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May 2007 Trip to Haiti

Twilla Sinning 

Twilla SinningMy experience in Haiti (2007) was an awesome, more-than-words-could-ever-explain experience. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity of going to the village of Dayere. It was an experience I will never forget, from the two-hour jeep ride over less-than-adequate trails (roads), to the bucket-cup shower, to the four "emergency" visits involving villagers, to the smiling faces of children eager to see us and for us to take their picture. The people of the village seemed very grateful for the assistance we were able to provide.

It was a pleasure and honor to work with and get to know the two Haitian nurses, Jamal and Jaclyn and our translator, Victor. It was also an honor to work with Shari and Linda and to have such good teamwork and bonding with them.

I still laugh when I think of the chickens flying through the dining room of our satellite station and perching on the rafter above us. I’ve not yet eaten any chicken since my return home! 

I thank Avera for allowing me this unique experience.

Amanda Zimmerman

Amanda ZimmermanThis trip to Haiti is the best decision I have made in my entire life. The Haitians are amazing people that deserve so much better.
What the Haitian Health Foundation does for these people is incredible and gives so much hope to this country. Coming here has opened my eyes to true suffering and poverty. You leave wondering what their future holds, but the people have hope, thanks to the Haitian Health Foundation.

I will always have the people of Haiti in my heart and hope to return one day to see a better life for them. Thanks you, Avera, for this life-changing experience.

Bob Voglewede

Bob VoglewedeThe exhilaration we “veterans” felt in Sioux Falls when the United people said they would send all our 50-pound bags through to Port au Prince so we wouldn’t have to lug them to the motel at 10:30 that evening in Fort Lauderdale! Yippee!

The relief I felt when, at the exit door, the terminal guards in Port au Prince didn’t point us towards the Haitian Customs Office where 39 of our bags could have been searched for out-dated medication and anything else the inspectors wanted to make a deal out of.

How improved the road between the airport and Jeremie is, compliments of the UN peacekeepers stationed just outside Jeremie. I wish they would have been doing similarly constructive projects during all the months they have been in town since February of 2004. Unfortunately they haven’t and it’s not because they haven’t had incredible time on their hands.

The joy in seeing the “old-timers” again – Sr. Maryann, Sr. Sophie, Sheila, Marty, Uget, and more.

Tom Herhusky’s hug when I presented him with two thick, Nebraska-fed rib-eye steaks. He had written and said he was dying for a steak and wondered if I could bring one down. Paula Hunke-Davis and her husband in O’Neill, Neb., heard of his request and provided me with two beauties from their family locker.

The richness of our evening sharing and prayer each night, especially that Wednesday evening after Sister Maryann had taken people into the back alleyways of Jeremie in the afternoon.

Hearing Linda, Shari and Twilla talk about their trip up to the satellite station in the mountains and how they spent their days helping people from nearby villages and their nights playing Yatzee.

The consternation we felt at the Jeremie airport when it was time to leave and about 35 people were there, expecting to get to Port Au Prince to make a connection to the United States. Each thought they had reservations on the one plane that was coming, which had only about 16 seats. Since our group of 13 reached the airport first, the agent gave us boarding passes and when the plane arrived, we were able to climb onboard. I’m sure it was several more hours before the rest of those people reached Port Au Prince that afternoon.

Thinking that because of the confusion and hold up in Jeremie we had missed our 12:30 connection for Miami, the relief we felt when we reached the main terminal and learned that our American Airlines flight to Miami had been itself delayed and we had plenty of time to check in and board it.

The flexible, generous spirit of our group and the presence of five people from the Avera Leaders in Ministry program among us. Also we had our first volunteers from O’Neill, Neb.,  and Wessington Springs, S.D., aboard, Mary Jo Doolittle and Megan Mentzel.

Daryl Thuringer

Daryl ThuringerHaiti is a country of extreme contrasts. The people are so poor, they have nothing. In many cases they have no food, clothing or even a safe place to sleep. In contrast, these people are the most welcoming and happy people I have ever met.

The people in Haiti have some of the worst health care in the world; woman and children die at an alarming rate. In contrast, the people have the strongest and healthiest attitudes and will to live.

By going there I have learned more than I could have ever dreamed. Each person has taught me to consider all things as a gift and to live each day with a strong commitment and zest for life.

Deb Fischer-Clemens

Deb Fischer-ClemensAs I think about the amazing and humbling week I spent in Haiti, there are two things that are most on my mind. The first is the eyes of the children, sad but so beautiful and delightful. I realize that there is very little we can do to improve their lives, but I know that we made a difference for a few hours and a few days.

The second picture that has stayed with me is that of Sr. Maryann, a powerful yet gentle woman who for 18 years has done the work of Jesus with the people in Jeremie. She is respected by all for her ability to make things happen in the community to improve the lives of so many, every day. To name just a few of her undertakings: creating a clinic, building a school, assisting with the training of health aides, establishing a mill, finding housing for those without, and starting a welding school. The list goes on as she strives to help Haitians help Haitians. Always her goal is to make life better in this third-world country as she provides for the least of our brothers and sisters, as we are all directed to do. This was an experience I will never forget, and I hope that Avera never forgets this mission to the people of Jeremie.

Geri Beck

Geri BeckAn eye-opening vision of the world; a life changing experience!

There is more poverty, suffering, happiness and beauty in Haiti than I could have ever imagined. I shake my head at the lack of infrastructure – no decent roads, sporadic electricity, no running water – and yet I know I can’t comprehend the complexity of this country’s challenges.

At first I was judgmental and frustrated by the people – how could they not help each other and carve out a better life for themselves? Now I realize that if I were in their situation I’d likely do and be exactly the same. I am sure I would be dependent, but they are not. They are cheerful, love to laugh, joke, sing, dance, pray…they are so very beautiful.

Sister Maryann is our generation’s Mother Teresa. She has such a presence about her. Respected by all and shrewd, she won’t be taken advantage of. She rewards those who work hard but turns away those who don’t level with her or aren’t willing to work hard.

The work the Haitian Health Foundation is doing there is incredible: soccer for 2,000 teenage girls (with plans for 4,000 next year) to educate and screen them, economic development in a fishing village, a school for the poorest of the poor (considered the best school in all of Jeremie), help for pregnant moms…the list goes on and on. The Sisters and Haitian Health Foundation leaders are experienced and wise as to what works and what doesn’t, and I have every confidence that they use the limited funds they have very wisely.

I feel like my eyes have been opened and that I will look for opportunities to support Haitian Health Foundation from now on. I will return some day; I’m sure of it. Thanks!

Kathy Dorale

Kathy DoraleThis week has been an experience I will never forget. The Haitian Health Foundation has an amazing story to tell. It took a trip to Haiti to help me fully comprehend what life in a third- world country is like.

The people of Haiti are more destitute than I ever could have imagined. The first two days I told the Avera group I traveled with that I felt a bit sheltered. The reason? Maybe it is too overwhelming to see such incredible, heart-wrenching living conditions. We visited places that the Haitian Health Foundation has built to improve the health and living conditions of the Haitian people.

Even though we saw very sick children the first couple days, I could never have prepared myself for what I experienced at Mother Teresa’s Sisters of Charity orphanage on the third day. I saw the most beautiful children of God. My heart ached for them. Some were at the orphanage to eat and become healthy so they could return home. Some were there because they lost one or both parents to a terrible disease. The visit evoked in me so many emotions, especially hopelessness. On the other hand I was overjoyed with their courage which gave me hope. Many of the babies do get well with the support of organizations such as Haitian Health Foundation and Avera.

This trip helped me see how much of an impact Avera has in helping serve the poor. There is so much yet to be done that it literally takes my breath away. The best we can do is to continue to pray and take one day at a time. That is what the Haitian people do. They survive one day at a time. Literally!

Thank you, Bob, for helping me find my way to Haiti. I have been blessed to meet the Haitian people, the poorest of the poor. The emotion that has found its way into my heart will never be lost. I will think of these people daily. I wish they could know how much they have impacted my spirit. I will be forever grateful for this experience, my Avera colleagues and all the people in Haiti who help support Haitian Health Foundation. The four women who took care of us were inspirational. I will miss them dearly.

Kathy English

Kathy EnglishI’ve had a warm shower and now am ready to go back to Haiti. My thoughts were the same after our trip last October. I ask myself, what is it about the experience in Jeremie that draws one back?  There are no words for the feelings I have witnessing Sister Maryann, Sister Sophie, Martie, and the other long-term volunteers as they go about each day making a huge impact on the lives of the poorest of the poor. They have such strength as they go about affirming the dignity of human life in a part of the world where life for most is a life of inhumane poverty and daily suffering.

The best part of returning to Haiti is that even in one year you can see the progress that the Haitian Health Foundation has made. My area of practice is with nursing mothers and their babies. In Haiti if a child is not breastfed it dies. It is when a child is weaned that severe, often fatal malnutrition develops. The challenge comes in affirming for the women that long-term breastfeeding is best for both mother and infant. There is a great deal of money to be made by multinational companies in undermining breast feeding and promoting breast-milk substitutes. Since last year, the Haitian Health Foundation has set up mothers’ clubs in the villages, i.e., La Leche League meetings, Haitian-style. Even the non-medical people in our group remarked how much healthier and cleaner the babies looked when their mothers were a part of a mothers’ club.

We also went to the Haitian Health Foundation supported school. Several years ago Sister Maryann was approached by four young men from the poorest neighborhood in Jeremie. They had been teaching 140 street children in a thatched roof building about half the size of a garage. Space was becoming an issue and they asked Sister for help. She was able to purchase land on the same block and then built a clean, sturdy, one-level school. This year the school added a second floor and now has eight grades, a kindergarten and a preschool. One of the original teachers was showing us around and at the end of the tour told us with such pride that they had the best school in Haiti. My thought was, how wonderful that the poorest of Jeremie’s children now have the best educational facility. Sister also remarked that many homes around school are being repaired and painted. Her school is bringing up the neighborhood.

One day was spent with Sister Maryann in neighborhoods that cannot be described in words. Even pictures do not tell the story of the human misery that was all around. The amazing part of the day was that no matter where we went, Sister had a quiet dignity about her and a smile on her face as crowds followed and surrounded her. She greeted people, knew the names of children and adults, stopped to inquire about various people and was welcomed into homes. We walked for hours and heard endless stories. I was often at the back of the group, and as I watched the group dynamics and the procession, it was as if I saw Jesus walking with the poor.

A trip to Haiti brings with it a roller coaster of emotions. For me there was much death, sadness, and frustration. Within the first 30 minutes of our first day I was confronted with a situation that set the tone for much of the trip. We had just arrived at the Center of Hope and I heard Megan P. calling out for Sister Sophie and myself. Many women were sitting on the outside veranda in a long line waiting for their appointment. Megan walked out, noticed a woman with a small pillow on her lap and went up to her to visit. That was when she noticed that under a towel was a very small baby making whimpering sounds. The baby had been born three days earlier and the mom had walked many hours that morning for help. At Avera McKennan the baby would have been admitted to the NICU, placed in a warmer, had an IV started and then observed. None of this was available in Jeremie, although the government has a hospital.

Sheila and I took the baby to the hospital and begged for O2. They had a tank, but since there was no way to regulate the O2 flow, we just held our hand up and guessed the flow and gave the baby some so she didn’t have to work so hard to breathe. At first the people at the hospital refused to give us O2, and I was angered by their lack of care or concern, as this was one of their people. (I’m still trying to process the indifference I saw in Haitian “professional” people when interacting with their poor.)

As the day progressed it became apparent that the little girl whom we baptized ‘Meghan’ needed to be vented. I kept hoping that since she was a little girl she might do okay, but there were just too many things that were unknown. Was she septic? How early was she? And more.

Sheila and I stayed throughout the day. I kept thinking about what we would be doing for this mother at Avera McKennan. She had lost a baby last year, so it was very hard to look into her eyes; she looked so blank and hopeless. We had her doing kangaroo care, touching her baby, changing the baby, and the like, but often she would just sit exhausted with her head in her hands. I also took some pictures of her with her baby.

At 7:00 p.m. Sheila and I went to dinner telling the mom that we would be back with something for her to eat and drink. (At a Haitian hospital you must bring your sheets, medications, IV’s and tubing, gasoline to run the anesthesia machine, and food, which leaves one wondering, why would you go to the hospital.)

When we returned the mom had placed the baby in the warmer (non-working) and was re-wrapping her blankets. As soon as I looked, I realized that another baby had died because she had been born in Haiti. It was so sad watching Sheila explain to the mother that her child was dead. Sheila, Geri, and I placed our hands on the baby and prayed, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep; then we sang. The mom just rocked and occasionally made some sounds. We placed the baby in her arms and did what I would do at Avera McKennan – took pictures so that some day, when ready, she could look at her baby again.

Mary Jo Doolittle

Mary Jo DoolittleMy trip to Jeremie is a week that I will never forget. I have never sweated so much in my whole life. I took a cold shower everyday; I wore scrubs that didn’t fit; and I wore no makeup for a week. I had no curling iron or blow dryer and my cell phone had no service. I wore the same clothes to dinner four nights in a row. I had a little gecko jump out of my fan, and I squished his guts all over my desk.

But these are not the things that I will remember. (Well, maybe the gecko!) I will remember the sick children in the Kwash room at the Center of Hope. I’ll remember my day in the lab at the Center of Hope. I’ll remember our two days in the villages, playing with the children. I’ll remember the Haitian Health Foundation school, with its new second floor and a view of the ocean and the kindergartners praying before their AKA-mil. I’ll remember our dinners and evenings on the porch. I’ll remember the fact that the Haitian Health Foundation has made such an impact and been such a source of hope for the people of Haiti.

What I will never forget are the slums of Jeremie, the shacks – no, hovels – that people live in. I’ll never forget the stark poverty in contrast to the tropical island beauty. I’ll never forget the three-day-old, three-pound baby and the hospital with such miserable conditions. I’ll never forget the people at the Haitian Health Foundation: Marty, who talks a tough line, but has a heart for her pets and a great sense of humor; Sheila, who dearly loves her Kwash kids and can keep a table laughing all through dinner; Sr. Sophie, such a gentle spirit with grace and dignity and a heart so soft; and Sr. Maryann, a woman who can move mountains, yet tell a funny story in her quiet, modest way.

These four women – their smiles are so real, their hearts are so open. They walk in the light of Jesus everyday, and I am honored and blessed and so grateful to have met and learned about Haiti through their eyes.

Megan Mentzel

Megan MentzelI really didn’t have any expectations for this trip to Haiti. I was excited and looking forward to helping in anyway that I could, but I really had no idea what was in store for me.

I was absolutely shocked by the extreme poverty. I felt at a complete loss. There are no words to describe the poverty; it is everywhere and it is beyond belief. By the beginning of our first full day in Jeremie, I was completely overwhelmed by everything that I was seeing and learning. I was instantly out of my comfort zone, and the day of our departure couldn’t come fast enough for me. My attitude quickly changed just an hour later when I began to help at the Center of Hope. I was so amazed by the strength of the women who work at the Center and of the women they serve. What those women endure daily is amazing.

Today we are leaving and I feel that one week was not nearly long enough! There is so much need in Haiti. I am looking forward to staying involved with the Haitian Health Foundation, whether it be supporting a Happy House or eventually returning. I am leaving with a new outlook on life. It is possible for one person to make a difference, to reach out and touch many lives.

“To the world you may be one person, but to one person, you are the world.”

Meghan Platek

Meghan PlatekLast year my life was drastically changed when Haiti put everything into perspective for me. This year was no different. I thought I’d seen poverty, but this trip opened my eyes and heart to the now struggles, sufferings, and depleted living conditions for people of Jeremie. However, despite these scenes, I am leaving this experience feeling more motivated and inspired than ever by the strength of the Haitian heart. After losing a child, living under a leaking tin roof, having no income, going to bed hungry – a even after all of this, their smiles spread, their laughter ignites and thankful praises sing from their mouths. Their strength is inspiring. I am so thankful that Avera allowed me to join in on this amazing opportunity to witness the Haitian Health Foundation and all the good it encompasses. I am, again, changed for the better.

Shari Platek

Sheri PlateckMy heart is full. Once again I am blessed to work for an organization that puts its mission and principles into action. The contrast a volunteer sees between the beauty of the people and countryside, and the overwhelming poverty and illness that is everywhere, provides an enduring lesson for each of us. The lesson is that we are incredibly blessed and need to share our talents and gifts with those who are less fortunate. In spite of Haiti's incredible challenges, the people continue to find strength in their families and their faith.