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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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…