Northern Mariana Islands

Just a few days before the school year officially started, I arrived on the approximately 45-square-mile island of Saipan and was already deep in the throes of homesickness. It’s funny; I never expected that would be the biggest challenge I’d face abroad. With my assignment as an assistant teacher at Saipan Seventh-day Adventist School, I guess I thought my biggest challenge would be the rowdy children or the long hours.

I remember waking up those first few weeks with tears already pooling in my eyes. I routinely called home for a tiny grasp of the familiar, but those conversations often left me more upset because they were a glaring reminder of how far away from home I had wandered.

Initially, I was assigned to the prekindergarten classroom at the school’s Child Development Center (CDC), where I would work alongside the head teacher, Miss Vangie. I spent my first day of work cleaning and organizing the classroom and doing my best to keep from crying in front of the other volunteers and teachers.

On the second day of preparation, I was called into the principal’s office. I remember taking my time walking down to the office; this was completely new territory for me. I hesitantly sat down, wondering what I could have possibly done wrong on the first day to warrant a talk with the principal. He looked at me and smiled, and the first words out of his mouth were, “How do you feel about diapers?” I laughed nervously and admitted that I wasn’t really the person to ask because I had never successfully changed a diaper in my life. My, how that was about to change!

Due to the lack of teachers and volunteers, I was being transferred to the toddler room where I would be in charge of 14 children ages 18 months to 3 years old. In short, I'd get plenty of practice changing diapers.

Miss Sai leading us on a follow-the-leader adventure to the jungle.
Playtime in the toddler room.
Saying goodbye to Miss Sai at the airport. Photo credit: John Vega

After that conversation, I was asked to spend some time in my new classroom, not just to sanitize all of the things that would inevitably be slobbered on (or worse) but also to take intentional time praying for God’s blessing on each person, big or small, who would walk through those doors in the coming weeks. I walked into the toddler classroom in a daze, trying my best to focus on the present moment and not let my mind wander to how much I missed home, or how unsure I was of this new age group, or how terrified I was to begin the school year.

In the back of the classroom, a woman sat cleaning toys. I had been told she was going to be my partner in the chaos of the toddler class. Though I knew I needed to get acquainted with her, I was already on the brink of tears, overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of time and distance that separated me from my family and everything familiar to me. I could hardly trust myself to speak, let alone hold a conversation. Taking a deep breath, I shakily introduced myself.

The woman smiled and said that her name was Miss Sai. She was originally from Pohnpei and had eight kids of her own. I didn’t know what else to say, and Miss Sai seemed to be the shy type, so we worked the rest of the time in silence. But the kindness and compassion in her eyes were unmistakable. I had this feeling wash over me that, as long as Miss Sai was around, I would be all right.

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When it came time for us to pray together, we pulled two little toddler-sized chairs together and bowed our heads. I went first, awkwardly asking for guidance and blessings in the coming year. Then Miss Sai spoke to the Lord. It was a short, simple, but earnest prayer, the kind that leaves the listener without a doubt that the one praying knows her heavenly Father and trusts Him with her whole heart. When I opened my eyes, tears slid down my cheeks because I knew deep down that God had arranged this meeting and that Miss Sai was going to be exactly the friend I needed.

In the coming months, I relied on Miss Sai for everything, and sooner than later (mostly out of necessity), I was a diaper-changing machine. Miss Sai had a gift with babies; she knew when they needed to be held and when they needed to play on their own. She knew how to teach them, how to discipline them, and most importantly, how to love them. My homesickness softened as my love for those babies and my new friends grew.

Throughout the year and the many adventures we had in that little classroom, I found a new calling: to serve and connect with each little rascal while their parents had to work. Sometimes I struggled to find that connection to meaningful service, but each time I felt especially low, there would be some reminder that God was going to bless me whether I felt it or not. I’d get a glimpse of this when my students’ parents told me their children insisted on praying before meals or singing endless loops of our little worship songs. Slowly, I realized that the work I was doing was merely planting seeds that I hope will someday flourish into kinder, gentler, and loving hearts.

When it came time for me to leave, Miss Sai came to the airport along with some other dear friends to say goodbye. I was very excited to go home, but now my heart was torn because a part of it thought I was already there. I hugged Miss Sai and, through the security line, waved as long as I could. As I sat at my gate waiting for the first of many flights, I was struck with how far God had led me in the past 10 months and how blessed I was to have had friends like Miss Sai who helped me grow along the way.

Meghann Heinrich volunteered as a teacher at Saipan Seventh-day Adventist School. She is earning a degree in journalism and public relations at Walla Walla University in Washington, United States.