Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spring Break 2014: Haiti

One thing that I have loved about being a teacher is having built-in vacations. Summer, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break... and then the cycle repeats itself. It gives me the freedom/time to do things I've always wanted to do. Or really, one thing I've always wanted to do: travel.

Over past breaks, I've been to England, France, Germany, Nigeria, Spain, Costa Rica, and Ghana. Each trip was special in its own way and has allowed me to feel like the globetrotter I always thought I'd become. But all those trips were only about me (except, perhaps Costa Rica and Ghana, since I did take students. And we did renovate a school building in Ghana). And as you may have picked up on some of my recent jobs, I've been trying to focus on "seeking God first" and making sure the things I do bring Him glory in some way. So when my co-worker suggested we spend our Spring Break in Haiti to work with a school, I was immediately on board. It would be a chance to travel and be His hands and feet. 

Tickets were bought in Thanksgiving and the plan was sent in stone. 

4 Days. 6 Teachers. 1 School. 

We had spent the two-three weeks before trying to raise funds at school to donate towards the Mission Starfish teachers' salaries (they make $100/month). Each grade level had "adopted" a teacher and while we didn't reach our goal to raise an entire year's salary for each of the 8 teachers, we definitely got enough for one month. (The best part of this is it was entirely student-driven! Some of the seniors did all the planning and organizing to raise the money and it was great to see the out-pour of generosity from our students.)

My group on our flight from Miami to Haiti. Check out our little Asian photo-bomber in the background :-)
Saturday afternoon, we flew out to Miami and spent one last night in Western pampering and then Sunday morning, we were off. Two of the girls had been to Haiti the previous year and were well acquainted with our host (and Mission Starfish founder) Silentor. They caught up a bit while we waited for a team from NYC to arrive. Once we were all there, we took a three hour drive from Port a Prince to Gonaives, where the school was located. Along the way, we caught glimpses of the affluence (a sport stadium being built) and sheer poverty (the "tent village" where people still live in donated tents after the earthquake four years ago). In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Nigeria--street vendors, banana farms, mango trees, concrete homes with tin roofing. But there definitely was a lot more simplicity and poverty. And the fact that it's an island allowed for breathtaking views of the ocean and mountains in close proximity. 

Once we got to Gonaives, we rested a little before heading to the school. The students had been told to meet us there and when we arrived, they instantly formed two lines and began singing "Happy Birthday" in French and then in English. It was NYC-team Isabel's (who they called Iza) birthday. (As a funny side bar, the younger kids wanted to sing "Happy Birthday to you, Iza!" all week long... I think they thought it was a general welcome song). It was an adorable welcome and a perfect introduction to the students of Mission Starfish Haiti. 

We were each paired with a student to be our guide, who stepped up to introduce themselves and say, "I am your friend." My little girl was a gorgeous 4th-grader named Yonette. We got a quick tour of the school, were updated on current projects, challenges and successes, and then the students led us on a tour of the surrounding community. 

We got to see an average home in Haiti (for many it's a one-room accommodation barely bigger than a dorm room that's expected to house both parents and children). One of the projects Mission Starfish is attempting to do is build houses for students who live in shacks, and to make sure all homes have concrete floors to help reduce the illnesses students often contract from the level of dust and worms. 

The next day officially began our project. In the mornings, we would spend two hours teaching English to the students. Most of them only speak Creole, the older ones have some mastery of French. The English phrases they knew, if any, were restricted to their name, "how are you?", and telling us "I am your friend." Oh, and singing Happy Birthday. We can't forget "Happy Birthday, Iza." 

Day 1, we worked on parts of the body. We taught them "Head and Shoulders" and played a version of Simon Says. Day 2, we taught them how to describe their favorite things (they all liked school, home, family, chickens, flowers and cars) and their colors. Day 3, we worked on emotions (happy, sad, tired, hungry, thirsty, etc). I think Day 3 was their favorite. My classroom wanted to sing our re-written version of "If You're Happy and You Know It" a MILLION times.  

After the morning English sessions, the students would have recess and lunch and then head home (they had a shortened school day because we were visiting). They would return in the afternoon to do art, theatre and dance classes with the NYC team. My group would then spend the afternoon working with teachers and other adults on their English or entertain the students who weren't in class with the NYC group with games and a dance party. 

The second grade classroom I worked with

One of the girls brought stuff to put on the walls. We used duck-tape, and the whole thing got blowed off by the afternoon.
Note for next year: Bring better adhesive.







Glimpse of our dance party. We taught them The Wobble, The Cupid Shuffle, and the Macarena.
We had none of the music and had to improvise with the Destiny's Child on my iPod.

At the beginning of the trip, I was a little down and withdrawn. Unlike a lot of the girls, I didn't really bring anything for the school or the students. I just brought what I needed and that was it. And so I beat myself up about being selfish and thoughtless in that way. I also was stressed out that we didn't really have a plan for our English classes--each night we kind of sat around and threw together a joint lesson plan. It never felt right for me and I often felt we didn't really take into account how difficult learning and teaching a new language could be. I mean, I barely remember any of the Creole they taught me!

But each day, my spirit was uplifted as we experienced the sheer love and adoration the kids showed us. And I realized that even if we taught them nothing they would remember, they opened our eyes and hearts to the sheer need they each had. The need for a good education, for a better future. And just by being there, we were showing them that there are people out there who care what becomes of them. By simply being there, we gave them hope. 

Most of the girls left Haiti committed to sponsor one of the students. All of us left Haiti with the desire to come back (better prepared) and ready to do more. We've seen their faces, heard their stories, and are excited to be advocates for these little ones. We may have only been there a short time, but a Jason Grey song kept playing over and over again in my head and I was reminded that "in the hands of our Redeemer, nothing is wasted." 

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