Sunny Sidman of Cornelius helps herself while helping others

by: COURTESY PHOTO - Sunny Sidman (left) learns how to make clay beads from Ethiopian women who create and sell them. Sidman met the women while building a cafeteria for local school children in Ethiopia during her trip in 2012.Two years ago, as 14-year-old Sunny Sidman taxied on the tarmac in a plane bound for Africa — the trip of a lifetime, a trip she felt deeply called to make — one thought anxiously pulsed through her head:

“Is there any way I can get out of this?”

When she returns to Africa this June, anxiety is one burden the Cornelius teen will leave behind.

“I’m really excited, honestly,” said Sunny, now 16, glancing down at her watch. “Nineteen days until I leave and I’m not nervous about anything, I’m just ready to go right now.”

Sunny is participating in a 15-month internship program in Cameroon, Africa. It’s a sign not just of her commitment to service, but also of her victory in a battle with debilitating anxiety.

Sidman remembers a specific trip in 2010 when she began to have anxiety attacks. While touring Shasta Caverns in California with her family, Sunny felt a strange physical weight pressing upon her body.

“You feel hopeless,” she said, describing her anxiety attacks. “It’s physical and emotional and spiritual and everything.”

The next two years she worried about buildings falling down and meteors crashing through the sky and her biggest issue: airplanes.

Despite this fear, she felt called to fly to Africa in 2012 for a two-month mission trip to Ethiopia and Uganda. Simply reading about the service and missionary work of Global Expeditions’ program online compelled her to go serve and learn about another culture.

“That was kind of crazy for me at the time,” Sunny said.”I didn’t think I was capable of doing that, having all that anxiety.”

Even after making the decision to go, Sunny was plagued with anxiety until the moment before takeoff. “I prayed about it and was like ‘You know, can we figure this out?’ and it just went away.”

Since then, Sunny said she no longer experiences anxiety.

Her mother, Catherine Sidman, has witnessed the transformation. Getting Sunny to fly on a plane used to require lying about the strength of the calming medicine she’d give her. Now, Sidman describes her daughter as a fearless young woman.

“I want to be that put-together when I grow up,” Sidman said with a laugh.

Sunny will volunteer in Batibo, Cameroon, for the Christian missionary and service organization Shaping Destiny. After three months of training, Sidman will serve in the orphanage, help teach at a partner school or work on projects in the community. A musician at Forest Grove Foursquare Church, she’s bringing her guitar to help her teach and bond with the community.

While overseas mission work isn’t typically for minors, Shaping Destiny allows minors to go with parental consent. Sunny is taking a gap year after her early high school graduation this June because she’s not sure what or where she wants to study in college. She hopes the 15 months will be life changing.

“I hope to go in with an open mind and learn what I can,” said Sunny, who might consider a career in mission work, depending on her experience, but currently plans on returning to the U.S. for college after her internship.

Sunny will graduate from Estacada Early College this June with 70 Portland Community College credits, making her “so close to an associate degree, it’s sad” — unless she completes it.

She transferred to Estacada Early College from Estacada Web Academy after her freshman year of high school, when her academic adviser, Associate Principal Sean Gallagher, noticed her college-level readiness.

“I’m really proud of her and a little envious that she’s so able and adept at managing all the goals of her life,” Gallagher said. “She has a rare personality, and I think is going to be a real change agent for society.”

The third out of seven children, Sidman attended Forest Grove Community School before Estacada. Her parents encourage their children to discover what type of schooling best fits their education.

“Why are you letting her go?” is a question Sidman is used to hearing from people who think Sunny is too young. While Sidman said she has concerns as well, they are similar to those she has for her oldest daughter who wants to live in a college dormitory.

“It’s not a safe world. Nobody gets out alive,” Sidman said. “But we have to do our jobs while we’re here.”

She hopes that Sunny can share her “really unique and wonderful way of bringing light to dark places.”

Service has changed Sunny, freeing her from anxiety and helping her find “the happy life” so many people are looking for.

“You can be a part of something and that changes you,” she said.

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