse out there,” he said.

Staying Power
The lessons are lasting for many of the youth.
“I am a fortunate person for the things I own and the home I have to live in,” said Cole Vechinski, a BPHS senior. “Helping out those who may be homeless or suffering through famine is an amazing moment, especially seeing the smiles from the people I help because I know I made that happen.”
Jacob Siemon, like Karl, is on his fifth trip. While visiting another city was the initial draw, Siemon soon realized he gets as much out of the week as he puts into it.
“The most enjoyable experiences to me are when I can see that we have truly helped a total stranger,” he said. “Spirituality lies within everyone, whether they are religious or not. Throughout the years on these trips, I have learned that it does not matter how another person approaches faith, but if they open their arms to other people, God will help them.”
Ricky Fogarty recalls the New York trip two years ago. He worked with children ages 3-8, playing and reading books. Last year in Milwaukee, he was busy with work around the community.
“I made flower beds for an organic company, cleaned out warehouses, and a few other small jobs,” he said. “I learned a lot about different lifestyles in places suffering from poverty and what the people there have to do to get by everyday. My views on life were altered quite a bit because of the experiences with people at the sites.”
The group left St. John on a coach bus complete with wi-fi. It was a more comfortable ride than van rides the church’s youth previously enjoyed. But for Vechinski, the rides to the city are among the best part of the week.
“We become much closer to each other being able to take a road trip with some people you might not talk to very much at school and by the time you get to the destination they are your new buddy to chill with during downtime at the mission trip site,” he said.