Helping Hand: Not your average trip to the tropics
by Briana Sutherland
When most people envision spending time on a tropical island they probably picture relaxing on a sandy beach, maybe reading their favorite book and escaping their reality back home for a short period of time.
Not picking up garbage, hauling 94-pound bags of cement until their arms hurt and holding children who don’t have parents to do so.
A team of 10 volunteers from The Crossing Church in Elk River boarded a plane early one May morning to spend six days working in scorching heat to help better the lives of orphaned children.
Shortly after the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010, the Rev. Eric Dykstra, the lead pastor at The Crossing, felt a calling to help the children whose world was shattered in the seconds it took to destroy Port-au-Prince. An executive decision was made to adopt Foyer Notre Dame De Fatima orphanage as a church with approximately 50 children in the heart of Port-au-Prince to supply their basic needs through Hunger Relief International and C3 Global.
But only providing funds to supply food, clothing, shelter, education and religion to these children wasn’t enough for this team of volunteers. They wanted to go and make a difference with their own hands for these children.
Mike Curtis, 31 and Chad Benedict, 37, were friends prior to the trip who shared the same goal. They were determined to bring as many soccer balls as possible to the children of the orphanage.
“My whole thing is that I knew these kids didn’t have a lot to play with or do, and when you had just lost your parents and home and have nothing to keep your mind off of, that has to be hard,” said Curtis.
Curtis and Benedict have plans to return to the orphanage in December with at least 500 additional soccer balls.
Christy Turner, 35, knew she had to go on this trip since she saw a video in church over a year ago with Dykstra in the orphanage. Then during The Code of the Samurai series earlier this year she was asked to write down what she would do for Jesus if fear wasn’t a factor.
“I wrote down missionary,” said Turner.
Renee Huisinga, children’s pastor at The Crossing, coordinated the trip through Rachel Zelon, a founding member of Hunger Relief International based out of Oklahoma City, Okla. A few months of planning and a few thousand dollars’ worth of fund-raising later, the trip quickly became a reality to the volunteers.
After arriving in Haiti, navigating through the airport and customs, they were escorted to their hotel. Didie Louis, a Hunger Relief International representative, explained to the team the living status in Haiti and what they would be doing during their stay. The team then boarded a large van to take a tour through the city, none quite prepared to witness the devastation that engulfed the city.
Seeing garbage scattered throughout the city, people living in degrading tents, children playing naked in the street with vehicles zooming inches from them and buildings on the brink of collapse was an eye-opening experience.
“The destruction was immense and yet we saw people doing their best to survive and live,” said Turner.
Along with seeing many tent cities that now populate Port-au-Prince, they visited the Cathedral of our Lady of Assumption, the Haitian National Palace, experienced local culture and were greeted by many people around town.
The following day the team crowded into the van to visit Foyer Notre Dame De Fatima for the first time. After getting a tour of their building under construction which will house children’s bedrooms, showers and toilets, they walked around within the four concrete walls of the orphanage to assess the living conditions the children were in.
“The hardest thing was probably just being understanding to the fact that some of the reasons that the conditions were so deplorable were because of cultural or political reasons. We just do things differently in the States,” said Benedict.
“We are so blessed living in the U.S., we just don’t realize it. I cried taking my garbage to the end of my driveway that first Monday after our return, because I’ve always taken sanitation for granted,” said Turner.
As the week progressed the children became more accustomed to having visitors in their home. Jump ropes, yo-yo’s, Silly Bandz and other toys helped getting to know one another easier and soon they wanted to play soccer against some team members, braid their hair and just be carried and loved.
While the children were in school, the morning and afternoon was intense labor in temperatures that reached into the mid-90s. Various tasks were completed throughout the week such as installing windows and doors onto their new building, filling a dump truck three times with various garbage, dirt and debris that cluttered the ground, and taking down a tent that had once housed beds that was now overtaken by mold, dead rodents and animal feces.
Heat exhaustion, homesickness, sunburn and frustrations were battled during the trip, but through every obstacle the team emerged stronger. Even despite most not knowing each other prior to the trip, friendships formed.
The lack of power tools and modern equipment played a factor in the time it took to accomplish tasks. Instead of using a Bobcat to move a large pile of excess dirt, the team spent hours moving dirt one five gallon bucket at a time. Instead of having pre-mixed concrete mix, a few people spent days sifting fine sand through makeshift sifters one shovel at a time.
When the children arrived home at intervals throughout the afternoon, smiles spread from child to child as they changed out of their school uniforms and into clothes they could play in.
“The easiest thing was showing love to all those kids. I really cared for them, so it made it so easy to show it,” said Jennifer Haag, 42. “It was a wonderful to spend time with those kids that probably do not get a lot of cuddling and playtime with grown-ups. Giving them that experience and getting that experience for myself was the best thing ever.”
One thing is for certain. When asked if they would return to do the same thing, everyone in the group gave a unanimous answer. Yes.
(Editor’s note: Sutherland is a contributing writer for the Star News. She was one of the individuals from The Crossing to go on this trip. She tells the Star News the experience opened her eyes to the generosity of people everywhere.
“From my fellow teammates to the people of Haiti, people were willing to go the extra mile no matter the situation — even if they got nothing in return.”)