May 7th – Becky Crosby and Haiti Travelers

Isaiah 58: 6-9
James 1:22-25, 2:14-17

Reflections on the SPF Trip to Haiti

Introduction: Rebecca Crosby

On April 7, Ted and I and two adult chaperones landed in Port-au-Prince with 12 teenagers in tow for our annual Senior Pilgrim Fellowship trip to Haiti.  This was the 4th trip for Haley McMahon, who has been a member of these trips from the very beginning, the 2nd trip for Conrad French, Eli Doggart, Finn McGannon, and Chase Wilson.  7 travelers were initiates. Landing on the small airstrip in Port-au-Prince, going through customs, and locating our suitcases felt normal enough for our teenagers; but exiting the airport is an immediate immersion in Haitian life – the heat hits you in the face; the loud and rapid Kreyol language confuses the brain; the smell of charcoal, sweat and exhaust fumes are an affront to the Connecticut nose.  The mass of people wanting a hand-out or to help you with your luggage for a little money adds to the chaos of the moment.  Thankfully the bus was waiting in the crowded parking lot.  The driver recognized us and waved to get our attention. Everyone boarded the bus while the 16 pieces of large luggage were loaded through the back window with the help of the driver, his assistant and Ted.   Filled to its capacity, the tired bus crawls out of the parking lot to the crowded streets on the outskirts of the city of Port-au-Prince.

For Ted and me after 18 years, the entry to this island nation of Haiti is a familiar one.  The sights, smells, heat, and chaos of Port-au-Prince feel normal to us,  but I can see on the new arrivals’ faces a sense of being out of their element, perhaps a little ambivalence, perhaps a sense of hope that where we are going is a better place than this. I hear our seasoned Haiti travelers reassure the initiates, “It gets better,” they say, “once we get there.”  I smile to reassure them, reminding them that we are going to a Haitian resort for the first night, where they will be able to swim in the ocean.  Smiles return and chatter begins once again.  We travel 1½ hours to Moulin-sur-Mer, “Mill on the Sea,” an 18th century sugar plantation that once thrived by sweat and blood of Haitian slaves, but now the plantation is a quintessential Haitian resort, which hosts a small museum of Haitian history with a special focus on the grim life of the slave plantation.  This spot is a great place for the teenagers to transition to this poor but culturally rich, magical island nation, and, in many ways, Moulin sur Mer is halfway geographically and psychologically to Deschapelles, our destination.

This morning three of our travelers will share reflections with you. Afterward, I will offer my own. I am very honored to share my reflection alongside theirs. I admire and feel incredibly proud of our young travelers, who demonstrate through their kindness, compassion and gentle smiles what it means to be the hands and heart of Jesus Christ in this world today.  They represent the best of this church, this nation and give us hope for the future.

Reflection by Brynn McGlinchey – 10th grade (first trip to Haiti)

On the rainy evening that we left for Haiti, 12 students and four chaperones stood in the church vestibule with their families. Ted took out his luggage scale and began to check that our suitcases fell under the weight requirements.

Each one of us traveled to Haiti with 50 pounds worth of pillow case dresses, books, and art supplies. These 50 pounds represented some of the only clothes people might have for a year or more, a tool for education and literacy, or the supplies for a day of fun for children, some of who had never seen a crayon before.

           There were so many wonderful aspects to our trip, but one of my favorite parts was going to the Baptist Church in Deschapelles, the main town that the Crosby Fund works out of. Even though the service was in Creole, everyone understood the same message of faith and love. Music was a very important part of the service. The lead singer of the choir was a young woman with a beautiful voice that rang throughout the church. Accompanied by a resounding chorus, together they made joyful and uplifting music. There was one song that everyone in the church, our group and the Haitians alike, loved. We all began to dance and clap and the whole room was alive with happiness. Afterwards, we shook hands with the members of the congregation, all of whom welcomed us into their church with big smiles and open arms.

           I also loved going to different schools to do art projects with the students. The school we went to in the mountains was a three-roomed structure with a thatched roof and walls. Students from kindergarten to fourth or fifth grade attended the school, which had a very limited amount of school supplies and learning materials. We made crafts like coffee filter butterflies and tissue paper flowers with the kids and afterwards, we took pictures of the kids holding their creations. They would laugh every time I showed them their own picture, excited to see themselves with their art. We also had the chance to tutor English at the beautiful, newly opened Crosby Center for Education. A few dozen students, mostly our age, came and together we read books. I worked through the book Holes with a girl who, although her English was not very good, worked so hard to imitate the way I read the words. All around us, there were different classes going on, some for children and some for adults. We could all see that the new Education center, in the few months that it has been open, is already making a huge difference in peoples’ lives.

             Over the course of 7 days, I formed deep friendships with my fellow travelers, as well as with many of the Haitians. I will never forget Nayla, the little girl who, 2 minutes after we met, walked up from behind, grabbed my hand, and began to swing our arms in sync as we walked home from the soccer game. I will cherish the laughs we shared with Dave, Cholz and Kevin, three little boys with limitless energy, who would come over to play with us every day. I will always remember the voices of older women reciting the alphabet for the first time in their lives at the impressive education center that Becky and Ted worked so hard to open. From showing children pictures of themselves, to handing out lollipops to the children we saw on our walk to the Verettes Market, the smallest of moments in Haiti made the biggest impact on me.

I went to Haiti with a huge suitcase filled with things to give to the Haitian people. My returning suitcase may have been lighter, but I came back with a much heavier heart. Haiti and its people filled me with so much love and hope, but our trip also opened my eyes to the daily struggles faced by the Haitian people. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to travel to Haiti with the Crosby’s to learn about the Haitian culture and be a part of the amazing work they are doing to make a brighter future for many through education. I hope to be able to travel to Haiti again in the future, and I hope that some of you will as well, because it is a truly moving experience to be able to see firsthand how education can change lives.

Reflection by Finn McGannon – 10th grade (second trip)

As some of you may know, this was my second time traveling to Haiti.  At first, I wasn’t sure if repeating the trip would be as interesting or exciting as the first time around, [pause] but as soon as I stepped off the plane I knew I had made the right choice.  Last year, I was overwhelmed for much of the first few days, by all the new sights and smells that were so different from home, but this time around I was more prepared and knew what to expect.  This really helped, and I was able to experience the trip on a deeper level and notice more of the details.

One of the most enjoyable aspects this time around was seeing how people lived and how different an average day was in Haiti compared to America.  At first, it could be sort of a shock to see something like a dead animal being prepared for a vodou ceremony, because we obviously aren’t used to seeing that on an average day.  But I found it pretty captivating whenever we saw things like that, and it helped get me thinking about why we live our lives the way we do.

One of my favorite events from the trip was experiencing the marketplace in Verette, which I can confidently say was the most crowded place I have ever been.  When you combine that with all of the unusual smells and lots of shouting and other noises, it becomes a very hectic, one-of-a-kind experience.  That wasn’t necessarily a good thing on my first trip; I was so overwhelmed that I stayed on edge the whole time and ended up missing a lot.  This time around, I made an effort to let my guard down some more and really take everything in.  We walked through rows and rows of people, selling everything from flip flops to raw meat to medicine, and I know without our guide, Evanson, I would have gotten lost very quickly.  But I found it fascinating that for Haitians, this chaotic experience was as ordinary as going to the supermarket.  Basically, the market trip helped show me that just because something is different from what we’re used to doesn’t make it worse.

The last thing I have to say is that I’m still trying to sort out the impact that the trips to Haiti have had on me.  I know the trips have changed the way I look at the world, but I’m not completely sure how.  It’s very easy to fall back into old patterns upon returning to the US, and it can be tough to evaluate the experience while jumping back into everyday life.  What I can say for sure is that the trips to Haiti have shown me the importance of keeping an open mind, and I’m sure I won’t forget the places we visited or the people we met for a very long time.  Thank you.

Reflection by Haley Mahon – 12th grade (4th trip to Haiti)

Year 1:

I didn’t know what to expect at all. This was the Crosby’s first time bringing such a large group of young high school students to Haiti. All I had seen was a few pictures from Becky’s PowerPoint presentation, and all I knew was that my mom thought that this trip would be a great opportunity for me. Little did I know, this trip would be life changing. When we arrived, I remember my flood of emotions. I was happy, sad, overwhelmed, shocked, amazed, uncomfortable, and curious all at the same time, but never once was I scared. My eyes had been opened for the first time in my life. Nothing about Haiti resembled Old Lyme at all. I was surrounded with different sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and feels, and I appreciated all of it. I had forgotten what Old Lyme was like, and I did not want to go back.

 Journal excerpt:

“And may I say, even the bus ride experience was truly amazing. Being exposed to a whole new culture was eye opening. I just wanted to hug everyone I saw because they all looked so kind. It is a country where everyone is family.”


Year 2:

Everything about my first trip made me want to go back again. I missed the cultural experience, and I wanted a break from Old Lyme. It was time for me to do a little more giving again. I expected my second trip to be exactly like my first because we had a similar itinerary, but I was wrong. When we arrived at Kay Ayiti, our hotel, the 3 and 6-year-old boys who live next to the hotel, Dave and Cholz, were standing outside waiting for us to arrive with big smiles and franticly waving hands, welcoming us home. It was then that I noticed that the biggest difference for this trip, in addition to meeting new people, was being able to reconnect with friends from the past year. It was this second time around that I was able to begin to build such strong friendships that would last for years. But, this only made it harder for me to leave.

 Journal excerpt:

“I was expecting Dave to pop out of my suitcase with a balloon and smile, but instead I only saw memories. I would love to help educate Americans about Haiti. The experience is truly unforgettable. It is something everyone should open their eyes to, even if they don’t necessarily enjoy it.”

Year 3:

I just missed all the people, and that’s what made me go back. I missed Dave and Cholz, I missed Olcy, one of the artists, and I missed Louines, one of our translators. These are just a few of the many people I had become friends with, but hadn’t seen in a year. It’s so hard to become so close with so many people, just to part our separate ways. This was the trip when I realized how much I could miss while I’m home in Old Lyme. When we arrived at Kay Ayiti, I was expecting to see Dave and Cholz there waiting for us again with smiles and waving hands, just like last time, but that wasn’t the case. Dave was very quiet and un-amused. He seemed like a whole different person. It wasn’t until later that I would find out that his grandmother had recently passed away. I felt as though I couldn’t do anything to help, and it sunk in deeper that I had missed a whole year of his life. I spent the whole trip giving Dave small gifts like balloons, candy, and friendship bracelets, and eventually I began to see the old, happy Dave a little more. I came to the realization that if I’m only able to see these people for one week each year, then I have to make the most of my time with them. I spent the majority of this trip with Olcy, Louines, Dave, and Cholz because I knew that in just a few days I would have to leave them for another year. We all exchanged gifts throughout the week so that none of us would forget each other within the next year. Returning home my third year put me into a state of depression. The culture shock made me feel guilty in my own home and uncomfortable in my own bed. When my parents asked me how my trip was, I said nothing. It took a couple adjustment days, but I realized that I definitely have two different homes; one in Old Lyme and one in Haiti. The adjustment between the two is the hardest part.

 Journal excerpt:

 “I knew for sure that if I hugged Louines goodbye that I would cry. And that is exactly what I did. I walked over to him, hugged him, and fell apart in his arms. As we hugged and cried together for about a minute he told me that whenever he looks at the painting on the wall that I bought him for a housewarming gift, he would think of me. He said he would even spend the money to get it framed.”

Year 4:

This year I knew exactly what to expect. I knew that I would notice something new about the Haitian culture that I hadn’t seen in the past three years, I knew to take plenty of pictures so that I could flip through them when I feel incomplete at home, I knew to comfort the new travelers on the trip because I am more experienced, I knew that I must savor every minute with the friends I have made over the past 3 years, and I knew that I would return home even more shook up and uncomfortable, with even more mixed emotions than the years before. And all of this scared me. Knowing that I had to return home in only a week made me question whether or not I should go in the first place. Then, at just our first day at Kay Ayiti, Becky told the group exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. She told the whole group a story about how on one trip she had to pause her work and let her emotions overcome her, and because of this, she saved the life of a little girl named Remi. She explained that in order to be able to work in a place of such poverty, there must be emotional balance in order to be productive, which can be extremely hard for most people. There’s a time to work, and there’s a time to cry. Suddenly, I didn’t feel so guilty for becoming so depressed after returning home last year. I realized that I actually have the perfect emotional balance to be able to work in Haiti. I take everything in with optimism and curiosity, and then I save the crying for my room. It took me 4 years and 4 weeks in Haiti to really discover and understand this essential lesson, and overall, discover who I really am.

 Journal excerpt:

“The whole trip my goal was to experience everything with joy and not dwell on the fact that I’m leaving soon. I accomplished my goal and lived one of the greatest weeks of my life to my best ability. I realized that I want to be able to see and experience more. I want to be able to visit Haiti more often and interact with more people.”

  Final Reflection – Rebecca Crosby

As you may remember, the last time Ted and I were in Haiti in January, we opened our Education Center with a grand celebration with 350 Haitians joining in the festivities.  Several days later, we returned to the U.S. leaving an empty building that still needed a little more work before our staff moved in.   Over the past few months, I heard daily accounts of the move, and saw pictures of the first classes held in the building. Programs in tutoring, adult literacy and computer classes began last month. Ted and I were anxious to return.  

We arrived at the Education Center with our teens and chaperones. It was a great joy to witness all the programs in full swing: our 10 staff members were at work, security guards were present, tutors were on hand, students were seated in chairs with tables, the computer lab was open.  I was so excited to see the Center swell with students of all ages, just as I had imagined.

Our group was offering a tutoring program for Haitian teens who are studying English. (Many thanks for all of you who donated books to this effort).  Haitian teens join up with our teens in small groups of 2 or 3, the Haitians read aloud English books and our teens help with pronunciation and comprehension. This type of engagement is rare in Deschapelles.  Most volunteers are older and work in medical fields in the hospital.  There are few international teenagers volunteering in the area. Haitian teens are very interested in U.S. teens.  I have noticed how they look closely at each other – observing articles of clothing, shoes and haircuts; but as always, the smile breaks the barrier immediately, and the hour goes by very quickly, equally enjoyed by both groups.   

            While the teens were reading with Haitian high school students, I wandered off to visit Fednor Sidort our Program Administrator, who now also runs the Education Center. After a brief catching up, Fednor asked if I wanted to audit the literacy classes in session.  Of course, I did.  He smiled, and said “Good, because they have been waiting for your return.”  There were two classrooms with 25 Haitian adults in each room, ranging in age from 30-65, mostly female, but there were some males too.  They are learning to read and write Kreyol, the native language of Haiti.  Statistics tell us that over 55% of Haitian adults are illiterate, but I think in the Artibonite Valley, the rural area of Haiti, the percentage of adult illiteracy is much higher. 

When I entered the room, the teachers smiled and some of the students smiled as well, but others looked away.  I recognized many from the local community, and I wondered if some were ashamed for me to know they are illiterate.  I smiled in return, and told them how happy I was to see them in this program, and how proud I was that they had taken this big step towards literacy.  I assured them that I understood that it took great courage.  I said this in Kreyol, which I am sure wasn’t perfect, and so my words broke the ice.  Perhaps my imperfect Kreyol made me seem a little more human to them.  The adult closest to me slowly moved her work paper in my direction as if to say, “See what I am learning.”  I looked at the wide lined paper, all donated by Flanders Elementary School.  Here was a woman probably in her 40s, most likely a mother, and on her page was written, “aaa bbb ab ba.”  These letters were written as if she had never held a pencil before.  It looked like my 4-year old granddaughter’s Pre-school papers back in September.  I was struck with sense of sadness, and I didn’t want her to notice it.  I smiled and congratulated her on a job well done, reminiscent of the way I encourage our granddaughter Madelyn with her writing.  After congratulating this one student, the others expected me to look at their papers too, and so I took the time to look at the work papers of all 50 students – congratulating each one and patting them on the shoulder. I could see they liked my approval.  When I finished with that, I sat and watched some students go to the black board and write their letters and make the appropriate sounds after each letter. When each student finished, the class clapped for him or her, and the next person went forward.  The teachers were patient and loving, encouraging each adult. This was the first school experience for this group. They begin their class with prayer and ended it with prayer, unlike our other programs at the Center which do not include this religious practice.  When I asked Fednor about this, he said they want to pray because they need the encouragement. It is hard for them.   

Two days later when the class met again, I returned with beautiful, fancy pencils that were intended for some children.  I gave each of them a sparkle pencil as a gift.  They loved them.

It is hard to put in to words the emotion of that afternoon.  I was thrilled that we were offering this literacy program and giving these adults the opportunity to learn to read and write, but I was so sad to see the stark reality of adult illiteracy and its negative effect on one’s self esteem.  I can’t imagine being illiterate at my age.  Can you?

I thought about our journey in education over the past 18 years – from one student to 436 – ranging in age now from 4 to 65 or more.  Education is a privilege that so many of us take for granted.  We read and write, add and subtract and think nothing of it.  But imagine, just imagine, if you couldn’t.  That thought was behind my sadness when I witnessed the class … I was imagining sitting in her chair and writing “aaa bbb.” 

Illiteracy is another face of poverty, to accompany hunger, lack of medical care, lack of decent housing, fresh water and free education. All of these experiences shared with you this morning represents the diversity of our on-going work in Haiti, for though education is our main objective, we are deeply immersed in all aspects of Haitian life, in all of the joys and sorrows in our beloved community of Deschapelles.   



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