In what could be called a micro version of East meeting West, a group of Utah teens arrived back home Saturday safe and sound and changed forever by a 16-day stay in one of the poorest corners of the world — West Bengal, India.
Many were sporting intricate tattoos on their hands and forearms — done in henna and hand-painted on by the students, and nowhere near as lasting as the memories they said they will carry with them the rest of their lives.
"It's not permanent," Highland High School senior Nate Kingsford assured onlookers as they checked out the array of little hash marks on his left hand. "It's their way of making sure we don't forget them. This will fade away, but the experiences and the people there won't."
Neither Kingsford nor his 23 student companions were anywhere near weary when they arrived, despite a trip home that had begun about three days earlier.
As the hugs and high-fives subsided, several students said they doubt they will ever be all the way back and that they are as surprised as anyone that a place where people have dirt for floors, where water is carried in buckets and most everyone literally has next to nothing could have given them so much.
Rachel Rawlings' favorite memory — even more than having a monkey in her hut that stole the beef jerky the first night — is the little sisters she left behind.
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"I had no idea how attached I'd actually become to these kids," she said. "I didn't want to leave them because I feel like they are my new family. It was heart-wrenching to see every single girl at the school in tears."
She and others shed more than a few tears as well.
"Building a connection is what this is all about," said Robert Baird, founder of Youth Making A Difference cultural exchange organization that arranged the visit, which he said was a year in the making and paid for in part by the participants.
"The kids studied and found out everything they could about this part of India, but there's nothing that compares to seeing it in person," Baird said. "When you can have this kind of trip early in life, something happens or clicks on inside you, you'll continue to do it the rest of your life," he said. "A few didn't believe me, but they do now."
The trip is difficult in every way, many that kids haven't even thought of, Baird said. It's so far away and just plain hard work, "but to to see the good they do and the good that comes to the kids who do it, it's many times more than worth it."
The teens were divided in teams focusing on culture, education, art and language. They had practiced for several months learning Hindi and were mentors to about 200 young girls in four different village schools.
They taught them math, science, English, health, art and physical fitness — all routine subjects back home but in scarce supply to young girls in India who Baird said are regarded as something less than second-class citizens, eking out their living helping to sew rugs.
Add grinding poverty to that social indifference, and anything anyone can do — even a bunch of high school kids who are unsure at times they can stand even two weeks of that life — can make a huge and even lasting difference, he said.
"The kids were so amazing," Kingsford said. "I just couldn't get over how they had nothing, absolutely nothing, and they gave us so much. I'll never forget it, and I'm going back. Got to."