Track and field head coach Bill Taylor gives a narrative of arriving in Haiti for a missions trip. Everything in the narrative happened between 9 a.m. and noon.
We flew in low this morning over Cap Haitien. The city, such as it is, on our left. Marshy land below. We came in for a steep landing on a short and single airstrip. You could see people standing, maybe working all along the airstrip. We landed and taxied.
Haiti is beautiful. The country, that is. It’s green and mountainous. I love mountains. I love green.
It’s 78 degrees today. Hotter than Nashville. The sun is shining. There’s a cooling breeze. Palm trees sway. We are excited to get off the plane. We are excited for what we are about to do.
Off the plane and into Customs. More painless than not. Just takes time for them to get around to admit us, get our bags, and let us go on our way.
Then quickly out of the airport, ignoring the guys that want to carry your bag for a buck. Guarding your belongings because people “lose” things running this gauntlet.
We rapidly load the big truck. First our bags and luggage down the middle, then us, on the two bench seats down each side. The back is open, with a canvas roof.
As soon as we are all loaded up, off we drive. Down dirt streets with “compounds”, huts, shacks, or whatever is left of this building or that. Some two stories, the outer walls completely gone. Casualties of a major storm, or simply from poverty and neglect.
Driving here was like living out a scene from a movie. “Blood Diamond” for instance. Poverty on all sides as we wade our truck through. People staring at us as we pass by. Cars carrying three times as many people as they should…people on the tops of cars, hanging onto the backs of cars, and shoved beyond capacity inside. Pedestrians are walking along the dirty sides, but there are no sidewalks. Just dirt, garbage, sewage trenches.
And everywhere, walls lining the road, with barbed wire, concertina wire, or just broken glass bottles, cemented in place to discourage intrusions. To protect what little is inside.
With no rules to the road, we weave in and out. Pass when possible. Are passed when it is possible. Passed by Haitens on motorcycles. At times we are blocked and have to wait, and then we are on our way again.
Suddenly we stop in the road and our driver, Jerome, honks the horn. He honks again, and I think he’s honking at a truck that has pulled over ahead. But that isn’t it, and after another honk the response comes as the security guard opens the large red metal gates, admitting our truck into the Cap Haitien Children’s Home.
The buildings here are brightly colored. Most are a teal blue, with dark blue and lime green trim. Many of the corrugated tin roofs are red, but others are just, well, tin colored. The compound seems big for the city, but not too big. A number of dorms, classrooms, outbuildings, a playground out front, and a field with a freshly poured basketball court in the back. It’s surrounded by a wall about 8 feet high. There is wire atop. It matches the community.
The kids seem eager to see us. Chickens roam free as the kids gather around our arrival. We dismount from the truck, unload our baggage and climb the stairs to our dorms. Each person claims their bunk for the week by throwing some personal possession under the mosquito netting, onto the mattress, then tucking the mosquito netting back in.
Once everything is up in the rooms, we gather on the balcony area outside our dorms for a welcome and a briefing. Hunter and Jillian Kittrell are our hosts, and they run the orphanage.
About thirty minutes later we are let loose on the resident population of the Cap Haitien Childrens Home.
Or is it the other way around?
Some of our team are returners, having been here last August on the last team mission trip. They immediately find, or are found by, familiar faces.
But whether here before or not, it isn’t long before kids have claimed the majority of our group. They are cutting cattle out of a herd. And all over the compound, in every direction, you see our athletes being led by the hand to this activity or that.
Colin, Austin and Ryan are immediately immersed in a spirited game of 3-on-3 against a local team. Our girls are ushered off to have their hair braided, or to see some part of the compound. Frisbee is played. Books are shown off. Mostly though, the kids find someone and just hang on them, or melt into them.
It’s not really that they are starving for attention. It’s more that they are starving for our attention. New people to play with. People who want to be with them. And they just love the love. They want love.
A popular activity here is flying kites. This means finding a piece of old plastic garbage bag for the sail, two pieces of bamboo wood for the frame, then attaching it all together somehow. Attach a piece of string, then let it go.
You wouldn’t think it would work, but these kids are masters at this, and some fly way up and stay there indefinitely. When that happens, the kids tie off the string to a post, leave the kite to fate, and either move on to something else, or build another kite.
I’m sitting with some of our team and some kids under the pavilion. It has a Creole name that sounds like ‘toenail.’ It’s an outdoor classroom with a tin roof.
And this little girl is smiling at me, with this huge toothy, goofy smile. For no reason at all. It’s wonderful.
Her name is Wengelin. Or something like that. Most of the kids here speak Creole, which is a mix of French and the native language. So sometimes it’s hard to know what exactly is said.
So we will call her Wengelin, and hope that is right.
Wengelin hands me a book she is holding, and with a big smile motions for me to look at it. It’s a great book. The kind I loved as a kid that shows how everything works, in detailed pictures, from the inside out and every other way. Maybe she wants me to read it to her. But it’s written in French, so I can’t read it. But it’s great.
I flip through the pages, ask Jenny how to say “Thank you” in Creole, and return it to her. I receive another gigantic toothy smile. She’s got the most wonderful innocent and happy smile.
I ask how to say, “How old are you?” in Creole. She shrugs and smiles big.
Jillian says sadly, “She’s fourteen, but she doesn’t know that.” I ask how long she’s been here. It’s been seven years.
Wengelin is fourteen. She looks and acts eight. She hasn’t grown like she should, physically for sure, probably mentally as well. Possibly, like so many kids here, she didn’t get the nourishment she had to have as a baby.
And then it hit me like a brick in the head. One that I hadn’t seen coming. That wave of compassion or sadness. That realization that things aren’t right in this world. A bigger, fuller story that just watching the news or talking about it doesn’t tell.
I couldn’t put words to it in that moment, only tears. Tears I want to hide. Tears I don’t want these kids to see because they don’t need that from me. They don’t want that from me. So I take a quick walk…to think, to recompose. To gather up a sense of normalcy and not feel bad. That’s not enough.
How do humans let this happen? Why would anyone let a Wengelin be malnourished, neglected, abandoned? This sweet kid. And why would anyone let a whole people, a whole country, starve to death, physically…spiritually?
Then I return.
Wengelin is not smiling now. She is lying on the bench with her head in Louisa’s lap. Alex sits above Louisa on the table. With eyes mostly closed, she grabs Alex’s hand, pulls it down, and places it firmly on her head, holding it there with her hand so it can’t escape. She’s not smiling now. Instead she looks content and loved…eyes closed and peaceful. And I think for this brief moment at least, all is right in her world.