When it comes to traveling for Soles4Souls, Haiti is my like my first love from high school. It holds a dear place in my heart. I was shaken to the core my first time there in July 2010, our August trip was my 7th time there. People ask me if I see a difference from the earthquake until now. In some ways, yes I do. This month, I saw the skeleton of a highway intersection being built in a very congested intersection of Port Au Prince. Now, it could take 10 years to complete the highway but that is a sign of progress. Yet, the poverty is still rampant. Children ran up to me as we stopped on the side of the road and said, “Please give me food I am hungry”. They didn’t ask for a dollar, they asked for food. When they ask for food, it is because they need it. We gave them our extra bags of Doritos as more children ran down the hill to our van while we drove away. We didn’t have any more food to give them. I can confidently say that they aren’t walking back to a house stockpiled with food just to see what they could get. They are lacking the means to sustain themselves. You see we (I) just don’t understand this. We probably never will.
We went to an area I had never been, a village called Thomazeau. It is about an hour from Port Au Prince, towards the Dominican Republic border. On the way we passed cactus trees and rocky soil, such a change from the beautiful, lush coastline where we were staying. I am amazed how different the terrain is in this LITTLE COUNTRY. We worked for two days with LiveBeyond, an international organization based out of Nashville. Dr. David Vanderpool and his wife Laurie moved there after the earthquake to devote their lives to providing care and love to the people of Haiti. They were holding a community medical clinic and we set up to distribute shoes as the families left the clinic. The community is very rural, so they would drive 30 or so people at a time in by truck to be treated by the medics. We saw a little of everything: children receiving vaccines, teeth being pulled, malaria being treated and that’s just the cases we knew about! They knew we had shoes for them, which was incredibly exciting for them! For the little ones, that was definitely a better deal than getting vaccinated.
I watched our little traveling band of shoe fitters just love on them, we had a steady stream each day for about 4 hours. It was a great set-up, we had time to wash their feet, fit them and play with them instead of rushing them through, which happens sometimes. Sarah, a kindergarten teacher from Virginia, helped fit a little Albino girl with shoes. Tears welled up in my eyes as I watched how tender she was with this beautiful child. The harsh sunlight made it hard for the child to look up, so she leaned on Sarah’s chest as Sarah held her while she and I splashed her feet, making her giggle.
We started one morning out at a local orphanage there. We had the chance to give all of the children a pair of shoes. The children sang songs to us after the distribution. The most beautiful little boy, Maurice, sat beside me and sang to me. I have noticed in Africa and Haiti that when children sing, they SING with all of their heart. No halfhearted attempts to sing, no way! THEY BELT IT. These kids did not disappoint.
Maurice looked at me with his wide set brown eyes and sang in Creole a beautiful song, then he sang it in English, “I am not forgotten, I am not forgotten, I am not forgotten, God knows my name”.
There was a little girl there named Bella. I was trying to size her feet on the sizing mats, and we were having a little difficulty helping her understand how to step on the mat to be sized. The orphanage director came up and said, “she’s not normal” and went to take her away, to which I replied “she’s fine, let me size her”. We were able to have Bella stand, sizing her and then, fitting her little feet into her new shoes. I watched her walk away, her uneven gait breaking my heart. What gives her the label “not normal”? I wondered what was wrong, I am used to the way people with developmental and physical issues are treated there, it is heartbreaking.
Later, I went and found Bella she was in the kitchen area of her little dorm. I said “vini, vini” (come, come) to her with my arms out. I received the best hug from this little angel, she just held on and on and I prayed she could feel the love and affirmation that yes, she is not normal, but EXCEPTIONAL. Upon my request, we hugged it out about 4 times. There is the moment where you have to leave and you don’t want to, you want to stay because you feel that you must. You worry, “who will love this child, hug this child, tell her she’s beautiful, important?” Basically, it sucks to leave each time. But I have to trust that someone, somewhere tells Bella she’s exceptional. She sings the same song Maurice does, “I am not forgotten, God knows my name”.
We traveled back to Thomazeau that day and began to work alongside LiveBeyond again as they treated more people in the clinics. We had some of the best kids that day, one of them being a group of pre-teen girls. We had already told them in Creole that we had no shoes for them. “pa gen okenn soulye pou ou”. They just wanted to hang. I love watching girls in Haiti, when they are friends they walk alongside each other holding hands, or with their arms intertwined. It is the sweetest thing, and very interesting to me how they interact. These girls wanted to hold our hand, to lock arms, kiss us on the cheek. One girl wanted to talk to me, and if I looked away, she grabbed my chin and brought my face back to hers. I loved that…in that moment I wished I could understand her, but I was honored, I was her newest friend that day. One of the cool girls…
Speaking of cool girls, we had several on this trip, one being Olivia. She and her bestie Annie were on the trip together, two very worldly teenage girls. I was in awe of them. Olivia saw me give my shoes away the day before and asked if she could give hers to someone, to which I said “YES!”, quickly followed by “Olivia, you will know when you should”. And Valentina, leader of the Haitian cool girls, was Olivia’s girl. Her shoes fit her perfectly and Valentina just glowed, strutting around in her “new” gently loved white Converse tennies. Valentina, all legs and arms with this 100 mega-watt smile.
The last night we were there, we were able to connect some with my friend Amy. Amy traveled with Soles4Souls twice in 2012, and I was lucky enough to be with her for 10 whole days. She left Haiti in August 2012 and said, “I have to do something here” and she definitely has. She has an orphanage she fully supports now, Project House of Hope, feeding, clothing and schooling the children there. Amy is just a gem, she is an example of someone living palms up ready to give out when she receives. She told us about a women’s health class she recently taught to the women there in Montrouis. None of the women knew what ovulation meant, they also thought that drinking ice-cold water after sex would prevent pregnancy. But the one thing that Amy told me that made my head swim was their response when she explained the “no means no” concept. They just looked at her and explained, “maybe to you, but here no doesn’t mean no”.
I think about this a lot for the rest of the trip, especially as I saw the beautiful women of Haiti walking along the roads, their posture so regal, transporting items on their heads.
Wilfrance, our wonderful driver in Haiti, is studying to be a lawyer, he reads a lot and is honestly one of the best drivers I have had ridden with. Wilfrance MIGHT say three words to me during a trip, and I achieved a personal goal of making him laugh this last trip. He sent me a Facebook message after I arrived home. His message to me was: “you also make a good job when help some children don’t have a shoe, when you arrive sleep well because I see in your eyes you very tired”
Honestly, this made my eyes well up with tears. Wilfrance is my friend. It is that simple. You can’t go over there and do life with these wonderful people and not connect with them somehow. I feel the same thing with Paul. His love for his country has grown tremendously over the last few years. Paul is so smart and resourceful, he is always working, and he is working for others. Paul brought his daughter to meet us the last time we were there, and handed his infant son to me to hold. It is in those times that I love Haiti the most, when I look at little Ken, the spitting image of his Dad. I see hope, beauty and possibility. I know its possible that there is a better day for Haiti. We just have to keep working together alongside Haiti and for Haiti. And we can’t forget.
…I am not forgotten, I am not forgotten. God knows my name.