Anna Gaylord, Lexi Laflin and Steven Rodriguez smile when they remember their mission trip to Haiti.
The trio of Ewing High School juniors brought smiles to Haitian faces when they spent 10 days of their winter break working in Fort Liberte, Haiti.
“Coming back was kind of hard,” Rodriguez said. “I like traveling and I like helping people. When we came back it was a rough transition.”
The three were part of a mission trip organized by Central Baptist Church in Ewing. It’s the 10th straight year that the church has sent volunteers to Haiti over the winter break.
“I feel like it’s our responsibility to open people’s eyes to the rest of the world,” said church member and trip organizer Les Enterline, who sits on the board of the Friends of Fort Liberte. “There’s a Haitian proverb that the heart can’t feel what the eyes don’t see. It’s very true. We have a responsibility to make sure people’s eyes see so their heart feels. In America, when the commercials come on, you can hit the remote and skip it, and if you don’t watch it, it doesn’t exist.”
In traveling to Haiti for the first time, the three saw first-hand the acute need for aid.
They absorbed some culture and even some French. They built desks and benches in a school, volunteered in a medical clinic by passing out supplies and counting medicine, and spent free time playing with Haitian children.
“It definitely changed my views on everything we have here,” said Laflin, who is interested in nursing and enjoyed working in the clinic. “It made me feel how fortunate we have it and see how the little things we do in our lives make such an impact on their lives. It was amazing to see how happy it made them to do the little things we were doing for them.”
In the middle of the trip, on New Year’s Day, the group bagged up and passed out food to help celebrate Haiti’s Independence Day.
Gaylord said they packed up a total of about 500 bags that contained beans, rice, dried fish and pasta. They then went and handed them out at the other churches.
“That was the most impactful day for us,” Gaylord said. “I watched 500 different families get food when they would normally not get something to eat.”
The three were part of a group of 21 that had a mix of experience. There were three other students from Hopewell Valley Central High and 15 adults. The teenagers were encouraged to go on Central’s summer mission trip to Fair Bluff, North Carolina, last year to be better prepared for the trip to Haiti.
“We take our youth, about 35 students, someplace else in the country to work on under-served homes,” Enterline said. “Before I take a student to Haiti, I like them to go on that trip. I need to make sure their head and their heart is in the right place.”
He adds that he enjoys going on trips with the students because they are able to see things through the innocent eyes of a child but reason as an adult.
“If they see a kid hurting on the street —they may have some sores or something—they don’t think, ‘oh, I’m going to get something,’ they immediately act and comfort the child or hold the child. I’ve seen that repeatedly,” Enterline said. “Just being able to let their barriers down and accept people for who they are is really important.”
Enterline adds that it is important to expose youth to other cultures and allow them opportunities to serve. He’s been thrilled that he’s had willing volunteers every year surrender a chunk of their winter vacation to go on the trip.
“These kids, not only are they getting an experience, but they’re giving up things,” Enterline said. “They could have gone skiing. They could have hung out with their friends. They also had to sacrifice from a monetary standpoint.”
The trip isn’t cheap—it costs $1,850. The students raise money through sponsorship, and some have even asked family and friends to give money to use toward the trip instead of holiday gifts.
“That gives you a lot of faith in our next generation,” Enterline said.
Past volunteers talk glowingly about their experiences on previous trips, and that helps to spread the word to up-and-coming students who then want to volunteer. It’s what piqued Laflin’s interest in going.
“My freshman year, my friend took me to one of Central Baptist’s youth groups,” Laflin recalled. “I know a lot of people that go there. They talked about how great it was. I saw pictures from his trip to Haiti, and it made me want to go.”
She also saw a video that one of her friends made from her previous trip.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I was there” Laflin said. “I was expecting to see a lot of poverty and not the same things as here, but it was crazy to see how they lived, and they always were so positive no matter what they were going through.”
Several of this year’s adult volunteers had gone previously as teenagers. This year’s group will forever stay connected even if they do not return to Haiti. They agreed to sponsor a 9-year-old Haitian named Daynize.
“Since we sponsored her, we pay for her education until she’s 18,” Rodriguez said. “We pay for her medical bills. We can send her care packages. She’s basically an extension of our family there. We care for her like we’d care for anyone here.”
For someone like Enterline who returns yearly, going back to the same place allows him to gauge the effects of the group’s aid. He said that it’s heartwarming to see positive change.
“The great thing about going back to the same place is you begin to see progress,” Enterline said. “You see the investment of something like the child sponsorship program where, by sponsoring them for $35 a month, you’re enabling them to go to school. It’s enabling them to eat. It’s through education and removing the hunger that kids and any of us are able to slowly begin to get out of situations. It’s the basic needs.
“That’s the important thing about the clinic. We’re meeting basic needs—education, food and health care. We’ve had students who have been in the program that have gone on to medical school, nursing school, engineering school, agronomics school, they come back and work on the farm and work in the clinic, they have that chance.”
The Haitian people’s upbeat attitude impressed the teenagers the most. From the outset of the trip, it was readily apparent that they could make the most of anything.
“When we got out of the van, it was amazing how much the people there love other people,” Gaylord said. “Even though they have so little, they can love so much. They were all there to greet us when we got out of the van. The people that had been there before, they were giving them hugs. They were so loving.”
Rodriguez said he was thrilled with the reaction he got by bringing a soccer ball to share with kids from the local orphanage. It replaced an old, deflated basketball that the Haitian kids had been using. They played soccer for two hours together.
“When we got there and I brought out the soccer ball, there was a swarm of kids that came out to play,” Rodriguez said. “A lady told me it was the first time they’d seen so many kids in the courtyard.”
Whether they were playing soccer, or in the medical clinic or helping with construction in the school, the Ewing trio saw the fruit of their volunteering.
“We were kind of hanging around since we had finished (building) a desk and it was almost lunch time, and there was one little boy, he came up and just sat at one of the desks,” Gaylord said. “It hit me, we’re doing it for these people and they’re getting so much use and they’re so grateful we’re here for them. It really struck me that I was making a difference in these people’s lives.”
The Haitian people are what stood out the most for all three Ewing students.
“There was a porch at the place where we stayed, and every time we went on the porch, there were kids waiting for us,” Laflin said. “Even though they couldn’t understand everything we said, they were so happy to see us and interact with us.”
Haiti has impacted the trio. Their trip was an unforgettable experience that they think back to often.
“The whole experience being back, I would listen to what my friends would say, all the gossip and drama that went down,” Rodriguez said. “They’re talking about stuff that doesn’t matter and there are people in other counties that don’t have food or water to clean themselves. It was a whole different perspective that it’s two different worlds on the same planet.”
Gaylord agreed: “Being there and actually doing something with my winter break, especially being in Haiti and seeing how much it helped and looking back on it, I realize how much it impacted my life and how it impacted their lives with us being there for them. I don’t think I could have spent my winter break any other way.”
“When references to Haiti come up, I think how I was able to help those people and make things better,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a very humbling thing and it makes me happy when it crosses my mind.”
“Seeing everyone’s smiles and bringing them so much joy, you create such a strong bond with them,” Laflin said.