Joanna Epp, a first-year environmental science major from Newton, Kan., and Hannah Sauder, a first-year art and education major from Lititz, Pa., took a gap year after they graduated from high school to serve in South Africa as volunteers with Radical Journey, a program under Mennonite Mission Network.

In 2011, the volunteers of Radical Journey had a choice to serve in different countries around the world, including England, China, Paraguay and South Africa. Epp and Sauder were among a group of 14 young adults who signed up to take part in the program. They were both motivated by a strong desire to learn a different culture, but they chose South Africa for personal reasons.

Sauder was born in southern Botswana, where her parents served as teachers in a local Bushmen community.

“My parents worked under Mennonite Central Committee at a preschool in a rural village called Ghanzi,” Sauder said. “They stayed there for three years and I was born there and lived there for two years.”

Sauder vaguely remembers her early childhood in Ghanzi, including wearing only bibs and playing in the sand with other naked kids. Though she does not remember much about growing up in Botswana, she said she feels that she still belongs to that part of the world.

Epp was not born in Africa, but her parents lived in South Africa for six months in 1990.

“My parents always talk about their amazing experience in South Africa, and I put going there on my bucket list,” Epp said.

The other main reason Sauder and Epp signed up for the program was to accomplish something great in the name of their home churches. “I wanted to experience another culture, learn responsibilities and life skills and serve the people and learn from them,” Sauder added.

Both teenagers knew it would not be easy. After a short orientation training that lasted 10 days in Chicago, they headed for the unknown.

“Before the departure, South Africa came into my dreams many times,” Sauder said. “Sometimes it was scary and sometimes it was wonderful.”

For over 10 months, Sauder and Epp lived with host families and worked in Pietermaritzburg, a shanty town in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Epp had three different jobs. “I spent my weekdays doing office work at an international environmental NGO called A Rocha, at a clinic called Masibumbani and at a seminary library,” she said. Sauder ran a children’s club through the local church and Breakthru Church International, an NGO which takes care of children affected by HIV/AIDS.

If Sauder and Epp have something in common, it is their love and care for disabled and orphaned children. During their stay in South Africa, they developed a close friendship with the young children they helped. Sauder still keeps photographs of the children in her dorm room. Some of the children smile happily, and some of them play with new toys they had probably never seen before. A mix of nostalgia and sadness slow Sauder’s voice as she points out a smiling young child in one of the photographs. “He’s my angel. His name is Shafi.”

South Africa is a country where HIV/AIDS is a prominent health concern. According to a World Health Organization report, 57 percent of the people who died in South Africa in 2002 and 2003 were killed by HIV/AIDS.

Like many of the children from the center where Sauder worked, Shafi’s parents died of HIV/AIDS. Now he relies on the NGO created by the church to provide him with basic life necessities. Most importantly, he relies on volunteers like Sauder to give him a special attention and love that his parents were not around to give. That is how Sauder and Shafi became very close friends, and that is why Sauder still prays for him from her dorm room far from South Africa.

Sauder and Epp also raised money to organize a Christmas meal for the orphan kids. “It was amazing, the children were so happy,” Sauder said. “They never had a Christmas with a lot of presents and food like the one [we] offered.”

In spite of the differences between the charismatic church in South Africa and the Mennonite one here in North America, Epp and Sauder were received as fellow Christians and treated as such. “I worshiped with my church members as they do,” Epp said. “It was amazing and different, but it all came down to one thing: the eternal search for God.”

This experience in South Africa connects Sauder and Epp with Goshen College core values of Christ centeredness and global citizenship. “Everything I am learning at GC reinforces my convictions that we can make the world a better place by being open-minded and sharing the Christ love with fellow Christians, no matter their origins or denominations,” Sauder explained.

Now they are looking forward to going on Study-Service Term their junior year, but regret that they cannot do it in South Africa.

“I would absolutely do it again,” Epp said. “It was not always easy, but it was an incredible experience.”