Senegal trip changes teen

November 1, 2012

By Christina Corrales-Toy

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When Newcastle resident Diego Moreno returned from his two-week trip to Senegal in August, his mother, Hortensia Moreno, noticed that he was different.

The 16-year-old was more helpful around the house, he took care of his younger sibling without any qualms and he hugged his mother a little bit tighter.

“He changed,” Hortensia said. “It touched his life very deeply.”

Newcastle resident Diego Moreno crouches down in a cell that used to hold slaves during the height of the West African slave trade on Goree Island, just off the coast of Senegal.

Diego visited Senegal through the YMCA’s Global Teen Program. The purpose of the two-week trip was to allow local teens to explore the roots of African American history and experience a foreign culture. The visit put strong emphasis on social issues, cultural education and community service.

Last summer, Diego visited South Korea through the program. But the Senegal trip, he said, was different because of the poverty he witnessed in the country.

“My trip to Senegal was really eye opening,” he said. “In Africa, it was shocking to see how different it is, from such a poor community to a pretty rich economy here in the United States. It made me have more respect for the things that I have.”

On the trip, Diego and a small group of students from the Seattle area completed various community service projects, including picking up trash on a beach.

The students were housed with host families where the group got an up-close-and-personal look at the local culture.

“It was impressive to see how giving and happy they are, just with the few things they have,” Diego said.

In particular, Diego said he was shocked by the way local youths maintained a positive attitude, despite their lack of material belongings.

“The kids there, I saw them play with just trash and bottles, and they were so happy with each other,” he said. “I thought they would be kind of sad and just disappointed at how they live, but they are so happy. I was just amazed.”

He was also impressed by the work ethic of the local citizens.

“They work hard every single day, just to get food for one day, and it just shows me how they appreciate life,” he said. “They’ll do whatever they can do to be happy.”

The whole experience changed Diego’s perspective on life. It made him truly appreciate the opportunities he is afforded as an American, he said, especially when he heard his host family speak hopefully about the American dream.

“The United States is really free and there are so many opportunities,” he said. “We should try and take as many opportunities as we can, because it’s one of the few places in the world where there are no limits to what you can do. You can really be whatever you want to be.”

The best part of the trip, Diego said, was a visit to Goree Island, a former hub of West African slave trading. The small island located off the coast of Senegal is the site of a slave house where an estimated 20 million Africans passed through during the height of the slave trade.

“It was really sad and tragic to learn what happened there, how the people were treated there,” he said. “But it was really great and important to learn about it too.”

Through his global experiences, Diego said he has found a personal calling to help others, which he hopes to instill among his peers.

“It changed me in a way that made me want to help people more because I don’t like seeing people not have enough money to go to the doctor, or not even have food for a day,” he said. “It just makes me want to do more for my society here, to do whatever I can to help other people.”

While Hortensia said that her son has always had a caring soul, she appreciated the change she saw in him after the trip.

“It means a lot to me,” she said. “He noticed that even if you don’t have a lot of money, you can be happy.”

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