"Being on the road together 24/7, we all learned what's important. The trip brought us closer together," Marisa Johnson tells PEOPLE

By Cathy Free
March 01, 2017 05:11 PM
Courtesy of Marisa and Michael Johnson

After selling practically everything they owned to live on the road for a year in a fifth-wheel trailer, a Utah family of six has decided since returning home that a quiet life in the suburbs is not for them.

So Michael and Marisa Johnson and their four children are once again leaving their hometown of Eagle Mountain — this time to live in South America.

Beginning in mid-March, they’ll spend a year volunteering with Operation Underground Railroad, hoping to comfort children who have been rescued from sex trafficking and have no homes to return to because they were either sold as sex slaves or their families have moved away.

Courtesy of Marisa and Michael Johnson

“I think about my own children and know that if they had endured something so horrific, I’d want somebody to be there for them,” Marisa, 40, tells PEOPLE. “We want to help these kids to see that they now have a voice and a choice of what they do with the rest of their lives.”

Doing something outside of their comfort zone became important to the Johnsons when they returned to Utah last year after renting out their home, selling most of their possessions and hitting the highway in search of adventure and togetherness in a 400-square-foot trailer, blogging about their new lifestyle along the way.

Courtesy of Marisa and Michael Johnson

Michael, 40, gave up his job as an investor at a local bank; Marisa decided that she could run her essential oils business anywhere, and their four children — Reece, 16, Maya, 13, Mason, 11, and Madelyn, 7 — agreed to put their social lives on hold for a year.

“It seemed that I was never home — I was always working,” Michael tells PEOPLE, “and it bothered us that we weren’t writing our own story. So we decided, ‘Why be defined by our stuff? Let’s release it and go. Why not take a chance?’ “

Courtesy of Marisa and Michael Johnson

Because the Johnson kids are homeschooled, it was fairly easy to transfer their daily routines to the kitchen table of the $55,000 trailer purchased for the trip.

Sharing one bedroom together, though? Not so much.

“The hardest part was having to share a bed with my sister (Maya) and not having very many toys,” says Madelyn. “But visiting a jelly bean factory, meeting new people and going to lots of beaches helped make up for it.”

In one year, the Johnsons and their two yellow labs, Lily and Jada, made it to 27 states, stopping at every national park and museum they could find along the way. Craters of the Moon in Idaho was one favorite stop, along with the beaches of Big Sur in northern California and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina.

Each family member was allowed to bring enough clothes to fit on two shelves, plus two totes for toys, books, electronics and favorite mementos.

“We stayed in RV parks along the way and had to go grocery shopping about every three days,” Marisa tells PEOPLE. “The kids spent several hours every day doing homework, but seeing the amazing diversity of our country was the best education they could have asked for. Being on the road together 24/7, we all learned what’s important. The trip brought us closer together.”

For “alone” time, everyone relied on earphones to escape with their favorite music now and then, she says, “and if there was an argument, you learned to forgive and forget pretty quickly.”

When they returned home to Utah last fall, the Johnsons decided to look for another opportunity to grow as a family, only this time while serving others. When Marisa learned about a care center in South America for children who had been rescued from sex trafficking, she knew there was no need to search further.

In a week or two, after the fifth-wheel trailer is sold, the family will pack their suitcases and fly to an undisclosed nation to volunteer for one year.

“We’re hoping to make a difference in these kids’ lives somehow,” says Michael, “and we want to let them know that somebody’s there for them. A lot of them were sold by family members or taken away with the promise of a modeling or acting career. We want to help them start over and know they are loved.”

“Living away from home for another year won’t be easy,” he admits, “but it’s important to focus on others, and not just ourselves. That’s the lesson we hope our kids will take away from this: We’re all in this world together.”