January/February 2016 Haiti trip wrap-up
To all who faithfully followed the progress of our January/February 2016 Haiti missions teams, thank you! And a big thanks to Carolyn Heacock, who relayed text messages and kept the prayer team informed, and Bethany Harvester, who posted what little information we could send her on this blog! Our Internet connectivity was not good, to say the least, and at times seemingly non-existent, so texting was about all we could do (although some team members managed to get a few things posted to Facebook). We appreciated your patience and your prayers while we were there.
We're all back now--some of us have already experienced the first hot showers we've had in just over two weeks. We had hoped to be back late on Saturday night (Feb. 6) but our flight out of Miami was cancelled, and we had to take a variety of routes home, as the airline worked out how to get 180 passengers to Kansas City on a variety of already-crowded flights. Some went through Dallas, some through D.C., some through Charlotte, NC, some through Chicago--but finally, around 10pm on Sunday (Feb. 7), the last members of our team made it home. (With all of our checked luggage to follow the next day.)
Even without the lengthy voyage home, we were exhausted--some of us having been there for two weeks--but thankfully we all made it back safe and sound...but in most cases, not quite the same people we were when we left. A sojourn in Haiti always has the potential to change one's life, or at the very least, one's perspective. In this final trip wrap-up post, I'm going to try to share a little of the flavor and flow of our trip and (finally!) post a few photos.
Our week 1 team consisted of twelve people: Richard Erickson, McKenna Ezell, Anita Greenwood, Doug Heacock, Kenna LaRue, Taylor Manning, Stephanie Temple, Rick Riffel, Randy Roy, Kevan Vick, Larry Wedman, and Tasha Wertin. For week 2, Richard, Anita, Rick and Kevan headed home, and we were joined by Rocky Harrison, Nathan Peterson, Kim Riffel, and Tia Shoemaker. Rocky lives in Alaska and joined our team for a week last year--this year she brought Tia (her daughter) and Nate (Tia's boyfriend) along. All three of them work as hunting/fishing guides in Alaska. Kim was originally scheduled to come with her husband, Rick, the first week, but a family illness required her to reschedule for the second week instead. Larry had to head home on Tuesday of the second week to tend to some business matters.
Our team house
While in Haiti we lived at the team house, a large rented residence with plenty of room for hosting the various teams that come and go throughout the year to serve at the Kids Alive Children's Village. The women had a couple of rooms upstairs, and the men shared a room downstairs. There was a kitchen/dining room, a living room with comfortable seating for team devotions and conversations, and three bathrooms with showers. By Haitian standards, this home is very nice. There were no rats! We did have to periodically restart the water pump that kept the roof-mounted water tank full, but aside from that and a couple of brief power outages when our generator quit (either because it ran out of diesel fuel or a circuit breaker overloaded), we were quite happy with our accommodations. We did share our living space with a few very large spiders, but they made limited appearances. There were screens on most of the windows, but they couldn't keep all of the mosquitos out, so we did have to contend with that. But we had fans in our sleeping quarters that did a pretty good job of keeping the mosquitos from pestering us through the night.
We had running water, but not hot water--our showers were all cold, but that's not a huge problem, and after a long, hot, sweaty work day in the sun, a cold shower is not necessarily a bad thing--it just takes some getting used to. But the water is not safe for drinking or brushing teeth (as one team member learned the hard way after accidentally brushing her teeth with tap water). Purified drinking water was provided for us, along with purified ice for our water coolers (there is an ice making factory not far from the KA children's village). We all carried water bottles with us at all times. Staying adequately hydrated is a big deal in Haiti.
John (background, right, in the photo at right), a Haitian member of the KA staff, and Cassidy (background, left, in the photo at right), a brand-new KA missionary, served as our team hosts. John was born and raised in Haiti, but lived in Miami for several years until he was deported after dropping out of school and becoming involved with drugs and gangs. After a brief time in a Haitian prison, John was invited to a church service by a girl he had an interest in, and was saved and experienced remarkable changes in his life (and no, he didn't get the girl). He has worked for KA since 2006, and he serves as the child sponsorship coordinator, but also hosts teams (his English is very good, which is very helpful). John lives in a separate room at the team house, which is extremely helpful to the teams.
Cassidy joined the KA staff in Haiti a week before our first week team arrived, though she had been to Haiti five times previously and lived there for three months on one occasion. She will be working with John in hosting teams, and also serves as the school counselor. Her Creole language skills are excellent, and she is a favorite with the children at the school. Both Cassidy and John spent a lot of time with us and served us in a variety of ways during our time in Haiti--they also ate meals with us, accompanied us on outings, and played cards with us at night on more than one occasion.
We were well-cared for in Haiti, particularly at mealtimes. Our lunches at the school site were prepared by the school cooks, and we ate the same food the children were served. Our meals often included rice and beans, creole sauce, pasta (spaghetti and macaroni), fried plantains, fresh papaya, avocado, tomatoes, cucumbers, and a variety of dishes served over rice, often containing chicken and vegetables, sometimes other meat (possibly beef? possibly goat?)--on one occasion we were served a sort of national dish, pumpkin soup. And every day there were cans of Pringles potato chips, little packets of sandwich cookies, and a delicious (and extremely sweet) blend of juices, often including grapefruit, passionfruit, and orange juice.
Our evening meals were prepared by the school cooks; sometimes the cooks would come to the team house while we were working and cook our meal there, leaving it warming in the oven for us to eat after we came home and had our showers. They fixed us fried chicken (often breaded with crushed corn flakes), banana bread, and many of the other foods we enjoyed at lunch times. Occasionally there would be meatballs, or a kind of creamy vegetable soup. We did have the opportunity to eat a couple of local restaurants (ones that are deemed safe by the KA staff), where we could have either authentic Haitian dishes or even just a hamburger if we were longing for a taste from home.
Our travel to Haiti was smooth and without incident. The make-up of our team was such that we could not all travel together; for the first week team, eleven of us flew from Kansas City to Miami on January 23, where we met up with one additional team member who had flown in from North Carolina; from Miami we all took the same flight into Haiti. For the second week, one team member came from Lawrence, and three from Alaska--they met in Miami and flew into Haiti together. The return trip on February 6 was a bit of a challenge--there was bad weather in Miami, plus some aircraft maintenance, and all of this conspired to push the crew past their legal time limit, so after we had finally pushed back from the gate and were waiting on the runway to take off, the plane had to return to the gate, and the airline eventually cancelled our flight to Kansas City altogether. This created a challenge for the airline (and for us) as nearly 200 passengers had to be re-routed to KC the following day. Some of us made it by noon on Sunday, others not until late Sunday evening. But we made it.
Our primary work objective was to begin working on building a new school. The existing school at the KA site was always intended to be a temporary solution--it is essentially a large pole barn, but the "poles" are poured concrete pillars, which hold up rafters and a tin roof. Below that are some simple classroom spaces on either side of an open central meeting space. The existing KA school serves about 160 kids--half of whom are residential kids, that is, the kids who live in the homes on the compound, and the other half are neighborhood kids who live in the nearby area. The school currently services children from pre-school through 6th grade; kids in 7th grade or higher are sent to other schools. The new school will allow KA to add grades 7-9 and serve many more children.
Although we didn't ever actually get accurate measurements (we were busy with other things), the new school is built on a concrete slab that measures something like 125 feet long by about 30 feet wide (that's a total guesstimation). There will be two floors, with five classrooms on each, and an outer hallway that connects them all. On one end there will be bathrooms, and a separate phase of construction will add a new kitchen (you should see their current kitchen!) and possibly a cafeteria space (but I'm not sure about that). When we arrived at the site the very first day, it was just a slab, with tall rebar cages that would eventually become the columns that will support the walls, the second floor, and the roof. (The rebar cages were all leaning over in sweeping arcs, but as the walls went up, they would be shored up and straightened with forms to contain the concrete that would be poured around each one. The wall construction was to be concrete block.
Once we saw the slab, we pretty much agreed as a team that it would be our goal to finish the first floor walls by the end of our two-week trip.
After some instruction concerning how to properly lay block walls, how to build to a string line to keep everything plumb and straight, etc., we were off and running. This year we worked along side a Haitian crew pretty much the whole time. We layed block while they mixed mortar for us. A senior member of the Haitian crew set the first block on the end of each course, and we did the rest. After about five courses all the way around, the Haitian crew built wooden forms atop the wall, along with a narrow rebar cage, and poured the "bond beam" to tie the wall together and give extra strength. After the bond beam cured, we continued to lay course after course on top of it, going up another seven courses (using scaffolding made from boards and blocks) until a second bond beam (a double beam) could be formed and poured. We assisted with those pours. After the bond beams were poured, the Haitian crews started forming up the columns for pouring, and a small crew from our team helped with that while the rest of us worked on projects around the transition home.
Laying block is hard work. Lots of heavy lifting, and you're in the open, with the tropical sun baking your skin, sweating profusely, trying your hardest to drink enough water to keep ahead of how much you're sweating. By the end of the week you've got little cuts and bruises from the sharp corners of the blocks or from chance encounters with a bit of exposed rebar (it's everywhere), and your muscles are sore and you're sunburned. But it is oh so satisfying to see the wall grow right before your eyes, to know that one day there will be small Haitian children in the classroom you're building, learning how to read and write and add, subtract, multiply, and divide, and how to speak in English, and learning about the God who loves them and has hope and a future for them. When you're done laying a wall, you see the block and mortar, but in the back of your mind you're imagining children's artwork hanging up there, or maps, or maybe a whiteboard, or an alphabet poster. You're seeing them in rows at their desks, in their little blue shirts and blouses--and they are receiving the double gift of a Christian education from teachers who love them, all of it faciliated by people like you and me who love them, inspired by the God who loved us all and gave his Son for us. It's pretty heady stuff, this laying of block.
We arrived on a Saturday afternoon, had dinner together at a restaurant, and had an orientation from our team hosts in the evening after we had settled into our rooms. On Sunday morning (and every morning) we fixed our own breakfast, then went to church (3000-member Hope Baptist Church in Cap Haïtien; see Richard with a KA kid at church in the photo at right). Rain prevented a neighborhood walk on Sunday afternoon, but we took a short walk later in the week. We began our work on Monday morning, after watching the Monday morning flag-raising ceremony that the kids participate in, and after being introduced to the children.
At the end of the first week, we were taken to Villa Cana, a small hotel/resort operated by the Catholic church, where missionaries and aid workers come to chill. There was a pool there, and decent Internet access, so we relaxed there along with the four team members who were going to be heading home. Leaving the remaining team members at Villa Cana for the afternoon, those who were heading home loaded up on the bus and headed for the airport (I went along with Randy, who needed some medication for an allergic reaction he had to the mortar we were using--thanks to Dr. Joe Gadzia for a remote diagnosis and treatment plan). After dropping off the homeward-bound team members and picking up the new team members, we stopped at a couple of pharmacies until we found the drugs we needed, then went back to Villa Cana and picked up the rest of the team. We dined out again, went to church again the next morning, and hit the ground running on Monday, laying more block.
Larry had to leave on Tuesday to take care of some business at home--we continued the work, benefitting from the instruction he had given us all during the first week, and completed all of our work by Thursday, our last full working day. We moved some dirt around the boys transition house, so that they could plant grass there, and we painted (most of) the roof of that house (we ran out of paint about 3/4 of the way through). We did a few other odd jobs, and a small crew of us worked with the Haitians to pour some of the columns.
On Friday morning, we loaded up and drove 90 minutes to the beach, to a small resort called Cormier, where some swam, others sat in the shade and read, and all rested and relaxed after the hard work of the last two weeks. After lunch at the resort and a 90 minute drive back to the team house, we cleaned up and went to a church service commemorating the 100th anniversary of Kids Alive International. We saw 50 people baptized that evening, heard a children's choir sing, heard messages from one of the church's pastors, and also from Jeff Vandermolen, KA VP of Operations, Latin America, and from Robenson Gedeus, the KA Field Director for Haiti. Our long-time KA friend, Brian Veen, Director of Missions Mobilization, joined us for dinner after church at the team house and we enjoyed several rounds of "Boots"--our team-favorite card game before turning in for the night.
On Saturday morning (Feb. 6) we packed, had a final team devotion session (along with a debriefing time), and loaded up to head for the airport with a brief stop at the tourist market on the way.
We had team devotions at the beginning of each working day of the trip. We each read a passage of Scripture each day, passages selected because they helped us think about questions like, what does God want from me? How does God want me to live? What does God want me to do? What kind of person does God want me to be? A key passage for us was from Micah 6:8: "He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" Each person was asked to reflect on the Scripture for the day, to consider what it might mean personally, and also to think about one thing or person we were thankful for, one thing or person we were praying for, and one way in which we believe we saw God show up on the previous day. We had some good discussions--tears were shed from time to time as we shared what meant the most to us, as we prayed for one another. We prayed for our loved ones at home, and for all of those who were praying for us--we are so grateful--it's hard to imagine being in a place like Haiti without someone actively praying for you.
Experiences like a mission trip to Haiti are significant opportunities for team bonding, and our team bonded well. We worked together well, laboring for a common goal, and we laughed--a LOT.
We saw poverty like few of us have ever seen before. This is always the hardest thing about Haiti--you find yourself wondering how people deal with the lack of resources, the lack of work (85% unemployment), the corruption in their government (Haiti has a "corruption perception" rank of 17, where 0 is most corrupt and 100 is most clean), the lack of clean water, the lack of adequate housing, the hunger, disease, crime, and all the rest. I've often thought that Cap Haïtien looks a city that the administrative authorities have abandoned, leaving the people to fend for themselves. I know that's not true, but there doesn't seem to be much evidence to the contrary. Hope seems to be in short supply.
But there is hope, and the Kids Alive effort is one of the reasons to be optimistic about Haiti, or at least this one little corner of Haiti. This might not mean anything, but it seems significant to me: when we were learning a bit of "survival Creole" last summer, we were told that the average Haitian has a sort of fatalistic world view, exemplified by the fact that when you greet a Haitian in the usual way--"Kijan ou ye?" ("How are you?"), you will most often get a negatively-tinted response like "Pa pi mal" ("Not too bad")--or one like we got from a farmer we encountered on one of our community walks: "M' la" ("I'm here.") But every single time I asked that question in Creole within the Kids Alive compound, the response was always "M' byen" or "Mwen byen" ("I'm good.") I think that means something.
Every member of our team understands that it is a privilege to go to Haiti and serve as we did. I doubt that a single one of us sees our service there as something for which we deserve a pat on the back--we believe we were given a gift in being able to be there, and we each know that what we received there is way more than what we gave. We were humbled by the hospitality and grace and love of the Haitian families who welcomed us into their homes to eat with them. We were amazed at the affection of the children we were there to serve. We were humbled by the love of God and the work of God that we saw happening all around us. We were encouraged to see faith in action in the midst of a country where corruption and darkness and voodoo are strong influences.
Above all, we are grateful for your prayers. Personally, I don't believe we could have accomplished what we did without you praying for us. And I believe that God's hand of protection was on us the whole time, again, because you prayed. You had a hand in all that we did in Haiti, and we can't thank you enough. Each one of us would be happy to share our stories--just ask. And if you ever think you might want to go to Haiti and see for yourself what God is doing in this very difficult part of the world, we hope you get that opportunity--it has changed our lives, and we think it could change yours, too.
On behalf of the January/February 2016 Haiti missionary teams--thank you for everything.
Blessings, Doug Heacock
More photos--click on any photo for a larger-size version:
Top row, L-R: school children at flag-raising ceremony on Monday; one of the large spiders we shared our team house with; Larry with three of the children he sponsors.
Middle row, L-R: Doug and friends; Tasha, Kenna & Stephanie catching a break; pre-lunch chaos with kids.
Bottom row, L-R: Taylor and friends; Nate arm-wrestling one of the older kids; the new school after two weeks of block-laying by our teams.