"Perhaps it was because I was leading the Catholic Student Ministry’s Spring Break trip to Haiti and feeling an overwhelming desire to usher a “successful” venture, but through the months of planning up until our group’s departure I could not shake an incessant anxiety borne of one question: What will we produce in Saltadere?
I spent countless hours delving deep into thought, following every sidetrack along the way, wracking my brain for an answer. After all, I concluded we are there on a mission trip; we are privileged university students; we must produce an outcome or else we are simply useless. I found myself dreading the pre-trip meeting and questions from well-meaning friends and family; dreading the moments where I would have to put into words what exactly we were to do in Haiti. Everything I ever said was made to sound as if we were going to leave a brick and mortar legacy. I would say we were to provide preliminary help in the construction of the new clinic, or we were to touch up the water system, or we were to reinvigorate the school’s computer lab, or we were to teach computer literacy classes. There was truth to all of these tasks. There in fact was a project just begun to convert the old dispensary into a new clinic, and we had boxes of refurbished laptops to take to the computer lab, and our token Haiti committee member did want to check out the spring fed water system. All this was noble work.
However, I could not seem to take ownership of any of it. I knew we weren’t going to do any construction at the clinic because the designs were not yet finalized (and even if they were, the work would be done by Haitians in need of work). I knew I would see the water infrastructure, but it was already built and the presence of our student group would have no effect on what it brought to the community. I knew the new equipment we would bring to the computer lab would be essential, but how could we ever hope to impart knowledge to the Haitian students with one week and a nonexistent ability to speak Creole. One thing was certain; we were going to Saltadere. The uncertainty lay in what exactly our purpose there would be. We would produce no wonderful new clinic; we would produce no new water system; we would produce nothing substantial. I beat myself up over and over again: Why are we going there if we cannot produce anything beneficial for the people?
Needless to say we traveled to Saltadere. Two planes, a bus, and Fr. Ilric’s 4-wheel Jeep put us in the St. Michel Church’s compound. We arrived to friendly smiles and giggles, tons of helping hands, and a Mass fit for the homecoming of a beloved. My anxiety had not left me, and I could not shake the feeling we were taking much more than we were giving. The kitchen consistently produced a tableful of rice, beans, bread, butter, eggs, cheese, and fresh fruit for every meal (even when we were all horribly sick). We ate inside while the orphans romped around outside, munching on raw sugar cane, having eaten their meager meal. We showered each day and enjoyed the use of a standard toilet while the children and their caretakers bathed in a large earthen bath and used several outhouses adjacent to where the garbage was burned. All the while, we were only able to offer poor pronunciations of the scant creole words we learned from our translator, a soccer ball, a volleyball, and a cheap pair of “UVa Catholic” sunglasses. We were only a parasitic presence to St. Michel in Saltadere. Or so I thought.
I slowly came to realize (at least, as slowly as I could in a week) what our trip was doing. I had been so single-mindedly focused on producing for Saltadere that I nearly missed out on the great joy they had in generously sharing themselves with us. There is more to life than what can be produced. In fact, if we were to put a more pragmatic thought to it all, we cannot possibly produce anything in this life because all we have is given from God above. The only thing we can hope to do in goodness of heart is accept God’s gifts and share them with our brothers and sisters. This was my lesson. Looking back, I can see that the greatest thing we did in Haiti was accept what our gracious hosts had to offer and in return give ourselves - not what we could produce with our hands and not what could come out of our bags or pockets, but ourselves. I see success in every memory of our students playing with the children, being used as living jungle gyms. I see success in the memories of kicking around a beat up basketball in the schoolyard. What we left from our trip was a sense of belonging. We made it known to the best of our ability that we were all family in Christ and the voices of Saltadere are heard. In the end, all material things will pass away. What is most important is to seek out the intrinsic dignity in every human person. There is need for infrastructure and supplies in Saltadere, but there is a greater need for the men and women, both young and old to be looked in the eye and heard; to receive a hug or a kiss on the cheek and to know they are loved; to know their hopes, fears, dreams, and realities are important as every part of us is important in the eyes of our God."
-Daniel, UVA class of 2017
The people in Saltadere, Haiti are among the poorest in the world, yet they approach life with optimism and perseverance as they go throughout the day and make a better life for themselves. They are people making the most out of the situation they are in as they try to make better futures for themselves. This joint committee between the parishes of St. Thomas Aquinas and Holy Comforter brings aid to the area through various donations. With your support, it can continue to provide services such as a clean water pump, a School and scholarship programs, and technology new to the region such as old computers that can be used in education and healthcare. Below are testimonials from students from St. Thomas Aquinas, a university parish for the University of Virginia that sends students from UVA to Haiti every year. They reflected on their experiences and how their time there illustrated the impact that the generosity of others has on the community. Thank you for your time and support.
"What I found at the St. Michel rectory were children who are just children...They love to play, run, joke around, and laugh. They also long to have the permanent type of love that only a family can give...given the circumstances, I think St. Michel is a good place for these children to be."
- Alexandra, UVA class of 2017
"Traveling to Haiti was an incredibly rewarding experience. The beauty of the landscape first struck me as we drove in the early morning light into the town of Saltadere over roads that would be unimaginable in the United States. However, the beauty of the people there is what has stuck with me. It is a small community, very tight nit. I think I imagined a poor, broken town, but what I realized is that I was putting too much emphasis on the link between tangible objects and happiness. The absolute joy and love of life is incredible even though they Iive with little. I began to see the effect of God on these people and how their love of Him radiates into their daily lives. It was such an enlightening and faith-inspiring experience, one I hope to have again!"
-Meron UVA Class of 2018
"I found that the most important thing I could contribute, more so than any sort of specialized skill, was my attention...I've been told my greatest asset is my time, and my experience in Haiti. If we had gone to bed as soon as the youngest started falling asleep in our laps, we wouldn't have connected as well with the kids who stayed up to practice writing their names and attempting to spell ours. Moreover, I'm thouroghly grateful that our hosts were so generous with their time...I'm happy and thankful for the opportunity to visit St. Michel's and hope that you will join me in keeping the parish in your prayers
-Aileen UVA class of 2017