I don't usually do personal posts, but this experience felt like something worth sharing. Let me try to give you a quick intro:
In March of this year I went to Haiti with an organization I really love called Young Life. Young Life is a youth ministry program that started in America in the 1940's and has since spread to many countries around the world. My friend and Young Life leader Ryan was leading a group on a trip to experience Young Life in Haiti and asked if I wanted to come along for the journey to document the trip with my camera. This group included current Young Life leaders, staff, committee members, and people who just like Young Life, all of whom reside in or around Cincinnati, OH. A good majority of the group were college students who were using their spring break to fly to a foreign country and do some good old fashioned manual labor. It was a week long trip during which we got to spend time with the Haitian Young Life staff and volunteers, work on Young Life's camp property and help build some new cabins, and hang out with the people in the city that surrounds the camp. We got to witness the same ministry we are so familiar with happening in a country and culture so very different from our own.
Haiti was an amazing experience. There is so much to say and show that it is difficult for me to know where to start. Before you delve into the photos, let me say this: I do not think that my photos do justice to the true beauty of the country of Haiti and its people. I hope some day you get to experience it for yourself, but until then, I hope these photos can communicate at least a sliver of what Haiti has.
The first thing we did when we got to Haiti was hop onto a school bus. This bus was our main form of transportation for the week. I never imagined I would ride a school bus up into the mountains of rural Haiti but it was a pretty fun way to make the trip.
I was immediately impressed with the colors, tropical plants, and the tight and seemingly chaotic roads. We spent that first night in a hotel in Port-Au-Prince and talked over the schedule for the week. The next morning we got back onto the bus for the trip through the mountains to our main destination, a town called Maissade (pronounced like "my side," which is pretty endearing.)
There was so much to see as we drove through the city, but shooting out of a moving school bus had a bit of a learning curve to it. One thing I liked was the elaborately decorated buses and trucks. Some of them had American celebrities and movie characters painted on them, like Rambo. Who knew Haitians liked Rambo? Eventually the city faded into mountains that reminded me of some of the deserts of the western United States.
Once we passed a small town located near some mining that covered the whole place in white dust.
Even through the winding mountain roads we saw lots of vehicles taking full advantage of any space they had for potential passengers.
One of the first things we did when we arrived in Maissade was visit a building that Young Life owns in the town. This is where they have Young Life club, a weekly event open to all kids in Maissade where they sing and dance and laugh and share the gospel. They recently put a roof on the building, and they have many more plans for how they will use the space to best serve their town.
Every morning we would head to the Young Life camp property to do some work. The camp was about 2 miles from where we were staying in Maissade. Usually we rode the bus back and forth, but the first day there was a particularly muddy hill that the bus couldn't quite conquer (it had rained a lot the night before), so we walked to camp with our post hole diggers in tow.
Day one assignment: sand an entire building to prepare it for painting.
There was only one ladder so we got creative. The other assignment was to dig some holes to begin the process of building another big cabin building. This was exciting because this new cabin building will allow even more kids to experience Young Life summer camp, which is really something special.
You'll see that we also got creative with hole digging as well. There are lots of fun animals that roam around the camp property so when we needed a break sometimes we caught chicks.
Two things I liked about Haiti:
1. Almost anywhere you went, you would stumble upon some random animals tied somewhere that made you ask, "I wonder why you are here, animal?" Like the cow below, he (or she, I don't know cow genders very well) was just chillin on the road that led to the camp. I don't get to see a lot of animals in my daily life so this was fun for me.
2. I noticed in the rural towns they seem to intentionally grow these cactus walls around their houses/along roads. I've never seen a fence made out of cacti before so that was neat.
Every afternoon we would hang out in a small park near the center of the town and play with the children in Maissade. Because there was a pretty formidable language barrier for most of us, connecting with adults in the town was a slower process. But I learned something cool about kids on this trip: kids don't care what language you speak. If you are willing to play, then you're pretty much instantly friends even if you can't talk very much.
One thing that really surprised me while I was there was how many Haitian people I saw wearing clothes that had come from America. I'm originally from Cincinnati, but I've lived the past 8 years of my life in South Carolina, and the very first day in the park one of the first kids we met was wearing a shirt from Clemson. It's so interesting to think about the clothes that we give away at home and how they might end up on a child in rural Haiti.
This guy above ^^^ is named Vincent. You'll see him in a lot of photos because he is the very first kid I spoke to in Maissade. In my best broken Creole I asked him his name, told him mine, and invited him to toss a frisbee with us. He has such a warm presence and he hung out with us all week.
This is Nick. I'm not sure how to spell his name, but this is what I do know about him: he goes crazy for bubbles, he is super energetic, and he likes to try to grab the camera out of your hands so he can take a photo himself. Though we each only knew a few phrases of each other's language, we could connect by playing and laughing and taking photos. This image might be the easiest summary of how I'll remember Haiti. Though the photo isn't technically perfect - the sunlight, the joy, the movement, the blur of colors - it speaks perfectly of Haiti to me.
Everywhere we went kids followed us. They would stand outside the gate of our hotel, some would even follow us in and just sit with us despite the fact that we were doing nothing particularly interesting. The girl on the right in both above photos is named Gina, and she's my favorite. The Young Life leaders in Maissade know her well so she hung out with us a lot. She and I couldn't have much conversation but whenever I saw her I would say "Ginaaaaaaaaaaa" and she would smile and look all shy and cute. Whenever we sang worship songs in Creole she knew every word and it often made me cry.
Day two at camp consisted of more hole digging, and a fun new challenge: moving a large pile of rocks from one location at the bottom of a hill, to another location further up the hill.
At one point I was sent with a friend to go explore the camp property, so we hiked up to a ridge to see a beautiful view.
I wish I could share this exact moment in its fullness with you, but all I have is this photo and a few words. My friend Julia & I hiked up to this spot in the heat of the day. We were alone except for one Haitian that I never saw, only heard. He was behind me in a small wooden structure that may have been a school house or little church. He was singing at the top of his lungs, and when people sing in Creole it is a beautiful dreamy sound (as one of my friends said about Creole, it sounds like they are speaking in cursive.) So there I was standing at the top of this ridge, taking in the farm land and the mountains, the sound of a stranger singing Creole songs floating through the air, and I was just floored by Haiti's wild beauty. I wish I could give that moment to you too.
This was the little building from which our mystery singer was serenading us.
Two things I love about Haitian homes that I saw: 1. They often paint their wooden homes in bright colors. 2. They build storage areas up off the ground to keep food and grain & other valuables away from bugs or water damage.
Another day in the park, and more photos of hilarious awesome Haitian children.
^^^ These boys in particular were always hammin it up for the camera.
One thing I found interesting was that kids were always doing poses for the camera. They would ask me to take a photo and then just bust out all these poses for each shot. It makes me wonder where they learned it, and it also makes me laugh.
Having a cell phone with a front facing camera so the kids could see themselves made anyone instantly popular.
Our day to day was like a constant Coca Cola commercial because we were always drinking those glass bottle cokes.
Day three of camp work: painting, more digging, more rocks, some beams going up, finding more cows, walking under lots and lots of banana trees, and the tiniest little puppies who hung out at camp. Hopefully you can see what a beautiful place this camp is.
Team work makes the dream work. Also fun fact, that's a collapsable ladder.
This kid asked me to take a photo of all the chickens he had just caught. I can count seven, but who knows, there could be infinite chickens in that kid's hands.
This guy in the above photo is a champion. His name is Jocelyn (not sure of how he spells it but that's my best guess). He has an injury that keeps him from using his right arm, but he helped us work every single day at camp and carried rocks better than most of us.
There's a family who lives on the camp property and sometimes they brought us sugar cane for a snack.
Our third day at the park was also market day, so we saw a lot of men leading 4 cows at a time through the town and a few runaway goats trying to make a break for it. Then Brianne got her hair done by one of her new friends and it did not go so well for a certain chunk of hair. Otherwise it was a pretty successful day at the park.
We saw lots of little barbershops throughout the different towns we traveled through and they always had fun paintings on them, sometimes of men who looked suspiciously like Drake or DJ Khaled.
On this particular day after the park we went for a walk through the town to visit a place called Fam. Fam is a business in Haiti that employs mostly women and pays them fair wages to work good hours and produce good products (like peanut butter!) Because such a large group of Americans are such a shock for people to see in rural Haiti, we drew quite a crowd as we walked.
All our friends waited for us outside the walls of Fam while we toured the place and met some of the women.
Big shout out to the above two ladies who roomed with me the entire trip and leant me lots of items since I didn't have my suitcase the first three days of the trip because it was temporarily lost for a hot minute.
Believe it or not, the lady above broke into a huge smile after I showed her this photo of herself.
After we saw Fam we began our parade back through Maissade.
Look at that rooster crow.
No matter where we were or what we were doing there was always always futbol / soccer happening.
And there was usually a gaggle of kids waiting outside our hotel, climbing the bus, shouting to get our attention.
We met some new friends that night in our hotel courtyard: a tiny lizard, a few turkeys, and (not pictured) a baby tarantula.
Our last day at camp consisted of finishing a few holes and then making an assembly line to move the aforementioned rocks into the correct spot to lay the foundation for the new cabin building. Lots of the kids from Maissade started to follow us to camp and join in the work with us. Unfortunately school is pretty expensive in Haiti, so lots of kids can't attend school and they don't have much to do during the day. The kids we met would walk all the way to camp just to carry rocks and dig holes with us.
After the work was done we got to take a hike around the camp. Our friend, translator, and Young Life staff person extraordinaire Darsen explained how they take the kids at camp on that same hike and up to that same cross and talk to them about Jesus. The kids at camp are given the opportunity to lay down stones at the foot of the cross as a representation of laying down their burdens and letting Jesus carry those burdens for them. It was really fun to think that all week we had been carrying rocks up a hill to build a cabin so that more kids could come to that camp and lay their burdens at the foot of the cross.
The photo below is of the Haitian Young Life staff that we spent time with on our trip. These men sacrifice a lot to care for the kids in their communities. They are joyful and committed and brave and I learned a lot from the short time I spent in their presence. There are more too, and there are many more volunteers who give their time to make their country a better place. They are the heroes of Haiti.
Then our Haitian friends told us they had a surprise for us, and the surprise was that they had saddled three donkeys for us to ride back from camp. We were not very good at riding donkeys but we gave it our best shot.
Our friends thought it was hilarious that we were so bad at controlling those cute lil donkeys.
Darsen preferred the bus.
In Haiti most schools are signified by a Mickey Mouse or a Dora the Explorer painted on the exterior.
Then we had our last day in the park.
These girls asked me to take photos of them and they posed with a book. I thought it was cool that they wanted to be seen reading.
Jordan has been on this trip for a few years in a row now and he has befriended this entire family of siblings.
^^^ That kid on the left has a good sense of humor.
One girl kept asking me to take photos of her and then she motioned for my glasses like she wanted to try them on. I think they looked pretty good on her.
The above is one of my favorite photos from Haiti. This little tiny girl (she was probably the littlest girl on the playground) motioned for me to take a photo of her. I thought she was super cute, so I got real close to her face. It wasn't until after she scampered off and I flipped through the photos that I noticed she was giving me the middle finger in EVERY shot. There's no way of knowing if she knew what that means in our culture, but I thought it was hysterical. In my memories she looks so dang cute, but in this photo she looks so tough. Haitian kids are the best.
Above is our friend Darsen. He is one of the funniest most energetic people I've ever met. If your life was a pixar animated movie you would want Darsen as the faithful joke-cracking song-singing sidekick character.
This is just a photo of Meghan that I like.
Every night we would gather in the courtyard and sing worship songs in Creole & English. Darsen would also make us get up and dance and make fools out of ourselves and it was always fun.
The next morning we packed up and made the journey back down the mountains and into the city. You'll see the river we crossed in our school bus. You read that right.
I took more photos of colorful Haitian homes, a stranger hitched a ride on the back of our bus, and Ryan tried to snipe some shots from on top of the luggage.
We also saw four people on one motorcycle carrying a saw. I think that's like the motorcycle equivalent of running with scissors.
We saw some more beautiful views as we drove down from the mountains.
I took a photo of Ryan.
And we saw our last sunset in Haiti.
If you've made it all the way to the bottom, congrats! You are good at scrolling. That was our trip. I learned such an immense amount that I don't even have time to go into. I am so very grateful for this experience. I think I could do a much better job at photographing this now that I have been once. A big part of me feels I am not yet done with this country. I think there is much more for me to learn and much more work to be done.
If you liked what you saw, you like Young Life, or you just like humans in general, and you're asking yourself, "wow, what can I do to help Haiti?" I have two suggestions for you:
1. You can give. It takes about $50 USD to send a kid to Young Life camp in Haiti. That means that one kid could have a life changing week that gives them purpose and friendship that lasts a lifetime for only $50. One thing that is great about Young Life in Haiti is that it's building up the people of that country. It is run by Haitian men and women who are investing back into their own communities. They want to lift their country up. Giving is the quickest way that you can help them make an impact in their country. Follow this link if you're interested.
2. You can go. Haiti is about a three hour flight from Atlanta, GA. It feels like it's a whole other world away, but it's closer than I even realized. It takes less time for me to get to Haiti than it does to California. Haiti may not be my country, but it is basically in my backyard, and now that I have been there and seen it I cannot ignore it. So if this post sparked something in you, maybe it is time that you go and see too.
Thanks for reading.