01/24/2014 at 03:00 PM EST
Pretty Little Liars
star Shay Mitchell
wanted to go somewhere exotic while her TV show was on its annual winter hiatus. So she rounded up her brother and some friends for the trip of a lifetime. But this wasn't some beach vacation on Bora Bora; Mitchell and her crew decided to spend 10 days outside of Nairobi, Kenya, building a medical clinic for those in need with Free the Children
"It was awesome, such a fun experience," she tells PEOPLE exclusively of the trip. "I can't wait to go back again. The people were amazing; even though they don't have much at all, you can see how happy they are. One thing I've definitely taken back home with me are the smiles." Below, hear about Mitchell's visit to Kenya, in her own words.
"I've never done any construction work at all. I brought gardening gloves and was like, 'Okay, I'm ready!' But we had some construction workers from the community here to help, which made it easier. I thought it would be more strenuous, but it was fun. Although it takes such a long time – it gets so hot! But it was cool to know I had a hand in building something that'll be so useful. Next time I go to Kenya I'll see what I've done."
Mitchell went for a walk with the local Maasai women, called "mamas," and helped them carry water back to their homes. Free the Children helps educate these women about boiling water to prevent their families from getting sick.
"Here in North America, we don't think about water much – I turn my tap on, and there it is. But over there, they walk to this river, five times a day depending on how much water they need for the day, carrying these jugs. I had a 10-liter jug and carried it uphill; luckily the woman I was carrying it with only lived a five- or 10-minute walk, but there are people who walk over an hour to fill up their jugs at the closest river, with their little girls. When I finished walking, I realized I definitely take our access to water for granted."
"Anytime you'd be riding back to Free the Children's place there, you'd see all these little kids on the road coming back from school. As soon as they'd see a car go by they'd say, 'Jambo,' which means 'hi.' We drove by a primary school and I just had to get out and take photos – the kids came running and it was so adorable. The kids in blue are at one of the primary schools Free the Children created, the girls in red skirts are in an upper school. They're so happy to be going to school and learning. It's life-changing for them and for their families."
"These women are Maasai mamas. They're known for their beaded jewelry, all handmade. It's amazing what they can do with these beads! We're having a beading session in this picture; everything they create is sold in stores here and around the world through Me to We artisans
, and 50 percent goes back to Free the Children, and back to the mamas. It enables them to support their families, and enables us to wear some of that jewelry."
"The day before we were heading down the coast, we went on a safari. No trip to Africa is complete without one! It was incredible. I kept looking at the animals thinking I was in a zoo; it's too unreal to believe you're in a natural habitat. I'm used to seeing this on TV and in National Geographic
, so in real life it's really something else. And all the animals seem good with each other – except the lions. We were in a car, but they weren't too far away from us!"
To hear more about Free the Children's efforts in Kenya, click here
. And click here
to learn about Mitchell's other passion, the Somaly Mam Foundation, which works to end trafficking and sex slavery.