BACOLOD, Philippines -- As many high school graduates head to college this fall, a growing number take a year off instead. It's called a "gap year" and some of America's top universities support it.
This is the story of three 19-year-olds who recently took the global journey of a lifetime, deciding to live for almost a year outside their comfort zones.
Meet the Teens
Lainey Douglass is from Amarillo, Texas.
"God totally broke down every part of me, every inch of me," she recalled. "Dear Jesus, I just thank you so much for this day. Thank you so much for the way that you've provided for us throughout this trip."
Kristen Hendrix is from Norman, Okla.
"I have grown up in a Christian home, in a Christian school to where that's all I've been surrounded with, so I wasn't ever able to ever truly make my faith my own until this year on gap year," she said.
And Kara Crenshaw is from Jackson, Tenn.
"After high school I was just kind of like tired of being in a classroom. You know you are in a classroom for 13 years and then you are expected to go to college right after that. I wanted to get out and see the world while I could," she explained.
The teenagers signed up with Camp Kivu, a Colorado-based Christian organization that encourages students to take a year off of school in between high school and college.
This gap year trend is growing in America. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are among the champions of these experiences.
"I think the gap between high school and college is a time where a student is for the first time leaving their home and beginning to own whatever it is they are truly going to be," Luke Parrott, who directs Camp Kivu's gap year program, said.
Six adventures. Six countries. Three continents.
"You're going to be given an opportunity to see the world like you've never seen it before. And you're not going to have a chance to go see the world this way when you reach college and then complete, and then look for a job thereafter," Parrott said.
"We tell students that you are making an investment for a year that's going to last a lifetime in reward," he said.
It all starts with orientation week
"We sit in this little valley in between two mountains with a river running through it. They are taken to all different corners of southwest Colorado and the beautiful San Juan Mountains just to backpack, rock climb, to mountain bike. But in the mornings we take them through a worldview curriculum," Parrott said.
The curriculum's called the Institute.
"In the Institute, our students walk through what they believe, why they believe it, then how to understand to behave in the world of what it means to be a teenager in America and then how they belong to the world around them," he described.
More than 10,000 young people have enrolled in Camp Kivu since 1996.
"We are trying to change an entire youth culture by offering them a chance to see the world in a different way and really by teaching them how to follow Jesus and how to do that by loving God and loving others," Parrott said.
The Denver Girls
The gap year began for the girls on the streets of Denver.
"My internship was working with homeless teens," Crenshaw said.
For nearly three months they partnered with a Christian ministry teaching at-risk students and reaching those on the margins of society. All three faced resistance at home about taking the year off.
"I heard from my dad all the time saying how it wasn't going to be safe for me. He wanted to keep me close to home and he was really worried about my protection," Hendrix said.
"Then I got it from my peers saying to me that I would be behind a year in school and they really didn't understand why I was doing this," she added.
"There was definitely times, especially when I saw all my friends going off to college, there was the doubt in my mind like, 'What am I doing?'" Crenshaw said.
But all three said they wouldn't have it any other way. In the end, they wanted to push themselves out of their comfort zones.
"I was rolling through the motions of life and I wanted out of that," Douglass said. "I wanted to be challenged and be put through trials and want to learn, but not learn out of a book."
That challenge came next in Haiti -- where they worked with an organization feeding more than 8,000 school children each day.
In between visits to orphanages, food distribution, and medical outreaches, the three had plenty of other projects that kept them busy.
"I think living in America we live in a bubble and so it's so hard to see what the real world is even like. But coming and discovering the world for myself has just shown me how big this world is and how big of a God we serve," Hendrix said.
For the next few months, they traveled thousands of miles, stopping in the African countries of Rwanda and Tanzania, serving with local Christian partners all along the way.
"We believe that when you take students to the margins of the world, you'll see God present the most," Parrott said. "Our students are learners. The classroom is the culture and the marginalized communities. Their professors are actually these people they've come to serve."
The Great Climb
The girls also had the chance to climb Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest mountain.
"This is the night that we summit," Hendrix exclaimed, while sitting in a tent the night before the climb to the summit. "How's everybody feeling?"
"I'm slightly terrified actually," an apprehensive Crenshaw said.
"I'm freaking out, man! I'm freaking out," Douglass shouted.
Reaching the 19,340-foot summit proved to be a spiritual experience for Crenshaw.
"While you are climbing it you realize how small you are. And then you think about the God that created that mountain and how much bigger He is than that mountain, how infinite He is and how amazing it is that we get to serve a God that is limitless," she said.
Then There Was India
Their next destination: India. A bustling country with more than a billion people and with extreme levels of poverty. All three said India was the hardest as they ministered among the poor.
Douglass was especially moved by the perseverance of Indian Christians who routinely face persecution because of their faith.
"I've always been in a shelter in America where freedom of religion just exists and God took me in that moment and grasped me and He humbled me and showed me that I shouldn't take freedom of religion for granted again," she said.
Their final destination took them to remote Philippine villages where the girls taught on health and wellness programs.
It began almost eight months ago on the streets of Denver, Colo. From there the girls went to Haiti, Rwanda, Tanzania, India, and finally to the villages of Philippines.
For the girls it has been a life-changing experience, an opportunity to understand the depth of God's love for them but also for the people who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ.
No Ordinary Life
"The last eight months on gap year has brought me closer to God because I've seen Him work in my life and work in other's lives so clearly," Crenshaw said.
"Never once in the Bible does it talk about an ordinary life," Douglass said. "Being a living sacrifice it's messy, it's hard, it's dirty," she continued.
"I tell every person that I get a chance to, to do gap year," Hendrix said. "I want people to experience the same joy and the same compassion that I've learned throughout this gap year. I want them to experience the same thing."
Their gap year program ended recently with a graduation ceremony back in Colorado. All three start college in a few weeks.
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