Photo: Josh Gibbon, Program Leader at The Tops (left) with program team member Karissa Baucom, who returns to the USA in April after her 18-month adventure in Australia.
By Naomi Giles
What happens when an anticipated adventure of a lifetime is radically reshaped by a global pandemic?
Twenty-two-year-old Karissa Baucom arrived in Australia from Southern California, USA, to take on a role with The Tops Program Team in October 2019. She had never been to Australia and was primed for adventure – relishing an opportunity to spread her wings and explore another culture, another land and a different way of doing camping.
But when COVID-19 hit, she found herself ‘stuck’ in Australia and cut off from family as she watched the world rapidly change.
“It was tough. There were trips home I had planned, to see family and to go to celebrations and weddings, and all of those plans were cancelled,” she shares. “My family have found it really hard that I couldn’t be there with them, especially at those key times we share in the holiday seasons.”
Karissa’s workspace also changed dramatically, with The Tops transformed from a bustling community – welcoming and serving hundreds of people every day – to an almost deserted centre.
“Almost everything completely stopped for over six months and it was really hard on everyone. The programs we’d planned, the guests we’d prepared for – it all had to stop. It was so different.”
Karissa says her faith sustained her in this time. She drew on the understanding that God was always with her, and that even being ‘stuck’ provided new opportunities.
She says she learnt the power of community in a new way. Doing life surrounded by fellow staff at The Tops gave her a lot of joy and helped her through times of homesickness. The Tops team also used the downtime to plan and dream about how to grow and deepen their programs for the future.
Connecting with local sporting groups and churches also helped Karissa find another network of people to help her overcome any feelings of isolation.
“We are not meant to do life alone,” she says. “We have this gift of community and it’s just so important. Even if it’s a community that is somewhat temporary, it’s worth investing in it and sharing your life with others.”
Karissa describes her experience of hospitality as life-changing.
“As someone stepping into an entirely new culture, I had people open their homes to having me over for dinners, inviting me on holiday trips with their friends, and even celebrating Christmas with them. Their hospitality made me feel so loved and gave me a family here in Australia I know I will have forever. That generous hospitality is something I always want to carry with me as I continue on in life.”
When Karissa leaves in April it will have been 18 months since she saw family and friends – a lot longer than she had planned. But she’s thankful all her family have stayed safe during the pandemic – able to continue to work from home and be wise about how they have lived and interacted.
And she will have some stories to tell, laughing about her first encounter with a hairy huntsman spider and her surprising acceptance of a red-belly black snake that lives under her house: “You just get used it I guess,” she laughs.
Karissa says her experience at The Tops has prepared her for the challenge of directing a program of summer camps from May to August in Southern California. She will lead a team serving hundreds of kids every week in a range of outdoor activities and experiences. It’s a challenge she’s up for and is already putting her dreams into plans so she can hit the ground running on her return.
Her parting hope and prayer for The Tops is that it would continue to be the hands and feet of Jesus. Her desire is to see guests go beyond the activities and experience the heart of God’s love.
Read more stories of Fresh Hope HERE.