SANFORD - During the weeks between high school graduation and his first semester at Central Carolina Community College, Dylan Smith could have done just about anything. Make some money with a summer job. Spend time relaxing at the beach. Or maybe hang around with friends before everyone scatters to begin a new phase of life.
What he chose was taking skills he developed in the two-year Caterpillar Welding Apprenticeship Program halfway around the world to help some missionaries with local ties. So Dylan got his travel papers in order, boarded a plane and began his long journey to an East African apple farm.
The idea took root earlier this year, when missionaries Jonathan and Jessica Bridges were back home in Sanford for a visit and stopped by Flat Springs Baptist Church to talk about their work in Chencha, a village of about 10,000 residents in the Ethiopian highlands. The village surrounded by a rugged landscape is more than an hour's drive from the nearest city, Arba Minch, and even that community isn't especially large, with a population roughly the size of Gastonia without its suburbs.
Making It Work
Welding wasn't part of the initial plan. "I was really going over to be an extra helping hand to help Jonathan do whatever he needed to do," Dylan said, describing how his agenda took shape. "They had some projects set out, but things over there get delayed sometimes waiting for paperwork." He noted that you'll be sitting for two or three weeks and then all of a sudden things fall into place.
Dylan's welding skills were sorely needed. So as the month passed, he found himself welding a gate, building a camp stove and even fixing a muffler "because it really gets beaten up going up the mountain," Dylan said.
While the projects might sound fairly simple, they were not. The welding equipment on hand in Chencha wasn't the most advanced and conditions were nothing like the pristine industrial plant where Dylan honed his trade. But what he learned during the apprenticeship from Central Carolina Community College welding instructors Charles Bell and David Myers gave Dylan the confidence and creativity to succeed.
"It was definitely my ability to adapt," Dylan said about what made it work. "There, you were blasting through rust and dirt, so I had to adapt my welding techniques. In trouble shooting, I couldn't even read the amperage to show how much current was going through (the equipment), so I was guessing and then listening to the weld.
"Without me going through the Caterpillar program and being with Bell and Myers, I wouldn't have been able to do half the things I did."
Later, when the instructor saw a photo of the camp stove project and heard about his former student's ability to adapt in an especially challenging environment, Myers said he was definitely impressed, but not surprised. He recalled how Dylan not only had the ability to make good technical welds, but also to visualize projects from a blueprint or, in the case of his camp stove, from a photo off the internet.
"You have to use your mind to figure it out and he was really good at that," Myers said, also crediting Dylan's persistence and personal character. "Maybe a handful of students could have done something like that."
"Dylan Smith is one of the best welding students in our program," said Bell, noting that Dylan "loves everything about welding and has a huge drive to do exceptionally good work."
Bell added that one of Dylan Smith's best qualities is that he is unselfish. "I have been really blessed to have him as one of my students and my only hope is I get another opportunity to teach him as he completes his degree in welding," said Bell.
Life On the Farm
Many of the welding projects didn't unfold until a delivery of scrap metal arrived late in the trip. The rest of the time, Dylan commuted back and forth from the Bridges' home in Chencha about nine miles up a steep and bumpy road to the farm where Jonathan and Jessica cared for more than 44,000 apple trees. Highland Harvesters, the name of their agribusiness, is part of the missionaries' effort to feed the community, provide jobs and reduce poverty. Jonathan describes it this way: "The business is the mission and the mission is the business."
Dylan heard stories about life in Ethiopia from Jonathan and Jessica during their visit to Sanford, but the experience still caught him off guard. "When I got into the village, it wasn't anything I was used to," he said, recalling that his first impression was bouncing around on roads into Chencha. "It was another place. The thing that got me was that people just stared at you. They stopped and looked at you, probably because you were a foreigner, someone different.
"Here in America, I blend into the crowd, but there you stand out like a sore thumb."
When he finally got to the Bridges' house and began to settle in, it started to feel like home. Good food. Good people. And board games that reminded him of camping as a kid.
Jonathan says not too many young people offer help as Dylan did. Maybe someone his age comes to the farm as a volunteer every couple of years. Some stay a few weeks, some a few months, all providing whatever expertise they have to push the mission forward.
Jonathan was grateful for the help and felt revitalized by Dylan's enthusiasm and willingness to do whatever was needed. It had an impact.
"Dylan Smith is a wonderful young man and he self-sacrificially used the skills and talents that God has given him to do good and bring light to a very dark place in this world," Jonathan said in an email exchange. "Him coming here and utilizing his very practical skill set did more good than preaching 100 sermons."
Looking Back to Africa
Though it's only been a few weeks since Dylan completed his 21-hour return flight from Addis Ababa to Dublin to Washington to Raleigh, the experience has already changed his perspective. He's learned to pay more attention to cultures around him, to sit back and watch what other people do and how they live.
He's come to appreciate what he called the "accessibility" of so many things here, even essentials of life many take for granted. People in Sanford don't think twice about dropping by the grocery store on the way home from work, but that's not how people live back in Chencha, where villagers need to plan ahead and travel long distances just to bring back enough food to last an entire month.
But that's not what he will remember most -- nor is the guerrilla welding or being bounced around on mountain roads. What has remained with Dylan more than anything is standing near the apple farm on a cliff high above God's Bridge and taking in one breathtaking scene overlooking the Great Rift Valley. As Jonathan describes it, at the base of the cliff is the village of Bele and farther down, on the valley floor, are a city called Arba Minch and two large lakes separated by a natural bridge. God's Bridge, because it was not made by man.
"I wanted to do some good before I got to college, but to be honest, I didn't know what to expect," Dylan says looking back. "I heard stories, but when I got there it was a whole other world. I had no idea what I was getting into. I thought I'd help the best I can and now will have that experience with me for the rest of my life."
To learn more about Central Carolina Community College and its programs, visit www.cccc.edu.
Dylan Smith enjoys the scenery during his summer visit to the Ethiopian highlands.
Dylan Smith (left) is pictured with Jonathan Bridges (right) during his summer visit to the Ethiopian highlands.
Dylan Smith puts his welding skills to practice during his summer visit to the Ethiopian highlands.