Mes de Misión: A Summer Camp Like No Other

It’s January again, time for this JV to fill her hiking backpack with as many warm clothes as possible. Mes de Misión is about to begin, a grueling mission month in which Jesuit volunteers accompany students from third grade secondary year of Colegio Miguel Pro as they spend part of their summer vacation in service out in the mountain regions of Tacna. 

Students hike down a brick path, carrying wood for the fire.

I remember the summer camp of my childhood – archery, sports, arts and crafts, theatre— fun, educational activities out in the Sequoia National Park. This is not that kind of summer camp. For the next 28 days, my 14 year-old students will wake early, often before daybreak, to cook meals over open fires, swing machetes and pick-axes on local farms, and participate in communal life. 

My students will often give me heart attacks (usually when swinging sharp objects) and I will find myself arguing over some nonsensical subject: “no, you can’t get a ride on a stranger’s motorcycle”; “no, you can’t play soccer when lightning is striking”; “no, you can’t throw machetes up in the air, this isn’t a circus”. 

Students work amidst the eucalyptus trees. One student holds out a short machete as he cuts away at the branches.
Students sharpen their machete skills

We will live communally which means little-to-no private space. The hours are long both in physical labor and in being present to our kiddos. Hot showers aren’t a thing and meals have to be cooked outside in a battle against mother nature. I’m not sure what’s worse, cooking with rain and lightning as the water pours through holes in the roof, or the serious damage to eyes and lungs that eucalyptus smoke can cause. 

A photo of the cooking fires. A pot and a pan sit on top of smoldering fires, with an extra pot filled with cooked french fries to the side.
Lunch for 43 people is no easy task!
Photo by Johnny Maldonado

It’s a rough month. Mes de Misión usually causes the emotional breakdown of at least one Jesuit Volunteer, and we’re technically the caretakers of the students. So what about the kids? Fourteen or fifteen years old, hiking up at high-altitude, swinging a machete for five hours in a eucalyptus grove. Most have never cooked for themselves, have never washed their clothes, let alone stayed away from their families for this long. 

Mes de Misión isn’t a required experience, students have the option of staying home. So why, for more than fifteen years, have the majority of the students in Colegio Miguel Pro participated in this ritual of torture?

These kids spend their January getting to know a different side of their society. They work side by side with many farmers who live hand-to-mouth, beginning their days at 4 in the morning, battling the elements as they try to raise animals and grow crops in this unforgiving landscape.

Three students walk down the road, carrying long pieces of wood for the fire.
Photo by Johnny Maldonado

Many of these students won’t be deeply changed by this experience. They’ll return home and regale their friends and family with stories of how they suffered with the cold, the food, or the work. But there will be those few, maybe three or four who find themselves deeply moved by the power of service. I will spot them helping an old woman carry water, find them in the kitchen chopping potatoes when it isn’t their chore, volunteering to carry wood into a nearby home. These kids will truly live into the experience, observing the sufferings within the community, and working side by side with the citizens of this tiny pueblo in order to build a more hopeful future. 

Students clear out the ditches on the side of the road. In the foreground, an asesor uses a shovel to scoop out dirt, rocks and debris.

Remember yourself at fourteen. Was there a moment in which you participated in service for a whole long month? Was it within your community?

Students and I cleaning out another ditch. A wheel barrow sits next to the ditch, half-filled with dirt and debris. A student looks down at us while we work while he waits by the wheelbarrow.
Photo by Johnny Maldonado

It has become quite common in the U.S. to do volunteer service during high school and college. Often it is only for a few weeks or days, usually it is for resumé purposes, many times it is an abroad experience. We often look to societies beyond our own and think: “Look at how many problems they have! I’m sure I can bring something, contribute something, make change.” Many of us in the U.S. have forgotten to look and see if there are needs within our own backyard. 

That’s what makes Mes de Misión so special. These students don’t need to travel beyond the borders of their region to do service and the month that they spend in the sierra is an eye-opening experience where they can begin to recognize injustices and inequality within their own society. 

Mes de Misión changes you.

It forces you to see your home in a new light, it makes you ask yourself if you can stand by or if you feel inspired to get involved. I can easily say that the volunteer work I did in high school in a nearby migrant community was the starting point for the path that led to where I am today. And I can see this same magic happening in these handful of students moved by service in the little town of Estique Pueblo

For those of you reading stateside, if you find yourself thinking, “This is great, but there is no way of getting involved in my city,” I encourage you to take another look.

Be with the people. 

Get to know your community a little more, step beyond your comfort zone and see a maybe not-so-pretty side of the place where you live. It’s one thing to donate money or material possessions, it’s quite another to put your hands to the earth, to feel the blisters break out in the very same places as the hands of those you have come to help. I encourage you to go out and meet the people on the margins of your city. Get to know them. You’ll end up learning a lot more about your home and even yourself. 

Three students walk down a brick path leading from the cemetery. A landscape of mountains and trees in the background.

Some highlights from Mes de Misión 2019

A group of students in the back of a truck. One student at the front points out to something in the distance.
Our transportation to work, used when the task was too far to walk, served as our escape vehicle when hail storms struck.
A view from the second floor down to the first where students rest on mattresses and make friendship bracelets.
Students enjoying some downtime in the common space.
Photo by Johnny Maldonado
Students huddle at the back of the building and look out, leaning over the railing and watching the lightning in the distance.
Students and asesores watching lightning strike for the first time in their lives.

If you find yourself inspired, or know a teen who’d love to help out, the following sources might be helpful: 

Find your local habitat: Habitat for Humanity

Get involved in education: School on Wheels

Inspire future writers: 826 National

Need some inspiration? Try:

… And a little shameless plug, JVC also does work within the U.S.! 

Originally published at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s