Last spring, I had the opportunity to travel to Haiti and volunteer at the Maison Fortune Orphanage School, officially named, “L’Ecole Mixte Jean Louis Fortuné.” Maison Fortune is in Hinche, a small city in central Haiti which has a population of 50,000. The orphanage was founded in 2000 with only four children on site.
Thirteen years later, now approximately 260 children live at the orphanage, and dozens more walk from their villages to attend school on the compound each day. I was blessed to have the opportunity to travel to Haiti with my church from Virginia Beach, Va. A small group of parishioners travel to the orphanage at least twice a year and do lots of different projects and community relations. While I was there, our main mission was to interact with the children daily and just bring a little bit of joy to their lives.
My flight was long, and the drive from the airport to the orphanage was even longer. We traveled for more than two hours on bumpy, unpaved roads. The living accommodations included a twin-sized bed covered with a mosquito net to keep the bugs out in the evening….some nights it worked, other nights it didn’t! We had a small bathroom to share that barely had running water, and if we wanted to wash our clothes, we used a small river behind the property. Haiti is the poorest and least developed country in the western hemisphere, so despite what I thought of the living conditions, the orphanage was far better than the villages. The students range in age from four to 25 years old. Although the boys and girls have very little to call their own and live in conditions that many Americans would consider uninhabitable, they are some of the most loving, thoughtful, joyful and intelligent people I have met in my life. Most of the children knew little bits of English, so we were able to communicate, but we also used a lot of pointing, hand gestures and creativity. One of the older boys gave my group an hour lesson each day in Creole, just basic phrases and greetings. I was only there for a week but I helped teach three English lessons with the local adults. I did not know any Creole or French, so it was a bit of a lesson for me as well. I spent time playing soccer with the boys, teaching the little girls how to make friendship bracelets, and coloring in coloring books and playing “duck, duck, goose” with the toddlers. I even taught some yoga and helped a few of the nuns feed, bathe and care for babies. While I may have only been there for a week, I received a lifetime of perspective on what is truly important.
I had nothing to offer these children other than my time. In return they gave me priceless smiles, endless laughs, and memories that will forever stay with me. While in the Navy I have traveled to many different places and have seen a lot of poverty, but I’ve never been so up close and personal with poverty before this trip, and that left a lasting impression on me. I have children the same ages as many of the orphans in Haiti, and I cannot imagine my own children having to endure the daily struggle that these children do.
I realize even more now how blessed we are in this country to live in such a great nation with freedom and opportunity. I try to not take anything for granted and continue to give back by volunteering and teaching my children the importance of volunteering, as well. Now that I’m back in the U.S., it’s very easy to place value in the material things, and it will be easy to lose that fresh perspective from spending time in a third world country. We never seem to have enough; always seeking more, that bigger and better life. I’ve learned that those aspirations mean nothing. It’s not always a bad thing, but what I’ve learned is you don't need those material things to make you happy. Trying to find happiness in things will never last long... they will always need to be replaced by the next best "thing." But if you put priority in relationships and service to build your happiness, you can never go wrong. I
was blessed to have the opportunity but it’s not necessary to look outside of our country to do this. Giving back doesn’t have to equate to money. You can spend time with the elderly in a nursing home. You can volunteer at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. There are opportunities to clean up neighborhoods and parks. We are all called to serve -- whether it’s service to our nation, our families or our communities. The most important thing you can give to anyone truly is your time. Find a cause that you are compelled to serve, and put your ideas into motion. You will be amazed at how much one person can accomplish, but more so how much one person can be changed! Little by little, you can be the change you want to see in the world. I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity!