ORLANDO | Service hours requirements are not an issue for Elena Brace, a youth member of Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Indialantic.
When she sees an activity such as Vacation Bible School, she doesn’t sign up to knock off a few notches from her school “must-do service hours” sheet. She does it because she loves volunteering, especially with children.
And this past summer the senior at Satellite High School took volunteering to another level when she and eight other youths, including Elena’s older brother, travelled overseas to volunteer in remote villages of Haiti. Established in 1999, Holy Name of Jesus’ Hearts Out to Haiti Mission supports three parishes in Haiti located in Les Palmes (some 35 miles southeast of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince), Morne à Chandelle, and Durissy, both located west-southwest of the capital.
While it was her brother’s fourth trip, this summer’s venture was Elena’s first to Haiti. He told her the mission trips change personal perspectives about faith, privilege and life in general. While working at Vacation Bible School in Haiti, Elena witnessed the stark differences in the living conditions of children in the states and children in remote villages of Haiti, many still reeling from the 2012 earthquake.
But she noted the similarities too. “A child’s laugh and joy are universal,” she said.
The youths and chaperones went to Haiti at the end of June. By the end of their nine-day excursion, some 1,300 children in six different locations participated in Vacation Bible School staffed by the youths. Tim Muth, the parish’s mission director for the program, said the parish offers two other annual trips along with the summer trip.
A key to the program is listening to what the Haitians say are their greatest needs. Education is on top of that list, so along with Vacation Bible School, the parish also supports yearly salaries for schoolteachers, offers funds for school supplies and construction, and offers ongoing education and training programs.
Like many mission programs, the goal is not to illustrate what Americans can give the Haitians, rather it is about listening and observing the realities of everyday life in Haiti. The VBS group walked from place to place to get to remote chapels, offering a glimpse of what Haitians have to do every day. As they walked in the heat while carrying supplies, there was no relief and no air conditioning.
They passed by the different types of structures occupied by families. Elena recalled how during their three-day stay in Les Palmes, kids would wear the same clothes and shoes each day. One day, a boy from VBS walked with the Americans and they passed by his house.
“He ran in and brought out his mom. They lived in this tiny shack,” Elena said. “It was just heartbreaking. But he was such a happy kid with a great smile. You see the circumstances the children have but still they are able to have fun and be happy. They deserve this break from their reality more than we do. They deserve this vacation from their bigger problems to get to sing, and dance and praise God and have fun with kids their own ages. It was great to have a part in doing that — to help them escape and find a bit of joy.”
The “escape” provided by VBS included games, singing, praise and worship, and two meals a day. Muth said many local Haitians volunteered to make VBS a reality. Those who cooked started at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning cooking over a fire.
“Their eyes would be watering from the smoke,” Muth said. “It showed the kids how hard people are working to make simple things happen in these small villages in Haiti.”
Elena remarked on the children’s reliance and strength in dealing with their day-to-day challenges. She used the example of when the Americans hiked to the top of a mountain near the church in Durissy to visit an orphanage.
“These little kids were hiking up with us because they lived on the mountain,” she recalled. “And they were hiking up better than I could. Here we are struggling and they are walking ahead of us like it was no problem. And we realized this was the path they would take to get to … well everything. School, the market or church. Every day these kids would walk up and down half a mountain — maybe more than once a day. It is insane. These were tough kids.”
Once at VBS, Haitian children and adult volunteers could realize and enjoy moments. As part of her Girl Scouts Gold Award, Elena wrote a play about taking care of the environment. With the help of Natalie Trio, another Girl Scout who also traveled to Haiti, costumes were made for the play about a girl who works to care for a tree and how the tree grows up to care for the girl, as it brought fruit, shade and prevented erosion. Elena worked to make the script relevant to the children of Haiti, which suffers from deforestation. Although the play involved a lot of pantomime, narration was translated into Haitian Creole.
The U.S. youths performed the skit one or two times a day, and the children seemed to enjoy performances and be fascinated by the subject. Yet Elena wondered if the play would make a difference to the kids.
Then she received an email from the priest who worked at one of the parishes she visited in Haiti. He shared how two kids went home and told their parents “they need to love the environment as much as their children.” As much as that email made Elena smile, she was floored by another email that reported older children were trying to start a seeder program at their church.
Muth remarked how Hearts Out to Haiti was founded on the principle of empowering the Haitians to solve their own problems. The reaction to the play, especially a seeder project, is an example of that principle.
“There are a lot of bad things going on in Haiti and we are not going to solve all of them. But to offer ministry to one child or one adult is meaningful,” Muth said. “Some days 300 kids came out to participate in VBS. They are braiding hair with us. Playing soccer with us. Laughing with us. Those simple moments can change the world because it might make a difference for someone. It becomes part of a bigger landscape.”
Before going to Haiti, Muth said visitors are made aware of realistic challenges Haitians face — from food shortages to political unrest. On this past summer trip, a particular harsh reality became all too real.
On the final day, the Americans made their way back to Port-au-Prince to catch the flight back home. But they couldn’t go further than Petit-Goâve. Rioting and violence erupted in the capital city due to a drastic rise in fuel prices. Rioters set up roadblocks at major intersections, preventing safe travel.
Muth said while the violence might have been the worst of Haiti, his group also witnessed the best of Haiti. A Catholic priest in Grand Goâve allowed the group to stay at the church where they would be fed and they could bathe. The youths slept on mats on the floor and were able to use a luxury they hadn’t had for almost two weeks — Wi-Fi, which allowed them to call family in the states.
“When the situation happened, you realized how helpless you are,” Muth recalled. “There are no 911 calls there. No hospital nearby where we were stranded. No semblance of a government. We were highly dependent on others and stripped of our defenses as we were without translators.” But Haitians responded to them with immediate kindness. “We were there to help Haitians and now they are helping us. We were strangers at this church, and the community treated us like family. We were told we could stay as long as we want.”
Elena said her group was made aware of the dangers that Haitians face, but when the rioting happened it still felt unexpected.
“To witness this in real life and to realize it was really happening so close to where we were was very eye-opening. But this was something that could happen every day in Haiti, and they just deal with it. It’s another reason I see them as so strong,” Elena said, adding despite knowing the dangerous situation, she never felt she was in immediate danger. “They made us feel safe. We were all well taken care of.”
When asked how the trip molds her ideas about immigration, Elena thinks about the strength Haitians have, but all the desperation that can evolve from the extreme challenges they face.
“I think that people can get so involved in themselves and involved in their own ideas that they forget that it is our job to take care of our earth and fellow humans. These are real people and they are struggling,” she said.
The kids did arrive home three and four days later, and despite the scare and setback from the final day, Elena wants to return to Haiti. That would mean she again would have to save money for her own plane ticket and again raise another $500 that travelers are asked to donate to the mission.
But for this 17-year-old whose passion is volunteer work and who hopes to study theater in college, raising the money is well worth the effort.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life. I would love to go back and have that experience again,” she said. “Volunteering is my favorite thing to do, and this trip inspires me to do more. It makes you feel good, like you are a productive member of society.”