A Week in Haiti with The Hands & Feet Project (Part 4 of 4)

The fourth of four reflections about my experiences when I spent on a short-term mission in Haiti with The Hands & Feet Project in January 2014: Part 1 click here. Part 2 click here. Part 3 click here. For an afterthought reflection about the topic of heroes in relation to addressing needs in the country of Haiti click here.

With New York Jets wide receiver David Nelson, co-founder of I'm ME. Learn more about his foundation which, like The Hands & Feet Project, cares for Haitian orphans at http://www.imme.org/

With New York Jets wide receiver David Nelson, co-founder of I’m ME

It was our first evening in Haiti. Our team had flown from several different U.S. cities to Miami, boarded one plane together, departed Miami, landed in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, stuffed into a van for a two-hour drive to Grand Goave and then rode up to a mountaintop building that is only accessible with a 4wd vehicle. We’d all traveled hundreds of miles and were finally settling in for dinner on a remote, third-world country mountain when, all of a sudden, in through the front door walks a player from my favorite football team, the New York Jets! Not only that, but, it turns out that this guy has a sincere, true, and rare heart for orphans in Haiti. He and his brothers have started I’m ME, a foundation to care for orphans in Haiti and he’s been getting a lot of good advice, apparently, from The Hands & Feet Project director Mark Stuart. We chatted for a few minutes during which I was able to share the story of my connection with The Hands & Feet Project, my respect for high-character Jets such as Wayne Chrebet and Curtis Martin, and my appreciation for his passion for “the least of these,” in Haiti. He shared with me about his faith and how he first became interested and involved with helping to address the the desperate circumstances that exist in Haiti and really came off as being the most authentic person somebody in his shoes could possibly be. With other NFL players, Jets in particular, making headlines for all of the wrong reasons all too often, it is certainly refreshing to have met a pro athlete like him. Check out David’s foundation here: http://www.imme.org/

Loading up shoes in my frigid garage on January 17th.

Loading up shoes in my frigid garage on January 17th.

Two totes (plus half of my suitcase) stuffed with shoes, just off the plane at the airport in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

Two totes (plus half of my suitcase) stuffed with shoes, just off the plane at the airport in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

I couldn’t end this series of reflections on my week without mentioning one of the biggest parts of preparing for the trip during the last two weeks before my plane was set to depart: gathering shoes. Site co-director Angie Sutton sent me a request for shoes for the boys at Grand Goave (the younger kids) and Ikondo (the older kids) and, thanks to the kindness and compassion of colleagues at school and friends, I boarded the plane in Charlotte with two 20+ gallon totes and half of my suitcase full of shoes ranging from sizes too small for my six-year-old to sizes too big for me – a good variety to help address the needs of the boys of the Hands & Feet Project in Grand Goave.

While this trip itself has blown open my perspective regarding the serious gap between the luxuries that we take for granted in the U.S. and the primitive and unhealthy living conditions of so many in Haiti, it has also affirmed, for me, the power and value that a simple act of kindness can have. Many of my colleagues and friends donated brand new shoes or money to purchase shoes for the boys of The Hands & Feet Project. Because they walk to school each day and the terrain is rocky, they go through them quickly. But, thanks to some generous Americans, the boys of The Hands & Feet Project now have plenty of new shoes!

Sorting and pulling the larger-sized shoes out for the older boys at Ikondo before taking the rest down to Thozin, the other site where the younger kids live. This shot is from inside what will be "Grandpa Rockwell's Kitchen." Currently, however, it is being used as a bedroom for incoming short-term mission teams until construction at Ikondo progresses a little further.

Sorting and pulling the larger-sized shoes out for the older boys at Ikondo before taking the rest down to Thozin, the other site where the younger kids live. This shot is from inside what will be “Grandpa Rockwell’s Kitchen.” Currently, however, it is being used as a bedroom for incoming short-term mission teams until construction at Ikondo progresses a little further.

I estimate that 40-50 pairs of shoes, the absolute maximum number that I could fit into the two bins and my personal luggage, made the trip with me from my driveway in North Carolina to The Hands & Feet Children’s Village in Grand Goave, Haiti. From the money that was donated to purchase shoes I had $30 left over which I gave to Andrew Sutton, co-director of the Grand Goave Hands & Feet Children’s Village, to use as they see fit.

The majority of the shoes were sorted by size and placed in the storage depot  where the younger kids’ live to be distributed later as needed, but, several pairs were kept on the mountain top at Ikondo for the older boys. I was caught somewhat off guard early in the week when, while having an evening devotional with the other guys on the team, three of the boys came up behind me and hugged me in thanks for the shoes. I told them immediately that the shoes all came from friends in the states, but, that I was certainly happy to see that they liked them so much. I could tell from that moment, and then later on in the week while spending time with the older boys, that they truly appreciated the new footwear.

Sorting shoes by size for the younger kids at the Thozin site in the storage depot

Sorting shoes by size for the younger kids at the Thozin site in the storage depot

Happy to have some new shoes!

Happy to have some new shoes!

Happy to have some new shoes!

Happy to have some new shoes!

Thanks to each and every person who supported this shoe-collection effort!

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

-Matthew 25:34-40

Learn about how being a part of The Hands & Feet Project’s Family Room program can help even more…

…and thanks to everyone who prayed for the team and I as we made the journey. It was an unforgettable week and, God-willing, it won’t be my last visit to Grand Goave, Haiti.

The team (l-r): Greg (rear), Jewel (front), Drex, Wendy, Marian, myself, Jo, James, and April

The team (l-r): Greg (rear), Jewel (front), Drex, Wendy, Marian, myself, Jo, James, and April

Afterthought: Are You Looking For A Hero? I’ve Found Some…

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For reflections about my experiences when I spent a week on a short-term mission trip to Haiti with The Hands & Feet Project in January 2014:  Part 1 click here.  Part 2 click here.  Part 3 click here. Part 4 click here.

I’m sitting here on a Friday evening at the tail-end of my first full week back at school (since last week was pock-marked with snow days) after returning from a week spent in Haiti with The Hands & Feet Project. At this point, the Haitian dust has settled a bit and the black sneakers I wore most of the week are now, almost, black again, as opposed to the tan hue they took on as a result of the dry, dusty conditions in Grand Goave.

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”

The beautiful view I had when I walked out our bedroom door each morning, just after waking to the sounds of roosters, however, left a huge impression on me. I’ve got photos of Haiti cycling through as a screen saver on my desktop at home and even the computer screen image of those mountains rising up, even further than the height on which the Hands & Feet Project’s Ikondo mission village is being built, makes me pause and sigh whenever I catch it out of the corner of my eye. It is a very, very special place, indeed.

Today as I was working toward the end of a particularly stressful week I made the comment to more than one person that, while I was in Haiti, I worked harder, physically, than I normally do during a day’s work and I ended up falling right to sleep each evening in Haiti, despite the heat, because, quite simply, I was tired. But, throughout that whole week I wasn’t stressed in even the least bit. It was a joy to be there. I knew that, though, my contributions were relatively small, in comparison to most of the other guys who had a good deal more experience with contracting work, every single thing I did was helping to advance the development of the Hands & Feet Project Children’s Village at least a little bit. Having the chance to be there and to contribute, in even the small manner that I did, to the beautiful work that The Hands & Feet Project does in an area where the need is so desperate was a distinct and humbling honor.

Hands & Feet Project co-director Andrew Sutton's shirt: "However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace." -Acts 20:24

Hands & Feet Project co-director Andrew Sutton’s shirt:
“However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.” -Acts 20:24

Quite honestly, it has been a challenge to make the transition back to working in a public school in the U.S. where even the most economically disadvantaged students have it far better than the average Haitian child. The adults, too, are all too often, too tangled in their own webs of stress, career goals, and politics to stop and realize just how fortunate we really are to live in America. Though, I should say that it isn’t really a matter of realizing how fortunate we are to live here, but, instead, to realize how fortunate we are to have the opportunity to consume here because, really, that is what we do.

The U.S.A., it seems, is much more characteristic of the moniker: United States of Consumerism. Too many of us, because we haven’t had the chance to step out and see the big picture, aren’t really living. As teachers we work so hard to write lesson plans that will “engage students” (teacher-speak for holding the interest of over-stimulated American children for several minutes in a row), employ technology in the classroom as much as possible, raise district test scores, and placate all of the public stake-holders in an increasingly political occupation that we lose touch with the idea of connecting with humanity. Some of us, it seems, don’t even know what it is anymore. I can say this because these are the conditions that I teach in and I feel the pressures each day, hence the stress.

But, the fact that I’ve had a chance, now, to, not just view a news clip or read an article, but, to actually be in the poorest country on this half of the earth and see just how wide the gap is between the haves and have-nots, has made it truly difficult for me to reconcile, not only the luxuries of my daily life with knowing the profound needs in theirs, but, also the disproportionate amount of energy, time, and stress that goes into trying to “race to the top” in public education with the seemingly little good that it actually does for American kids, let alone the ones who really need the most help.

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

Don’t get me wrong. I have some wonderful kids in my classroom every day and being there to witness connections being made, goals being achieved, and confidence being built is an awesome privilege and responsibility, but, it really seems like the cost to benefit ratio is becoming more and more expensive when I know that, dollar for dollar, thought for thought, and pound for pound, there is such a serious and desperate need for investment elsewhere.

What this means for me and for my family, only God knows. Maybe not much in terms of any significant shifts. After all, these are just the typed-words of a middle-aged school teacher at the end of a rough week. But, I can say, for sure, that I am truly inspired by and I have the utmost sincere respect for those who drop their own security, get up, and move to where the need is in order to help address it. That, perhaps, is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about who the heroes of this world are: modern missionaries who give it all up and go to be the Hands and Feet of Christ to “the least of these,” where the need is greatest.

If you are the praying kind of person, or even if you’re not for that matter, please prayerfully consider supporting the work of those who don’t just visit for a week and then fly back to the comforts of home in the U.S., but, the ones who picked up and moved everything in order to live and serve where the need is:

The Sutton Family – the directors we worked most closely with while in Grand Goave

The Mulligan Family – the directors we visited for a day while visiting the Children’s Village they oversee in Jacmel

Find out how you can give a gift of support to the Suttons, the Mulligans, the Moores, or Hands & Feet Child Advocate Michelle Meece

A Week in Haiti with The Hands & Feet Project (Part 3)

A few of the beautiful kids that live at the Grand Goave Children's Village of The Hands & Feet Project in Haiti

A few of the beautiful kids that live at the Grand Goave Children’s Village of The Hands & Feet Project in Haiti

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.

Teammate James Tompkins playing basketball with Chadieu

Teammate James Tompkins playing basketball with Chadieu

The kids. How do I begin to describe them? They are, of course, the main focus of both Children’s Villages of The Hands & Feet Project in Haiti. The statistics that are out there indicating the gap that exists between the life of an average child in Haiti and the life an average American child are absolutely staggering. I won’t get into them in this post, but, as I’ve said before, no matter what I write or say, you can’t really understand just how different life in Haiti is, compared to America, unless you go there. Having done so, now, I can speak with full confidence when I say that, thanks to The Hands & Feet Project, these kids are free to be kids. With their basic needs met the kids are free to enjoy many of the things that kids elsewhere do whether dancing to music, playing basketball, playing soccer, or just goofing around with friends.

The kids at Grand Goave, where I spent most of my week, are mostly upper elementary/early middle school-aged

Kettia, one of the kids we sponsor through The Hands & Feet Project

Kettia, one of the kids we sponsor through The Hands & Feet Project

kids and, like any group of kids, they represent a spectrum of personalities ranging from shy and quiet to bubbly and energetic with all types in between. There was one, however, that I was most interested in meeting. Her name is Kettia and my family has been sponsoring her through The Hands & Feet Project’s Family Room monthly sponsorship program for about one year. After site director Angie Sutton introduced us, Kettia went to her room and came back out with a family photo of my wife, my kids, and I that we’d sent her with a Christmas card several weeks ago. Over the course of the next couple of days we played basketball together, chased each other, and spent a good amount of time playing games and looking at photos on my phone.

Kettia holding the family photo/frame that Julia made for me to give her

Kettia holding the family photo/frame that my daughter Julia made for me to give her

It was during the time that she spent looking at photos on my phone, listening as I explained who or what was in each one, that I made a personal commitment to not just be a long distance sponsor for Kettia. She was so interested in the photos of my family and I and my American experiences that I’d documented with images. I had hundreds of photos on there at the time and she went through every single one! We were there just looking at photos together for nearly an hour and I couldn’t help, but, wonder what thoughts were going through her head as she saw photos of my family of four, together, in our house and elsewhere. I want her to know, going forward, that though she won’t see me that often, she is now a part of our family and we will keep in touch with her throughout each year and for years to come. We will pray for her, specifically, as a family each evening and I will go back to visit with her again. In all, the time we spent together was a moving and bond-strengthening confirmation that the monthly sponsorship we’ve maintained through Hands & Feet has made a real, on-the-ground, impact and we, as a family, are so thankful for the opportunity to be involved.

Odlin, one of the boys I battled against in our ocean water fight Sunday afternoon

Odlin, one of the boys I battled against in our ocean water fight Sunday afternoon

Sunday was our first full day in Haiti and, to be honest, I was kind of nervous about how to interact with the kids, but, my concerns were eased during our Sunday afternoon trip to the beach when I was able to engage a couple of the boys in an all-out ocean water fight. That was when I realized that, unlike some in the normal Haitian population, most of the kids at Hands & Feet can speak both Hatian Creole and, to at least some extent, English. Considering this new tidbit of information together with the fact that water fights are fun for kids no matter what part of the world they grow up in, I was able to step into the water with confidence and, literally, get my feet wet with these kids for the first time! Splashing around with them was a blast and it remains one of my favorite memories from the trip.

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Emmanuel was more than happy to demonstrate the proper way to eat a fresh mango in Haiti

Another favorite experience involved eating freshly-picked mangoes that were given to us by the kids. With a handful of large mango trees on site at the Grand Goave Children’s Village they are a common treat for the kids there who get them either by picking them off the ground after they’ve fallen or by throwing rocks and sticks up into the tree to knock them loose. They are absolutely delicious, but, they are also a mess to eat!

Nickenson, and one of his house brothers, looking at the photo/frame my son Jacob made for him

Nickenson, and one of his house brothers, looking at the photo/frame my son Jacob made for him

After working on projects around the Grand Goave Children’s Village on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we took a day trip to visit the Jacmel Children’s Village on Thursday. We packed into the van and saw some amazing views as we drove two hours over the mountains to Jacmel which is on the south coast of Haiti. The site in Jacmel, while continually expanding, is much more developed than the temporary housing that exists in Grand Goave. The population of kids in Jacmel is, on average, much younger than Grand Goave and I learned rather quickly that these younger kids were much more apt to just run to you, jump up, and cling on than their older counterparts in Grand Goave. What a joy it was to be able to hang out with those little bundles of energy! But, the two highlights of our Jacmel visit, undoubtedly, were visiting the other child that we sponsor through Hands & Feet, Nickenson, and, then, meeting the newest resident at the Hands & Feet Children’s Village in Jacmel, Elijah.

He was fascinated by my whiskers for some reason

He was fascinated by my whiskers for some reason

Nickenson is a toddler who, as soon as walked through the door in his house, had a big smile on his face! He was very appreciative of the family photo/frame that my son Jacob made for him and it didn’t take long before he had both arms around my neck, holding on to me. One of the things he was most fascinated by, though, was my beard. He just kept playing with it while I chatted with him, trying to soak up his joyful wonder for a few minutes. When a teammate came in and informed me that it was time to leave and they were waiting on me, it broke my heart to have to do so. His house mother had to pull him off after he’d had his arms so tight around my neck and his head on my shoulder. My last view of him was as he was walking back to his bedroom with tears welling up, looking down at the photo I’d given him. My tears have welled up several times since then when reflecting back on that moment.

With 7-day old baby Elijah, the newest resident at the Jacmel Children's Village

With 7-day old baby Elijah, the newest resident at the Jacmel Children’s Village

Before spending time with Nickenson, I had the chance to spend some time with Elijah, the newest resident at the Jacmel Hands & Feet Project Children’s Village. I rocked four-pound Elijah for almost a half-hour and what a privilege it was! He had just been abandoned by his mother who couldn’t or didn’t want to take care of him. She’d planned to leave him on the steps of the hospital – an all too common practice in Haiti, often with disheartening results – but, thankfully, The Hands & Feet Project was there to take him in.

These kids are real and they are beautiful. I know, they are hundreds of miles away from anyone that might read this blog, but, they are living and breathing children with personalities, dreams, and emotions. They’re made of God-given flesh and blood, just like your son or daughter, and just as deserving of love. Thank God, they get a good share of it from their house families and the staff of The Hands & Feet Project.

The following video features the children from The Hands & Feet Project

Little hands, shoeless feet, lonely eyes looking back at me
Will we leave behind the innocent to grieve
On their own, on the run when their lives have only begun
These could be our daughters and our sons
And just like a drum I can hear their hearts beating
I know my God won’t let them be defeated
Every child has a dream to belong and be loved

Boys become kings, girls will be queens
Wrapped in Your majesty
When we love, when we love the least of these
Then they will be brave and free
Shout your name in victory
When we love when we love the least of these
When we love the least of these

Break our hearts once again
Help us to remember when
We were only children hoping for a friend
Won’t you look around these are the lives that the world has forgotten
Waiting for doors of our hearts and our homes to open

If not us who will be like Jesus
To the least of these
If not us tell me who will be like Jesus
Like Jesus to the least of these

Boys become kings, girls will be queens
Wrapped in your majesty
When we love, when we love the least of these
Then they will be brave and free shout your name in victory
We will love we will love the least of these

Part 4 coming soon…