What a Trip to Haiti Taught Me About Doing What Little You Can
The first words I heard our driver say were, “I want to prepare you for what you’re going to see when we arrive in Port-Au Prince.”
Tattered remnants of makeshift homes, known as “Tent Cities,” 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 that lined the streets. I’d been in Haiti for half an hour and was already beginning to question my intentions.
Why am I here? I nearly said out loud.
But, as we inched closer to Grand Goave I could also make out a statue known as the “Global Unity Structure.” It was easy to spot since it was one of the few figures that had somehow been unscathed. It depicted the hands of three children holding up the world.
“That statue was not damaged at all,” our security guard said.
As author Kenneth Blanchard once said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
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. This was supposed to be a different kind of trip, I thought to myself. I had little interest in hopping on another double-decker tour bus or ambling through trendy streets lined with merchandise and souvenirs I didn’t need. I wanted to do something, anything to make an impact.
But the closer we got to Grand Goave the further I felt from that destination.
My Youngest Mentors
As I entered the orphanage and met the children my skepticism gradually gave way to a sense of possibility. The tireless efforts of two ordinary Americans striving to build a memorial for their daughter who’d committed herself to the same work three years earlier put a bounce back in my step.
Britney Gengel hadn’t been in Haiti long when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the island, taking her 19-year old life and the lives of nearly 300,000 people. The last communication Britney had with her family was in the form of a text message, revealing she’d already stumbled upon her life’s calling.
“They love us so much and everyone is so happy. They love what they have and they work so hard to get nowhere, yet they are all so appreciative. I want to move here and start an orphanage myself.”
I marveled at her family’s capacity to turn their pain into something tangible that would serve, build, and heal those who visited the orphanage, however briefly.
Haiti taught me that potential means little if not accompanied by a sense of optimism and resilience.
Getting to Work
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. As author Kenneth Blanchard once said, “None of us is as smart as all of us.”
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 wasn’t delusional enough to think I was playing some major part in a country whose timeline of problems were wildly nuanced and complex.
Compassion is important but it alone does not mend, cure, or rebuild. It can’t erase the history of colonialism, corruption, or lack of infrastructure. Positive thinking doesn’t mean a whole lot without resources.
Beyond the walls of the orphanage still 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.
Just Doing What You Can
In the end, I left Haiti knowing that I had done something, however minor, to at least recognize the humanity of another person. That’s a start, I thought.
That to me was the first step in solving any problem — the recognition that the greatest gift we can offer another human being is a reverence for their presence.
And thankfully we don’t need to travel 1500 miles to do that. We can do it wherever we’re standing.