Sunday, January 24, 2010

Newspaper column: Trip to Haiti as a teenager filled with life lessons

My first impression of Haiti was how in­credibly poor it was.

I was only in Port-au-Prince briefly as part of a beach day cruise stop with my parents when I was in junior high, but the visit left a lasting impression on me. I had never seen so many people in the streets working so hard to sell their wares for so little.

Women shoved straw hats and decorative clay bowls in my hands as we passed, small children sitting on blankets at their feet. I remember the women held up their hands, refusing to take their items back when I tried to politely decline a purchase. It broke my heart to set the items down. I just wanted to hand them what little money I had in my bag.

Getting a head full of braids and beads suddenly didn’t seem all that important.

At the time, the country was in a civil war. We had been given strict instructions by the cruise line not to stray too far — otherwise they couldn’t guarantee our safety.

That part didn’t matter to me. Although I was curious, I was more than content sitting on a gorgeous beach with the bluest water I had ever seen.

The area was breathtakingly beautiful, but it fell in sharp contrast to the broken benches and crumbling concrete homes we passed.

I left feeling incredibly greatful for everything I have.

So when news of the earthquake broke a little more than a week ago, I immediately thought of those small homes I had seen. I knew they wouldn’t withstand much. 

I waited to see how the story would develop. After reading the ongoing up­dates, a coworker turned to me and said, “A calamity of this magnitude is going to hit home. Local people will be affected.”

Boy was she right.

As much as gripping photos of children crying over lost loved ones and detailed accounts of suffering in makeshift hospitals equip­ped only with aspirin connect us to the plight of those an ocean away, it’s easy to forget.

We have our own daily battles, although nowhere near as dire, to distract us. And, let’s face it, getting swept up in their reality is heartbreaking. Sometimes we need the luxury of being able to turn our attention to something else and laugh.

Like me, I’m sure most people felt the urge to help. Sure, dropping change into a collection can at a restaurant, donating at the grocery store checkout or joining a Facebook group that promises to give $1 for each member feels like we’re at least doing something. But there’s still a disconnect.

That’s why stories of survivors with local ties are so important. It places the disaster at our doorstep. It makes us realize that despite an earthquake being more than a thousand miles away, the aftershocks were felt around the world — including here.

We can find hope in the story of the former Tyrone-area woman who managed to escape after a four-story apartment building crumbled around her. Her fortitude to crawl through a crack a little more than a foot wide de­spite a broken back is nothing short of astounding.

We can find solace in the story about the Huntingdon church pastor who de­scribed helping other survivors remove the concrete from their hair on his annual outreach trip to his twin parish.

We can find courage in the face of adversity in the stories of three doctors with local ties who volunteered their time and skills to help retrieve orphans or take part in a medical relief mission.
It also helps to remember that in the midst of all the pain and suffering, there are tens of thousands of stories of strength, tenacity and compassion emerging from the rubble every day.

And because the odds are slim that I’ll ever return, I’m glad I ended up going back to buy that clay bowl.


Ray said...

I don't know why but that last line made me teary eyed. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

Angela said...

I'm anxiously awaiting to hear how the expo went.