A Week in Haiti with The Hands & Feet Project (Part 2)

Market in Grand Goave

Market in Grand Goave

One in a series of posts reflecting upon the week I spent on a short-term mission in Haiti with The Hands & Feet Project in January 2014. For Part 1 click here. For Part 2 click here. For Part 3 click here. For Part 4 click here. For an afterthought reflection about the topic of heroes in relation to addressing needs in the country of Haiti click here.

It didn’t take long once I first started taking an interest in the plight of people living in Haiti to realize that there are more than just one or two of my fellow Americans that think focusing on needs in Haiti is, at least, a case of misplaced attention. “We have poor people right here in North Carolina,” they might say. Indeed we do! In fact, in fourteen years of teaching in a public school I know all too well that there are plenty of families that live below the poverty line in the United States. In my classroom during any given school year and on any given day one can find a kid who gets free lunch based on coming from a low-income home working in the same cooperative group as a kid who only wears name brand clothes, has an iPhone, and gets picked up in the car rider line each afternoon by a parent driving a Lexus. Surely, there are people in need right here. But, after spending the last week in Haiti I can say with confidence that the gap between poor American citizens and the average Haitian family is huge! Regardless of what words I choose and how I decide to arrange them in an attempt to blog about just how serious the need is in Haiti, you will never truly understand just how big the gap is between how they live and how we live unless you are there to see it for yourself. At 80%, Haiti has the second highest percentage of residents living below the poverty line in the entire world. In the western hemisphere of the globe, no other country is poorer. In the United States only 12% of citizens live below the poverty line. The cause of such poor living conditions consists of a litany of variables ranging from generations of corrupt government and no public education or social services to natural disasters like 2010’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake.

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Market in Grand Goave

My dad (1940-2012) preparing breakfast for guests at the local homeless shelter

My dad (1940-2012) preparing breakfast for guests at the local homeless shelter

Just over a year ago, though, knowledge or concern for the plight of Haitians was the farthest thing from my mind. What was on my mind was my dad’s battle with stage four glioblastoma brain cancer. Diagnosed in the fall of 2010, after surgeries, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy, he passed away in a hospice bed in his living room while I had my head on his chest and his lone surviving brother, my Uncle John, sat nearby. My dad had been my best friend. I always looked up to him and he always had time to listen. He was the best man in my wedding and, just a few years prior to his diagnosis, he’d moved south to North Carolina from upstate New York in order to be closer to my wife, my kids, and I and to help provide daycare for my son who was born in 2007. The kids were his pride and joy and it was clear that, after living a life in which he seemed to always get the short end of the stick, he’d finally found a patch of happiness.

With Hands & Feet Project Director Mark Stuart (April 2013)

With Hands & Feet Project Director Mark Stuart (April 2013)

After the diagnosis in 2010 he did his very best to “just keep putting one foot in front of the other,” as he would say, but, on February 20, 2012, during the only snow that winter, we lost him and, even though I had sixteen months to prepare, I’ve never experienced a darker period. But, as is often said, the darkest time is right before the dawn and, as the dust began to settle, I realized that I’d acquired an altered perspective on life in comparison to that which I had before. The thin, quiet, golden thread of faith that I’d clung to, even when it made no sense to do so, was still there and, for the first time, ever, my focus was crystal clear. My priorities were newly shifted and, in large part, thanks to a groundswell of support and compassion from friends and family, I realized that people and the relationships that connect us, are more precious than almost anything else we waste our time entertaining our restless minds with.

The Hands & Feet Project's new building on the mountain at Ikondo. "Grandpa Rockwell's Kitchen" will be in the room on the first level, where the furthest left window is.

The Hands & Feet Project’s new building on the mountain at Ikondo. “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen” will be in the room on the first level, where the furthest left window is.

It was this new perspective that provided the fertile soil for several variables to be planted in, just right, and in a manner that I could’ve never imagined. A bible verse, James 1:27, to be exact, a connection made by a friend, some divine intervention, and the grace and compassion of God, flowing through The Hands & Feet Project director Mark Stuart, led to the idea of honoring my dad’s memory by naming the kitchen in a new building to be constructed on a mountain in Haiti. The new building on Ikondo is part of The Hands & Feet Project’s plan to provide a facility for older boys who were starting to age out from their program to live and learn vocational trade skills to prepare them for productive lives living as adults in Haiti. While talking on the phone with Mark, immediately after receiving his e-mail delivering the idea of honoring my dad, he suggested that, “Maybe you can come down to see it sometime?” In my head, at the time, it was a ridiculous idea. Yeah, like I’m just going to get up and fly to a third-world country. I soon realized, though, that my perspective wasn’t done evolving.

With Vaddy, the local Haitian artist who made the plaque for the kitchen

With Vaddy, the local Haitian artist who made the plaque for the kitchen

It was toward the beginning of my week in Haiti, Monday or Tuesday evening, I think, when I was taking my day’s end cold shower (hot water was not on the list of available amenities at Ikondo) and I heard my teammate James telling me to hurry up and to come out to the back patio. When I did I found Angie Sutton, one of the site directors, along with James, Marian, and a local Haitian artist who presented me with a hand-made wooden plaque that said, “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen.” I was deeply touched by the Suttons’ sentiment. They’d contacted him a week or so before to make it. I gave him a sincere hug of gratitude for his fine craftsmanship, we took some photos and, before week’s end, we hung it up temporarily for photos in the room the guys on the team had been sleeping in which will eventually be “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen.”

The view of the ocean off the north coast of Haiti, just outside "Grandpa Rockwell's Kitchen"

The view of the ocean off the north coast of Haiti, just outside “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen”

Once construction is complete at Ikondo, the kitchen will be right next to a breezeway in the two-story structure which will serve as the main eating area at Ikondo. From the doorway of “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen you’ll be able to look to the left through the breezeway to see the ocean on the northern coast of Haiti, and then to the right where you’ll see beautiful Haitian mountains.

My dad was a hard-working, practical guy who grew up on a farm, served as a baker in the Air Force, loved spending time in the kitchen, and, during his years in North Carolina, would often pick me up early in the morning on Saturdays so that we could serve breakfast at the homeless shelter in Salisbury. My son and daughter, the main reasons he made the move south from upstate New York where he’d spent his entire life up to that point, were the joy of his life.

The view of the mountains, just to the right, outside "Grandpa Rockwell's Kitchen"

The view of the mountains, just to the right, outside “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen”

As I told my wife, it’s very possible that, for years to come, visiting missionaries (another purpose of Ikondo is to house  mission teams) will wonder why there’s a kitchen on a mountain in Haiti named after “Grandpa Rockwell.” They might not all get the full story, but, I know he would be proud of the idea of his name being associated with a kitchen (his favorite room in our house) in a building where hard-working kids will have the opportunity to learn practical hands-on skills in order to make a living.

My family will forever be grateful to Kevin Max for putting me in touch with The Hands & Feet Project and to Mark Stuart and all involved with the organization for the work they do. Sincere gratitude for the burden-lightening gift of honoring my dad with “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen” was surely the spark that lit the fuse leading to my first trip to Haiti. However, the experiences I had being in the Hands & Feet Children’s Village serving and spending time with the children growing up in such a desperate country, but, thanks to The Hands & Feet Project, doing so with hopes and dreams, will be the undying fuel that will keep me doing everything I can to continue supporting them and, God-willing, return to Grand Goave, Haiti in 2015.

My heart has been broken and my joy now soars higher than I ever thought it could before. All of my senses have been heightened on account of the trip and I am thankful for the opportunity. I have plenty of room to grow, but, I will continue to offer what I have. Christ has, indeed, given me abundant life and he will do the same for you if you open yourself up to Him.

Part 3 coming soon…

Final design for Ikondo. "Grandpa Rockwell's Kitchen" will be situated on the first floor in the center of the building, just to the right of the breezeway and tables

Final design for Ikondo. “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen” will be situated on the first floor in the center of the building, just to the right of the breezeway and tables

Final design for Ikondo. "Grandpa Rockwell's Kitchen" will be situated on the first floor in the center of the building, just to the right of the breezeway and tables

Final design for Ikondo. “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen” will be situated on the first floor in the center of the building, just to the right of the breezeway and tables

 

With Angie and Andrew Sutton, long term American missionaries and directors of the Grand Goave/Ikondo Hands & Feet Project Children's Village sites

With Angie and Andrew Sutton, long term American missionaries and directors of the Grand Goave/Ikondo Hands & Feet Project Children’s Village sites

Drex Stuart (team leader and father of Hands & Feet Project director Mark Stuart) looking over the new plaque for "Grandpa Rockwell's Kitchen." Drex and his wife Jo have been coming to Haiti for mission work since 1979 and actually lived there for nine years.

Drex Stuart (team leader and father of Hands & Feet Project director Mark Stuart) looking over the new plaque for “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen.” Drex and his wife Jo have been coming to Haiti for mission work since 1979 and actually lived there for nine years.

A Week in Haiti with The Hands & Feet Project (Part 1)

About to land in Port-Au-Prince

About to touch down on Haitian soil

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Port-Au-Prince

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Port-Au-Prince

One in a series of posts reflecting upon the week I spent on a short-term mission in Haiti with The Hands & Feet Project in January 2014. For Part 1 click here. For Part 2 click here. For Part 3 click here. For Part 4 click here. For an afterthought reflection about the topic of heroes in relation to addressing needs in the country of Haiti click here. 

Its been a few days since the final leg of my flight back from Haiti touched down in Charlotte and, even before then, I’d been wondering just how I could possibly take the week’s worth of experiences and translate them into meaningful words that could carry, at least, a fraction of the substance that the actual experiences formed in me. I had no misconceptions about being able to come back and just magically broaden everyone’s understanding of just how tough circumstances are for the average Haitian citizen or just how amazing and meaningful the work of The Hands & Feet Project is to the children that it cares for when people ask how the trip was. But, my hope remains that at least a few folks, even just one, will find their interest piqued by my experiences and, perhaps, become motivated to take action for the people of Haiti – whether by committing to their own short term mission trip or by simply contributing financially to those who are down there doing what truly is God’s work – being His hands and feet on the ground to a country so desperately poor and in need of help.

My first impression of the country was made when I looked out the window of the plane while descending to land in Port-Au-Prince. It was a stark contrast to the view I had when I landed in Miami for my connecting flight earlier that morning. Expertly organized, clean, brightly colored Miami stood at one end of the spectrum while the dirty and grungy, trash-laden, and haphazard complexion of Port-Au-Prince sat at the other. It became pretty clear, by the time we got to the airport that, while it was clean and adorned with pro-Haiti tourism advertisements, nobody comes to Haiti for a vacation. The vast majority of people on the flight were missionaries or people in the medical field. The two hour ride from Port-Au-Prince to Grand Goave, site of the Hands & Feet Project Children’s Village where we’d be spending the week, offered plenty of evidence as to why tourism isn’t a thriving component of Haiti’s economy, but, events yet to unfold in the coming week would make it clear that some of the most meaningful and priceless experiences come, not when we are out seeking entertainment and relaxation, but, when we allow God to empty our hands.

(l-r) Pastor Lex (interpreter), Drex and Jo Stuart

(l-r) Pastor Lex (interpreter), Drex and Jo Stuart

I was a missionary for a week, but, not the kind you might think of when you first hear the term. I didn’t bring salvation to a previously undiscovered aboriginal tribe. I didn’t go as a doctor to perform critical life-saving surgeries to those who don’t have access to medical care. No, I was probably one of the least-qualified on our team which consisted of multiple people with many mission trips to Haiti already under their belts. In fact, our team was led by Drex and Jo Stuart, who’ve been coming to Haiti since 1979, spent nine years actually living in there and eventually helped establish The Hands & Feet Project. Drex, at the age of 72 still pastors a church in Illinois. Through an interpreter he delivered the sermon at the Mission of Hope Church that we attended on our first full day in Haiti. The sermon itself was an interesting moment when, Drex pointed out a person in the congregation to stand up and hold their bible up high as an illustration for a point Drex was making in his sermon. Unknowingly, though, the person Drex randomly chose to stand and raise his bible was actually a recent convert to Christianity from Voodoo – the most prominent religious influence in Haiti. This guy wasn’t just your average convert, though. Apparently, just months before, he was one of the most prominent purveyors of Voodoo in the region. Being there to witness the moment, brought about by none of our efforts, but, by God’s providence alone, and for His glory was simply awesome.

Other members of the group had a good amount of background experience in general contracting which proved to be critical in working our way through the list of to-do items that Hands & Feet Project site directors Angie and Andrew had for us to work on. I was in awe of people like my new buddy James who was able to just listen to what the Suttons wanted, envision it and build it. I found myself, at times, just trying to find something I COULD do. For me, there was a lot of holding boards in place while screws were put in, moving wood and bins, tool-fetching, sorting, painting, and, in general, taking direction from the guys who actually knew what they were doing. As a teacher for the past fourteen years, I can state authoritatively that I haven’t worked harder, in terms of manual labor, for so many days in a row, in my adult life. The heaviest thing I ever carry on a routine day might be a stack of quizzes from the photocopier to my classroom. I slept well almost every night that I was there despite the heat because I was simply worn out. I know that, if some of my teammates read this, they’ll chuckle at this admission. I have no misconceptions about the fact that there are manlier guys out there than I am.

By week’s end, though, with all of the to-do list items checked off (plus a few that were added) I knew that what our team accomplished was helpful. The Hands & Feet Project’s vision for the care of orphaned and abandoned children in Haiti is one that is in constant motion. Thozin, the Children’s Village site in Grand Goave where our team worked throughout the week is in the process of transitioning from a campus with temporary wood-structure homes for each house family of 6-8 kids to permanent concrete structures like the Hands & Feet Project’s Jacmel site. Thozin was established when the Hands & Feet Project took in, all at one time, a group of children who’d apparently been mistreated by a less reputable orphanage. So the temporary wooden structures were the most efficient way to go. Now, however, they’re moving on and I know that the work that our team accomplished throughout the week was, at least, helpful in moving the Children’s Village further forward through this transition and I’m thankful for the hard work that my teammates invested to make it happen.

For Part 2 click here.

James on top closing in the shower stalls

James on top closing in the shower stalls

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Office and storage depot exterior painting in progress

Switching the girls and boys bathrooms

Greg rehanging signs after the boys and girls bathrooms were rearranged

Hanging doors

Drex checking out Jewel’s door-framing/hanging skills

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Greg reassembling a bunk bed to serve as shelving in the storage depot

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Site director Angie Sutton sorting supplies in their supply depot

 

No Matter

Though unseen by the casual
Observer
The tether of reality
Tightens its
Grip more on a lone anxious hope
Leaving less
Room to breathe ‘tween blanket and sheet
Unsettled
I recite words sincere to You
Desperate
For a few minutes of sound sleep
Praying still
For enough passion to steady
My gaze on
Just the ground lit by the lamp
At my feet
So that I may at last throw this
Gauntlet down
Knowing that just this lack of strength
Is the key
To ensuring Your victory
Over the
Burden of my arrogance
Set me free