Dessalines, Haiti – A woman’s sobs echo in a hospital hallway and nearby courtyard. The body of her son is visible on a gurney against a wall.
Earlier in the day the mother and her young boy walked to the Claire Heureuse Hospital in Dessalines because he didn’t feel well. Now she will walk home alone.
The child’s death from a presumed brain aneurysm and his mother’s anguished cries cast a visible shadow over the faces of the members of the Round Rock, Texas-based E412 Foundation as they lingered in the hospital courtyard.
“The theme of this week is ‘exposing all the crutches I use to soften the blow of life,’” said Mike Erwin, the team’s leader. “These people aren’t spared the illusions we have to keep real life at bay. The woman came in with her son with a headache and leaves alone to return home. No funeral. She can’t afford one.”
Life in Haiti is harsh, unforgiving and relentless. Over the course of their eight days 100 miles north of the nation’s capital city, the team was often overwhelmed by the substantial need they witnessed in the region.
The country, according to a veteran missionary, is one of the most difficult places in the world to serve. There are no barriers between life and death. There is no filter for catastrophic events to pass through before being meted out to the helpless. It is a place where walking down the street with a bottle of clean drinking water can make a Westerner feel as if they’re taunting the village children who clamor for a sip.
There are seven people on this team ranging in occupation from a real estate agent to a high school student. Several are in Haiti for the second and third time, and although some are visiting the Caribbean nation for the first time, none are strangers to short-term mission work.
Recently formed, the Texas foundation wants to fill a void in the humanitarian sphere by organizing short-term mission trips to Haiti for folks who want to help, but who don’t fit the typical mission mold.
“We help people who want to get into mission (work),” said Erwin, seated at a table in the dining room of a couple who have worked in Gonaives, Haiti for 18 years.
While team members played with the children at a nearby orphanage, Erwin discussed the new foundation’s purpose. “We want to give people the resources to go,” he said. “Wherever God is moving, go join him there.”
Erwin said there’s often an “ugly political side” to some church missions, but he sees the need for work trips where religious beliefs don’t matter. “There are lots of folks out there who want to get into mission (work) but are unintentionally secluded.”
Erwin’s team spent eight days visiting a hospital and orphanages as well as meeting with missionaries in and near Dessalines to discuss the possibility of bringing short-term teams to support them in the areas they need most.
“That’s the life beat for me…joining people at work,” said Erwin. “We want to get people out of the mindset of being the savior and (instead) walk shoulder to shoulder with people while they help themselves.”
In the mornings, the team walked the short distance between Claire Heureuse Hospital and their lodgings. Both the hospital and the apartment buildings that house visiting aid workers are supported by the Haiti Healthcare Advocates, a “volunteer organization dedicated to bringing medical assistance to a population of over 200,000 people residing in the Artibonite Valley at the base of the Artibonite Mountains,” according to their website. Shortly after dawn each morning, team members took turns leading the patient and staff chapel services.
After breakfast, the Texas members divided into small groups to work on various humanitarian efforts, such as visiting children at nearby orphanages, delivering rice and juice to gravel makers and making repairs to nearby homes.
They also visited people in their home to pray for them.
One day they prayed for a 34-year-old man who suffered from a metastatic tumor on his shoulder. Paulette, a gracious neighbor, took him into her home when his mother couldn’t bear to watch him suffer. Lying on his side in a rock-wall room with one window, the man feebly shooed away the flies that crawled over his sheet-covered emaciated body. The large tumor protruded out of his shoulder, breaking the skin and pressing against his neck. His pain was obvious.
Next to his room laid an elderly woman on a mat on the floor, with a bowl and pitcher of water by her head. Lifting the woman’s bed sheet, Paulette revealed that the woman’s left leg was twisted backwards, her foot pointed in the wrong direction. She had broken her leg at some point but could not get medical attention. Before arriving at Paulette’s home, the woman had lived on the streets.
Need was everywhere.
When the Texas team heard that a 17-member household needed an outhouse, they eagerly accepted the financial responsibility for building the $150 structure. There was a sense of relief among the team members; this was a tangible way to help. The fecal waste of 17 people would be eliminated from the street and in a small way reduce the opportunity for disease to spread.
In Dessalines, a school administrator and her husband pleaded for help to keep their school open. Poverty keeps parents from paying their children’s school fees and other funding is difficult to obtain. The trickle-down effect is that the school, which educates nearly 500 students, is unable to make payroll and teachers threaten to quit.
“Kids in Haiti: they really like school,” said Emanuel Simon, whose wife, Rachelle, is the school’s administrator. “They want to create a very good stature in society. The problem is they don’t have anyone to support them.”
He said the children from the poorest farms typically have the highest grade-point average. “They know only school can give them something in life tomorrow.”
In nearby Gonaives, a city about 45 minutes from Dessalines, the Genada family operates an orphanage, a school for the deaf, a Bible school and a six-day-a-week feeding program in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Gonaives. They also operate a bakery in a stone building near the orphanage.
The Genadas left their homeland in the Philippines in 1994 to become Haiti-based missionaries. The family has survived two catastrophic floods, the 2010 earthquake in Port au Prince and have started 32 churches during their tenure in the island nation.
“The Lord wants us to be here, so we stay,” Pastor Juanito Genada told the group while seated in his dining room with his wife Rose next to him. Like many struggling people in Haiti, the pastor said he doesn’t always know how he will pay his employees or provide resources for the people who depend on him.
After feeding children for seven years in a ghetto-like neighborhood in Gonaives, the Genadas saw many of the local children did not have educational opportunities. The missionaries opened the Institution Mixte Genada school in September 2012. It employs six teachers, a principal and one helper and currently educates more than 100 students.
On the day the team visited, children sang songs in a front classroom, while preschool-aged students wearing uniforms with their names stitched on them were taught school lessons in the back of the building.
Seated at the Genada’s table during a hot afternoon, team members Brooke Wheeler and Nicole Adair talked about what brought them to Haiti.
“I was so restless for a purpose,” said Adair. “What an opportunity to come here. I’ve never seen people with a greater faith than here.”
Wheeler recalls being invited into a family’s home on the team’s first day in Dessalines. “We were going in to see how we could help them and (we were) met with such powerful faith,” she said. “It was overwhelmingly fulfilling for my spirit.”
Adair said she needed the opportunity to “get out of my junk” and to ask God “how can you use me and what are you going to do? It’s amazing what opportunities you see to serve and love others when you have that perspective.”
“Gratitude and gratefulness feed gratitude and gratefulness,” said Wheeler. “It’s a joy to get to be a part of it. You almost feel selfish. It’s amazing we get the opportunity to love others.”
On 12 acres in Dessalines, Don and Doris Peavey started the EGO Orphanage after moving to Haiti in 1970.
Gathered in the iconic missionaries’ living room, Erwin and his team listened raptly while the elderly couple shared stories from their early years in Dessalines.
“The devil doesn’t like us,” said Doris Peavey, speaking of some of the difficulties they have faced in the island nation. “But God has always brought us through everything.”
The orphanage is home to 45 children and several animals. A solar-powered oven bakes 13 loaves of bread at a time, and the children’s home uses other solar capabilities to take advantage of the blazing sun. As funds become available, the orphanage upgrades its facilities; for example, the girls’ bathroom recently got hot water for the first time. Some of the girls said they don’t use it.
Marla Drowley, her husband, Ken, and their two children moved to Dessalines in August 2012 to help the Peaveys, who are now in their 80s. During a visit with the Texas team, Drowley cuddled Dahicha, a 3-month-old girl recovering from tetanus. The baby arrived at the orphanage two days after her birth, with an infected attached umbilical cord. She was hospitalized for two weeks.
Shortly after Dahicha was released from the hospital, she started having seizures and was sent to another hospital in Port au Prince. “She is doing so much better,” said Drowley. The baby girl may suffer eye damage but for the time being the severity, if any, is unknown.
The burden of Haiti
“I get a sense that everything I do here isn’t enough,” said Ben Ward, a Texas team member, one evening during a time of reflection. He voiced what the group seemed to be feeling.
“The needs that need to be met (in Haiti) are far outside my capability,” said Erwin.
Eight days after arriving in the Caribbean nation, Texas team members prepared for their departure, with many of them determined to continue their work by supporting their old – and new – Haitian friends.
“Some people in Haiti may wonder why we serve in Haiti,” said Erwin via a translator at the team’s last patient chapel at the hospital. “You are my brothers and sisters, and if your brother or sister is in need, you will do what you can to help them. Our desire is to come alongside you hand-in-hand as you change your country.”
The E412 Foundation is planning its next trip to Haiti. If you are interested in partnering with them or in accompanying team members on a short-term mission trip, contact Mike Erwin at: email@example.com, or Jess Stephens at firstname.lastname@example.org.