Jan. 3 was the day 10 Jaspers were scheduled to arrive for the College’s first ever Lasallian Outreach Volunteer Experience (L.O.V.E.) trip to Haiti. Instead, they were stuck in Jamaica — Queens, that is.
Caught in the first nor’easter of 2014, the Manhattan College group dealt with endless delays, canceled flights and long layovers before arriving two days later to stay with a Brothers community in the Cazeau quarter of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The trip was planned with the help of Morgan Maclearie ’13, an elementary/special education grad, and the Brothers of the Christian Schools’ District of Eastern North America (DENA).
For civil engineering major Kyle Kennedy ’15, who was fresh off his first plane ride and ready to begin his first trip abroad, it took a few days to adjust to reality.
“People ran up to us and asked for money. Then they put their hands through the bus windows asking for more,” Kennedy said. “We realized during reflection that night, we’re there to help. From then on, we decided to acknowledge everyone and not ignore anyone we met.”
Acknowledging was the easy part. Communicating was not.
While some students were able to speak with locals in French, Spanish or English, Haiti’s national language of Creole was a more challenging barrier. Luckily for Manhattan, marketing major and Haitian native Kelly Paulemon ’16, acted as the group’s translator for the week.
“We merged very well with the local community, and it was beautiful to see the cultural, and, at times, linguistic barriers break down as my teammates interacted with the Brothers we were staying with and the locals that we met,” Paulemon said.
Connecting Through Kindness
When words were not enough, kindness helped communicate.
The group visited New Life Children’s Home orphanage, a colorful and shady oasis in the midst of the city’s hot and dusty landscape. There, they held and rocked babies, sat with severely handicapped children and peacefully stroked their arms and hands.
At St. John Baptist de La Salle School, the Manhattan College students exchanged songs with classrooms of eager children, learning bits of Creole and teaching bits of English along the way. At recess, all they needed was a soccer ball to coax instant excitement from the students.
It was beautiful to see the cultural, and, at times, linguistic barriers break down as my teammates interacted with the Brothers we were staying with and the locals that we met.
Using their Lasallian heritage as common ground, a thundering bilingual chorus rang out each time a Brother proclaimed, “Live Jesus in our hearts!”
“Forever!” the Haitian students practiced. “À jamais!” the Jaspers said.
“We practiced that a lot and told them that we’re from the same kind of school, that we have Brothers at our school,” said faculty chaperone Lois Harr, director of Campus Ministry and Social Action at the College. “That we’re all one big family.”
Later in the week, the Manhattan cohort met with a group of Sisters who are building a community center to serve as a preschool and place for women to build trade skills, learn healthy habits and receive care for newborns.
Working with a group of Haitian volunteers, the Jaspers helped tear down an abandoned shack in a nearby tent city for materials to use in the new building. The project, tedious at first in the hot sun, was a bonding experience by the end of the day.
“One of our group members gave a kid his bracelet,” Kennedy said. “And he called us over, and we all pointed at our own bracelets and said, ‘you’re a part of us now.’”
Rebuilding and Remembering
The familial feeling extended to Friday when the Manhattan group visited the Haitian branch of Catholic Relief Services (CRS) to learn about the work they’re doing within the country. One prominent project is the reconstruction of St. Francis de Sales Hospital, which was destroyed by the earthquake in 2010 — nearly four years to the day.
At Sunday Mass, the group witnessed an exuberant and patriotic congregation mark the tragic anniversary with songs of rebuilding and hope.
“The people really are beautiful, they’re so pure in spirit,” said Nelson da Luz ’15, a civil engineering major. “Life has thrown a lot at them that isn’t good, but they are still so positive.”
Having long forgotten about the delays that kicked off the trip, the Manhattan group left Haiti with renewed appreciation and the promise of family, should they return.
“It was amazing to see them all come with a clean slate,” Paulemon said of her classmates. “For me, it was the ultimate fusion between the world I am a part of for now — New York — and the one that I came from — Haiti.”