I Left My Heart in Haiti
By Stephanie Lynn, age 25, Massachusetts
With the 7.0 earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12, 2010, the country was on the hearts and minds of many throughout the world. For me, Haiti had left a very special place in my heart about eight and a half years ago. I'd love to share that story with you.
When I was 16 years old, I had never left the United States before, not even over the border to Canada. In fact, I had never even been on an airplane before! I believe the furthest I'd ever traveled was upstate New York on a Girl Scout field trip in the seventh grade. My family was not big on travel, but I've always had ambitious dreams. I had seen public service announcements and commercials showing images of children in places such as Haiti and Africa. A major part of me always wanted to jump on a plane and go. So when an announcement was made that my church youth group was sending a team to Haiti that summer, instantly I knew I wanted to go. That afternoon when my mother was doing dishes, I worked up the courage, took a deep breath, and said, "Mom, I want to go to Haiti." She seemed surprised and nervous, but after some discussion she gave me her approval.
We started to prepare for the trip right away. We put in a request for my passport and sent out support letters. Most of my trip was paid for through donations from family and friends. The rest was earned through fundraising efforts. I was very quiet and painfully shy at the time. I didn't know many of the other youth going on the trip. But this was something I really wanted to do and knew the experience would be well worth it.
The trip to Haiti was an 8 day experience, from July 21-28, 2001. We had two flights, first from Boston to Miami, and then from Miami to Port-au-Prince. The first night we didn't arrive until very late in the evening. When we got off the plane in Haiti at an outside terminal, our faces were hit with a very humid and hot air much different than in Massachusetts. Once inside the airport, we were led into a large and very hot room to collect our baggage. The giant fans in the room didn't seem to offer much relief from the heat. We took a large van for about a two hour drive to the mission compound which was near the city of Leogane. We saw many trucks and vans filled with people crammed in and hanging from the sides. We had to pull over our vehicle at one point because there was a non-violent "parade" of people dancing down the streets, chanting, and tapping drums in the rain and mud.
My trip to Haiti brought many memorable experiences. Haitians have dealt with many difficult struggles in their lives even before the earthquake hit, but they are also friendly and extremely hard working. Those who were considered "rich" lived in houses made of cement blocks. Those who were not as lucky made shacks out of scraps of metals, branches, and whatever else they could find. Haitians will do anything they can to make money and provide for their families. I remember the mission organization, which provides religious and humanitarian services, sold a tree that had fallen in a thunderstorm to a local man, and he spent the entire day chopping the usable section of the tree from its broken trunk using only a machete. I had my hair braided in corn rolls for only $10. In the States, that would cost about 5 or 7 times that amount. That woman worked very hard for that money. In our local village, we had a "shopping day" when many Haitians brought their artistic creations to sell to us short-term missionaries.
Haiti as a country has really struggled economically since its independence from France, due in part to government corruption (not with their current Prime Minister, however). They have very high rates of illiteracy and malnutrition among children and adults. If things weren't difficult enough before the earthquake, now Haiti will have to rebuild a large percentage of homes, schools, orphanages, government buildings, medical centers, and churches, especially in the two large cities of Port-au-Prince and Leogane. This is a process that will take many years.
Before the earthquake they had nothing. Little money. Little food. Even less safe drinking water. Very few, if any, possessions and entertainment. Cramped shacks with only a mat to sleep on - if they're lucky. Many have no electricity within their villages, never mind owning iPods, laptops, and cell phones. Most children, unless they are sponsored, can't afford to go to school. Disease, malnutrition, and death are more common than American luxuries. Haiti is a very different world. Now imagine what they have left after the earthquake.
One little 10 year old Haitian girl especially touched my heart during my mission trip. We drove into the city of Leogane two days in a row to offer the local children a VBS-type program featuring games, crafts, skits, songs, and a brief talk. As the other children played, we sat on a bench within the school compound. She tugged on my arm so as to have my full attention while she sang a Christian song in English. While the other children begged for bracelets, shoes, and even my glasses, this girl seemed not to care about those material things. Just to have someone to sing with and look up to was enough.
In a 2003 college essay I wrote:
During those few moments it didn't matter to her that she had an empty stomach, her clothes were dirty, and her sandals were worn. While I pile my plate with food every day and try on new clothes at the mall, I am constantly reminded of the joy the Haitian people have despite their many difficulties in life. I have peace in my heart knowing that I made a difference in at least one girl's life there, for this is what I live for and the greatest accomplishment that can be made.
I was reminded of this girl as I saw footage on CNN some two or three days after the earthquake. Many women, children, and men marched through the streets singing hopeful songs and clapping. Even through the most difficult times, the spirit and hope of Haiti still exists. My international experiences (particularly in Haiti and Mexico) have shaped me into the person I am today. They have encouraged me to remain open-minded in life, look for the positive, and serve others in need. My heart will forever be with them. ♥