As the leader of final reflection day, my job was to encourage a safe space for our delegation to complete some of our last activities together and ensure all members of the group were where they needed to be when they needed to be. I found today shockingly difficult as a leader because I had anticipated that with most of the group festivities being held at home, it wouldn’t be much of a struggle. With tomorrow being final departure day, however, these seemingly typical tasks became a fight, as, for example, stopping conversations was chopping seconds off of some of the last moments we would spend altogether in the same room, for a while at least.

Today I learned that in 15 days, we’ve managed to create a family. We began as a group of 20 nervous, quiet kids, some even doubting their ability to step onto the plane and say goodbye to everything they knew for 16 days. 15 days later we are a family, able to openly share our thoughts, our dreams, our hopes, our fears, and our growth without ever questioning levels of trust or whether our voice was wanted. Within this family, I realized I’ve never felt so genuinely able to be a person I’m proud of. That was made especially clear today during our final seminar, not only for me but for each person in the room.

We began by having a group energizer, “Touch Someone Who…” where we all were swarmed with kindness and affirmations that suggested our role and importance in the lives of the people who we now consider family. Then we created a map of the top 5 moments on this trip, what we have learned about ourselves, what we learned about leadership, and who has inspired us most. Each person reminded us of the little moments of the beginnings of our family, the moments when we were most proud of the people we were surrounded by, and the moments we were most proud of the people we were ourselves. Then we did our last “Big Love,” our time to let every single person in the room know what we most appreciated about them and their presence during the trip. Each activity led to moments that brought our surreal goodbyes to reality and made separating that much harder.

For dinner tonight, we went to a pizza restaurant. It started off as every dinner does, with chatter and people excited about the upcoming meal. We ate, talked some more, and some of us even watched baseball on the TV if we wanted to. It wasn’t until we all got up and decided to play on the playground when it truly sunk in. We weren’t just saying goodbye to each other. We were leaving behind our program coordinators Julio and John and even Tonia, our GG leaders Tina and Ben, our youth ambassadors, our bus driver Jesus, the owner of the local jewelry store, and the loving and kind and charismatic community of Jarabacoa. We took pictures and laughed and cried and talked and did it all again for what seemed like not long enough. In all these goodbyes, however, we were also welcoming the new people we are, the changes we’ve made, and the growth we’ve acquired.

As hard as it was to lead the final goodbyes, I also got to lead some of our first hellos. Hello to lifelong friendships, to unforgettable experiences, to new hopes, to change, and I have to say, as terrible as it is to say goodbye, it also feels incredible to know we’re also saying hello.