The first words I heard our coordinator say were, “I want to prepare you for what you’re going to see when we arrive in Port-Au Prince.” Though I was well-versed by countless articles and dogged news coverage of Haiti over the years, experience always eclipses theory. I was troubled by what I saw.
Tattered remnants of makeshift homes, known as “Tent City,” assembled after the 2010 earthquake were my introduction to the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Erratic driving and black smog from exhaust pipes played bit roles compared to the stench of burning trash (the country’s method of disposing waste) and the paucity of resources and spirit that lined the streets. Yet, as we inched closer to Grand Goave I could also make out a statue known as the “Global Unity Structure,” which depicted the hands of three children holding up the world. “That statue was not damaged at all,” our security guard said.
The country’s strapped resources and unfit infrastructure led me to doubt how building a small house for a single mother could have any impact under such dire circumstances. I wrestled with the idea that my actions, though earnest, might fall short of creating any meaningful difference in the lives of these people after I left. If I failed to shape any long-term shift in this community I wondered what purpose, if any, my visit served. Declaring that I'd visited a country of such hardship and lent a hand along the way would not only be glib, but thankfully, a claim I had no interest in.
As I entered the orphanage and met the children and staff my skepticism slowly waned. The tireless efforts of two ordinary Americans striving to build a memorial for their daughter who had committed herself to the same work three years earlier and tragically saw her 19-year old life taken away, highlighted a lesson I will never forget: potential without optimism is meaningless.
The children fascinated me with their talents and unbridled enthusiasm. My time with them gave me a first-hand account of how access to proper education, shelter, medicine and most importantly love can definitively lift and empower lives young and old. They taught me that people do not have to fall victim to their means. I also learned the power of partnership. Ten people putting together a home less elaborate than some tree houses I once played in as a child, changed the lives of an exhausted mother with two small kids. “When it rained, I would have to squat in the corner for hours because the whole tent would leak,” our translator explained. Through a shared commitment to service where each member fulfills their individual task for a greater good I valued collaboration like never before. In truth, nothing truly great can be accomplished alone.
Most importantly, my awareness and sensitivity to the scope of such problems was heightened. The people from the magazines and nightly news now had names and their needs a palpable urgency.
Still, I understood I was playing a small part in a country whose problems were as lengthy as the names in a phone book. Compassion is important but it alone does not mend, cure, or rebuild. Beyond the walls of the orphanage stood a world of low life expectancy, poor adult literacy, and a country living on less than $2 a day. What if anything could I do about it, I wondered.
In the end, I left Haiti knowing that I had done something, however minor, to at least recognize the humanity of another person. That to me was the first step in solving any problem - the recognition that one exists. Why, many wondered, did I need to travel 1,500 miles to lend a hand when there were plenty of people in my backyard in need of the same service. I don't know, I thought. But I'm glad I did.
Lindy, a 30-something writer originally from Texas, shared this bit of advice with me: As for the advice I was given - my grandpa always used to say, "Sugar plum, nobody promised us a rose garden." This was his way of saying there are hard times in life, don't feel entitled thinking we deserve or were promised perfect, obstacle-free lives. I definitely live by those words and they help me push through harder times.