University of Georgia sophomore Rebeka Geer found herself in a slump last fall, and when classes let out at the end of December she boarded a plane bound for Africa.
She hoped three weeks spent working in a Tanzanian orphanage and another week climbing Mount Kilimanjaro would lift her spirits — and she was right.
"I went because I felt so small, and then I climbed the highest peak in Africa," Geer recently told the Catholic Courier. "I felt really proud of myself and ready to start the new year."
Geer, 19, is no stranger to hardship. Her family moved to Auburn from Texas when she was in third grade, and her family joined Holy Family Parish. Her mother struggled with alcoholism, however, and when Geer was in eighth grade she and her younger brother, Josh, were placed in foster care.
Geer worked hard to maintain good grades and be liked by everyone she knew. That way, she thought, no one who heard she was in foster care would actually believe it was true. She also tried her best to stay strong for her brother, even as their months in foster care dragged on.
"My ninth-grade year I was in foster care. After that I lived with five different families. I just kind of bounced around," Geer recalled.
Geer’s mother eventually terminated her parental rights, and Josh, now 16, was recently adopted by a family in Red Creek. Upon graduation from high school in 2009, Geer earned a full scholarship to the University of Georgia and has been living down South ever since. She keeps busy and supports herself by working as a waitress when she’s not in class, but the holidays still are tough, she said.
"My scholarship money pays for me to live on campus, but my dorm closes at Christmas," Geer noted.
During her freshman year of college she lived with a friend over Christmas break. She felt like the fall semester of her sophomore year had been taken up by class, working and feeling sorry for herself, so she decided a change of pace and scenery might be just what she needed. With that in mind, she planned a December mission trip to Tanzania through New Zealand-based International Volunteer HQ.
"This was more of a personal thing than it was about amping up my resume, which I feel is how these things should be done," she said.
The teen’s friends couldn’t believe she was embarking on a such a big trip all by herself, but Geer was completely unfazed. She’s used to traveling alone, although her previous solitary trips to Georgia and to New York to visit Josh had been much shorter.
"I never once was scared about going out there alone, I think because I was used to living on my own and raising myself," she said. "There was no reason to be scared as long as I was prepared."
Armed with that positive attitude, Geer read everything about Tanzania she could get her hands on, got all the necessary immunizations and started packing. The volunteer organization told Geer she’d be teaching English and math to a class of 45 Tanzanian children, so she made 45 stockings and gift bags and packed them full of treats and trinkets.
Geer received her first surprise of the trip, however, when she landed and learned she’s be teaching not 45, kids, but 150 kids. After a brief moment of panic, Geer divided the goodies amongst the children, who immediately amazed her with their gratitude and willingness to share with one another.
"It was just eye-opening. I met the children and I just was surrounded by so much happiness that it was impossible for me not to be happy as well," she said.
Geer was shocked at the lack of structure and resources in the orphanage’s school, where children often brought their siblings — some as young as six months old — to class. Teaching was a struggle at first, but after she learned a bit of Swahili, the children took her more seriously and learned faster, she said.
After spending three weeks with her students, Geer began her trek up Mount Kilimanjaro on Dec. 21. She and her fellow climbers traveled up the mountain for four days before reaching the summit on Christmas morning, which also is Josh’s birthday.
"We got up there at 6:30 a.m., right as the sun was coming up. Getting to the top, man, that was just incredible," Geer said.
All in all, the trip did exactly what Geer hoped it would.
"It just gave me a whole new perspective, and I enjoy my showers so much more now," she said with a laugh. "I enjoy everything so much more, just knowing that I have it."
The trip even helped Geer appreciate her family’s difficult past, she added. She didn’t ask for her situation, but she wouldn’t trade it either, she said.
"I’m so independent, and I don’t know what kind of person I would have become if I hadn’t gone through this. It’s a gift," she said.