Windham Presbyterian’s Mission Trip to Haiti Changes Lives Here and ThereSeptember 5, 2014
On July 23, in the dark, wee hours of the morning, 13 teens and three chaperones loaded bags, backpacks and suitcases to head to Logan Airport; destination: Haiti. Aaron Stetson, youth pastor at Windham Presbyterian Church, had been planning the trip for well over a year.
We all knew where we were headed – the Baptist Haiti Mission in Fermathe, Haiti. Aaron’s parents had been there for over a year, so Aaron had visited the mission and brought back stories and pictures. We were going to help build a house we had raised funds for and to help with a Vacation Bible School for 100 kids. But, we didn’t really know what we were in for. Many of the crew had not been out of the country, and only a few to a third world country. For some, this was their first mission trip. For Aaron, this would be his first international trip as the leader of a youth mission team. Our passports were in order, shots endured and our first malaria pills taken. In light of the recent chikungunya outbreak, we were armed with 99 percent DEET and mosquito nets. We were as prepared as we could be and it was time to leave.
The Baptist Haiti Mission has been in Fermathe for about 50 years, initially helping local farmers with terrace-farming techniques to prevent erosion on the steep hillsides. They have expanded their aid to include a hospital with numerous clinics (including women’s’ health and vision clinics) as well as training and employment opportunities with a plant nursery, gift shop and an American-food restaurant popular with missionaries and tourists. The mission also helps hundreds of small, local churches and schools scattered over the hilly terrain.
Each day we loaded into what I would call a ‘farm truck’ – a high-axled truck with a low-sided bed and a steel frame to hold as we stood in the back. We started off on the main road and moved down into the valley a bit – then onto the local ‘roads’ that quickly dwindled to what seemed to be a loosely scattered collection of rocks which were alternatingly traversing either up or down – always steeply.
We were at two different work sites. Six of us would help the masons and a translator to build the home chosen by the local churches. Everything had to be brought to the site, including water to drink and to mix the concrete. The cinder block, two-room home was fitted with a metal roof and wooden shutters and a door for the openings. There is no electricity or water in the area, so finishing off the two-room home was complete with the final smoothing of the stucco inside and out.
The home was for a single mother with two boys who had been living in a collection of tarps and metal panels for at least a year. It was very special for me, as a mother, to talk with her one-on-one. Our younger children are about the same age so that some of our chat seemed very normal. On the other hand, her situation is so different from life here in Windham – she was moved beyond words several times as she thanked us, as well as the God that united us to build a home for her and her boys.
The other work site was a church and school. Ten of us plus interpreters and a few volunteers from the mission would meet there each day.
The school buildings are also constructed with cinder block and stucco. In the mornings we cleared and painted four classrooms and an office. The dark corners held most of the mosquitoes we encountered on the trip … as well as a couple of tarantulas! Those created quite a bit of excitement. The classrooms each had worn chalkboards (just green paint) and rudimentary benches with higher, slant-topped benches used for desks. The classrooms we painted were certainly much more welcoming when we finished!
In the afternoons, after a sandwich and chips and lots of water, we would play with the kids who had begun to gather. We cleared off the field by the school (rocks, some trash and goat and cow piles) where the soccer balls we brought were very popular. The older boys quickly occupied the field. We played games with the younger boys and the girls. None of the kids spoke English, so most of the communication was by demonstration and copy. We taught them a game called ga-ga ball (a popular game from Camp Berea where our students go for a winter retreat each year), duck-duck-goose, pat-a-cake, Miss Mary Mack and even the Macarena! They taught us a game similar to jacks played with small stones and a partner dance performed while singing a song faster and faster. The children were delighted to play games and just give and receive smiles and hugs.
The Vacation Bible School lesson was taught by a missionary who has been working in Haiti for years. She has learned to speak the language well and was an animated storyteller. We all learned the songs and Bible verse in Creole. Then the kids were divided into three groups for Bingo, games and crafts. We had been asked to bring the crafts for each day with us. We prepped small snack bags for each of the 100 children with everything they needed for that day’s craft. They made a cotton ball sheep out of a handy clothespin and a loaves and fishes bracelet with colorful beads. They also got to decorate a tee shirt with fabric markers and another day a small flashlight with plastic gems. The flashlights were a big hit!
After four days together the children had all become special to us, with a couple of real standouts for their personality and engagement. They all appeared to be primarily healthy, but they were very thankful for the snack each day – and of course they enjoyed the small candies given out as Bingo prizes. While there were a few squabbles here and there, they were well behaved and just so much fun! When they received even the smallest thing they were so thankful – even allowing them to keep the small bags the craft supplies were handed out in was a special treat. As word of the happenings at the school spread, we had more than a hundred kids each of the last three days. We handed out anything extra we had, right down to recycling cups so everyone got some of the punch. After cleaning up, and a little more playing with the kids who hung around, we headed back to the mission.
One morning we went to the local farmers’ market to buy fruits and vegetables. We all got to try chewing sugar cane and some of the unusual local fruits. The cook who prepared our evening meals made fantastic fried plantains and cooked up the breadfruit we got at the market. We did some souvenir shopping at the mission gift shop and with some of the vendors who lined the street nearby.
All in all, it was an amazing trip. I believe that all of us who went are forever changed by living with, working with and serving a small group of people in Haiti. They found joy in the moment, were thankful for what they had and weren’t bitter about what they didn’t have. Being with them brought a desire to instill those attitudes in our lives back home. On the other hand, I believe that the lives of those we left behind are changed as well. Certainly the family we built the house for is in a markedly different place – and I really felt the mother was touched by our physical efforts to make her home a reality, recognizing the personal sacrifice that showed her our love for her in Jesus’ name. And the children? Well, it was another thread in the fabric of their lives – just four days with a few snacks, games and crafts and lots of love. But for some of them the stories about Jesus clicked just a little bit more, and seeing all of the foreigners who came from so far away to be sure they heard those stories another time, and to love on them, hopefully made an impact.
As a mission team we would like to thank everyone who helped make our trip possible. Our families helped pay for our travel. The church chose to gift half of the Christmas Eve offering toward the house cost. Our own VBS at Windham Presbyterian Church raised money to buy children’s Bibles in Creole. Our gift basket raffle and pasta dinner were supported by local businesses and the bake sale on the day of the Garden Club plant sale was fueled by donated coffee and homemade baked goods. And then it was all of you who bought the tickets, came to the pasta dinner and bought coffee and baked goods – or just gave along the way – who made the rest of the house and the supplies possible.
Next year the plan is to return to West Virginia to help with home repairs in a hard-struck area we have been serving for over five years. Beyond that, we would love to consider another international trip in the future. As we prepare we will continue to seek your assistance to partner with us. The Senior High Youth Group meets on Sunday nights at 7 p.m. and the Middle School group meets on Wednesday nights at 6:30 p.m. – both will start in early September. You do not need to be a member of Windham Presbyterian Church to attend. Link to Student Ministries from the church website at www.windhamchurch.org.