Grandmother offers unique opportunity to grandchildren

IN MARCH, a group from the Madison United Methodist Church joined a Solar Oven Partners mission team for a trip to the Dominican Republic. The group included (left) Mya Maxwell, her grandmother Patty Phillips, her sister Bella Maxwell and her cousin Anna Gross.

Some grandmothers go shopping with their granddaughters. Others take them to the Dominican Republic -- but not for a vacation. Patty Phillips took 18-year-old Mya Maxwell, 16-year-old Bella Maxwell and 14-year-old Anna Gross on a mission trip.

"It seemed like God was nudging me to take my granddaughters," Phillips explained.

Phillips had previously made two mission trips through the Madison United Methodist Church with Solar Oven Partners, a mission that seeks to improve the quality of life for families by helping them to save money on cooking fuel. The money saved can then be used to improve nutrition or for the children's education.

As she prepared to make a third trip, Phillips felt prompted to invite her granddaughters to go with her. Two of the three were immediately receptive to the idea. Bella was apprehensive about missing 10 days of school but soon realized she wanted to go as well.

For the teens, it was a life-altering experience. In a report to her church, Mya described the deep sadness she experienced upon landing in the States after working with people in the mountains of that Caribbean nation.

"My time spent there was filled with hard work, gross hotel rooms, hot and humid weather, and freezing cold showers," she wrote. "But the people there were friendly and greeted others with genuine smiles and warm welcomes. They even jumped in to help us build the ovens, to the point where they'd take the hammer out of your hand. We will never forget our time in the Dominican Republic, as it forever changed our hearts and lives."

While they were gone, the state and the nation changed as well. When they left on March 6, COVID-19 had not yet touched South Dakota.

"There was one case in the Dominican Republic and that was an Italian who had traveled," Phillips said.

When they returned on March 16, the Dominican Republic had more than two dozen cases and life in South Dakota had changed. Schools were closed, nursing homes had visitor restrictions, and the governor had issued an executive order allowing state employees to work remotely. The number of positive cases was still relatively low, but there had already been one death.

"I was worried the U.S. wouldn't let us back in," Phillips said.

During the intervening days, they coped with the inconveniences of cheap lodging in a country where more than 40% of the people live in poverty and 7% suffer from chronic under-nutrition. They shared with a team of 12 people from across South Dakota the joys of bringing a relatively inexpensive cooking tool to people for whom meal preparation can be a financial hardship. In two different communities, they built solar ovens and held classes which demonstrated how the ovens worked.

"There's a minister that signs people up in villages," Phillips explained. "They have to pay a little bit so there's a sense of ownership."

Generally, both men and women attend the workshops. The men usually help to build the solar ovens, which are designed to provide a free source of fuel. Solar radiation is directed by reflective surfaces to strike a dark surface which produces heat that is trapped by transparent window glazing, cooking a meal in two to three hours.

While the men are constructing the ovens that participants will take home, the women are learning how to use them by preparing the noon meal with team members.

"They don't get an oven and then go home and say, `Now, what do I do with it'?" Phillips said.

Because the meals take several hours to cook, preparation begins early. However, the range of foods that can be prepared in an oven is so diverse the meals included variety.

"We had chicken and rice and potatoes and chocolate cake -- just a wonderful meal," Phillips shared. They also made French bread at one of the workshops as well as banana bread.

While in the Dominican Republic, she heard a firsthand account of the way in which owning a solar oven can help a family. A woman who had purchased an oven when an earlier team visited the area talked about having a mere $100 with which to purchase food, propane -- which is expensive in the mountains -- and other family necessities. She put some propane in the tank because she was accustomed to using it for cooking, but also began to use her solar oven.

Later, when she again had money, she purchased propane as habit dictated and discovered she did not need to spend much.

"She could not believe how much propane she had left because she was using her solar oven," Phillips said.

Stories like that helped her to appreciate the importance of the work they were doing.

While the satisfaction she derived from working with the Dominican people made the mission trip rewarding for Phillips, watching her granddaughters at work doubled the blessing. She was gratified when others on the trip were equally impressed with them.

One team member told her: "I can see God in those girls."

"He thought they showed a great attitude," Phillips said.

She observed this herself. Mya helped to build the ovens.

"Pretty soon she was working with teenaged boys, showing them how to do it," Phillips recalled. "Bella loves to cook, so she was working with the ladies."

Anna, too, worked with the workshop participants.

"It was fun to see them partake with such a great attitude," Phillips noted.

She was also pleased with how well her granddaughters interacted with the children. One of the workshops was canceled as a result of an uncharacteristic rain. What could have been a disaster proved to be an opportunity for the girls and a college student on the team to spend time in the elementary and high schools.

Through an interpreter, they had what Mya described as "a scintillating conversation" that resulted in "a real connection between the students of the Dominican school and the `Americano' students." The Dominican students were also attracted to Anna's long blonde hair.

"Immediately, they wanted to braid that hair," Phillips said.

In looking back at the experience, she is filled with gratitude. She is grateful they could help families there. At the first workshop, they gave away 38 solar ovens and at the second over 50. She is grateful she had the opportunity to share the incredible experience with her granddaughters.

But, she is also grateful that she answered the call to serve God in that way.

"I had the great satisfaction of knowing I can serve God right here in our community, but I can also go on a mission trip and serve in that way," Phillips said.