We booked our flight to Haiti one day before my sister was involved in a serious auto accident. My attention and energies were immediately focused on her and remained there until she was stabilized and making a good recovery several weeks later. By that time, Christmas preparations were in full swing as well as planning for an out-of-town family wedding to welcome in 2015. The few weeks remaining to prepare for our Tek4Kids staff trip to Haiti were a whirlwind of activity: purchasing supplies, clothing and medicines, handling routine home and work responsibilities and learning as much as I could about a new country and culture before traveling there.
Of course, reading about another country and hearing stories about it are nothing compared to experiencing it firsthand. Having traveled internationally many times before, I was comfortable anticipating the airline travel requirements, many languages spoken and even the unusual sights, smells and sounds of a new place. But I had never flown in a single-engine, six-seater plane to arrive at my destination! After arriving in the capital, Port-au-Prince, we were met by our faithful driver, Lazarre, who escorted us with authority to the small aircraft section of the airport. There we were greeted by our capable and no-nonsense pilot, Roger, who sized us all up and loaded the plane first with our luggage, then with us, in the most aerodynamic way possible. He quickly snapped a picture of the five of us and off we went.
The plane ride turned out to be smooth and the landing even smoother. Only the cramped quarters and noisy engine diminished my enjoyment of the beautiful shoreline we followed to the town of Jeremie, our destination about 150 miles west of Port-au-Prince. By car, with difficult roads to maneuver, the trip takes about 7 hours. By plane, we arrived at the small, grassy landing strip in a little over an hour. We were met by some chickens on the runway and a cadre of young men, eager to sell bracelets and other trinkets.
Fortunately, I had taken motion sickness medicine in preparation for the flight; as it turned out, I needed it more for the trip from the airport into town, over deeply rutted dirt roads. Father Ernest had picked us up and expertly avoided the worst of the holes, but we bounced along for several miles before the road smoothed out slightly. I imagine we were a sight, five white people crammed into a small SUV with our host, the Haitian principal of St. Louis High School. We saw many adults and children walking along the roads, some carrying water or supplies on their heads, along with many small tin-roofed huts and makeshift shops where locals sold soft drinks, fruit and knick-knacks. There were roosters, chickens, donkeys and goats along the way. As we arrived on the outskirts of town, the auto and motorcycle traffic picked up. Often, the motorcycles carried several people, as many as could hold on without being bumped off by the pits in the road.
The town of Jeremie is busy, vibrant and noisy, the streets crowded with vendors, motorcycles and people walking everywhere. A cacophony of sounds and smells assault the senses. As in many towns in the U.S., some people greeted us with friendly smiles while others averted our eyes or stared intently at us. It’s hard to miss such fair faces in the crowd! The school children walked with purpose, dressed in clean and colorful gingham uniforms.
We arrived at the Tek4Kids house and planned the day’s activities, which included meeting the new priest at the local cathedral and some of our Haitian staff members. After hearing names like Baba, Laura, Max and Francklyn, it was a thrill to finally meet them in person. That night, after many hours of travel, meeting new people and settling in, I fell into bed, exhausted but excited about what I was seeing and learning.
The next three days were filled with trips to all the Tek4Kids partner schools: St. Therese Montessori, St. Louis High School and Elementary, St. John Bosco, Brother Paulin and Montfort. We met the teachers we employ to teach our laptop and iPad classes. We met with principals and teachers to survey them about the work of our organization. We saw the water pump houses built by Tek4Kids that provide clean drinking water and hand washing stations; the inverters that help provide reliable electricity and the rooms where new possibilities are opening for students as they use laptops and iPads, learning skills that will translate into improved lives for themselves and their families.
There were many highlights of those days, but a few stand out. One was the first bright morning as the students at St. Therese gathered in their crisp uniforms to recite the pledge to their flag and sing songs before scattering to their classes. They lined up according to age and smiled, some playfully, others shyly, at the visitors watching them. Their dark skin and young voices shined beautifully in the morning sun and I was glad to be part of an organization having such a positive impact in this community.
The second was meeting the principal and a nun at St. John Bosco, where children who can’t afford the cost of other schools, attend free of charge. These students are among the poorest in the community. When we arrived, they gathered around us and eagerly waited for hugs or just to touch our hands and feel our white skin. Later, as I sat listening and taking notes, I was struck by the commitment of these two persons, Father Jean and Sister Helene, to meet such a critical need, using their own limited resources to reach out to the “least of these.” Seeing the kids line up at the hand-washing station, provided by Tek4Kids, was equally inspiring.
Another highlight was meeting the sisters and children at the orphanage at Montfort and seeing the beautiful water pump house built entirely by our Haitian staff. We had the opportunity to show a movie there (Happy Feet) and enjoyed Gary’s impromptu dance with the kids afterward. As we were leaving, the sisters gave us gifts of embroidered cloth, all the more precious because of their generosity, despite having so little themselves.
Throughout the trip, I was struck by the contrast of the hardship and needs I saw with the beautiful natural surroundings of Haiti. The Lutheran orphanage we visited sits directly on a gorgeous shoreline and I wondered whether the kids notice it or are preoccupied with survival or thoughts of their next meal. What are their hopes and dreams for the future? How might Tek4Kids be a part of those hopes? I also came away with a renewed appreciation of things like water, electricity and good roads that most of us in the United States simply assume are always available.
On our last night there, we gathered with all our Haitian staff to enjoy a wonderful meal prepared by Mia and Laura. As I looked around the table at these new friends, I was filled with a sense of gratitude and hope for what is yet to come through our work together at Tek4Kids!