Monday, July 26, 2010

A memorable return trip to Haiti—By Gil Hanke

Gil Hanke (with pick axe) digs a trench for the foundation of a security wall for a church and school in Mellier, Haiti.  Photo by Kurtis Kraus

July 8th, 2010

This was unlike any of my earlier 30 overseas mission trips, but it is one that I will treasure in a special way.  I volunteered to lead a Haiti mission team from the Texas Annual Conference (Houston Episcopal Area).

Each member of the 10-member team agreed to lead a team back to the island nation within a year.

The dates and the location of our work were selected by the UM Committee on Relief (UMCOR) in cooperation with the Methodist Church of Haiti. The highest priority at this time is to reopen the Methodist elementary schools, and to remove the rubble from church and school sites.

We worked in Mellier, near Leogone, the epicenter of the January 12th earthquake. I had been to Leogone on my first trip to Haiti in 1989, and I traveled through that area many times on the way to a school in Jacmel.

The magnitude and randomness of the destruction is difficult to comprehend or describe. Almost every building in Haiti is made of concrete blocks, with a solid, flat, concrete ceiling/roof. That roof becomes the floor for the next story when it is built.

Those heavy roofs work well during hurricanes and tropical storms, but they are deadly during an earthquake. Imagine a three-story parking garage that loses all its supports and pancakes everything inside; that is what this area looks like today.

I did see the site of St. Vincent’s School for Handicapped Children where I have worked on each trip since 1989. There is nothing left of the three-story school and hospital clinic.


We arrived on Saturday June 26th and spent that night at the Methodist Guest House in Petion-Ville. Early Sunday morning we traveled to Mellier, arriving in the middle of a two-hour worship service.

After the service, we set up tents and cots and began to organize what we had brought for the children, the school and the worksite. We had cooks on site, and the food was great. We had one toilet that worked most of the time, and our shower was a bucket and a small bowl.

Monday through Friday we worked tearing down the security wall in front of the compound (we pushed it over) and digging a new foundation for the new wall. We also made additions to the inside of a wooden temporary building that will be shared by the school and the church.

Since the quake, the Haitians hope to rebuild with wood, but they are so used to building with concrete that they have yet to master the skill of working with wood. They welcome most of our suggestions as we work in partnership. We had one translator, who did a great job and was often called in three directions at once.

Matching funds

The team/conference contributed $3,500 as project money, an amount matched by UMCOR. Those funds paid for materials, but more importantly the funds paid the Haitians who worked beside us and took care of us.

The following weeks there will be other teams, with another $7,000 that will be injected into the local area. The employment of the Haitians brings some stability to the communities, and frankly, the job is too big and conditions too hot for US teams to make an impact on their own. As is the case with many Volunteer in Mission projects, we were there to work for them, and to complete projects as the Haitians directed.

School was in session each day from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Students met in a UNICEF tent in the middle of the compound and under a nearby tree. When school was out and during their breaks during the day, we had fun with the children.

One of the pastors on the team brought Lego kits contributed by his church’s Vacation Bible School. We also made paper airplanes, colored, played soccer, blew bubbles, jumped rope and sang songs. Many of the children stayed in the compound until we ate dinner. They were beautiful and loving.

Heat takes its toll

By Thursday afternoon, the heat and the conditions took their toll, and our work level was reduced from earlier in the week.

Friday we worked until lunch, took a ride to the beach and began to pack for the trip back to the Guest House on Saturday and an early flight home on Sunday morning.

Haitians always speak with passion. Like any worksite, there were arguments that were usually quickly resolved. One day, however, arguments got to a boiling point. I asked the translator what had them so upset. He smiled and said, “Brazil is losing in the World Cup.”

Several days later when we returned to the Guest House, the community had a funeral procession to morn Argentina’s loss.

Lows and highs

I had the name and phone number of a lead teacher who worked with me in the Hope of Hearing program, but was unable to reach him. It is frustrating not to know if my friends survived the quake.

But I did get some “light” during the trip. While at Mellier, a team member said a young deaf woman was in the compound, and she was asking questions. I spoke with her via sign language, and discovered she had been a student at a school outside Port au Prince. She remembered that I had worked there with the hearing aid team. What a special blessing. It came at the right time. For now, that is enough.
 The UMCOR staff is looking for my friends, and I hope to see them on my return trip to that nation.

Please support Haiti mission teams from your annual conferences and give generously to UMCOR. I would guess that only 1 percent of the clean up has been completed. This will require many years of mission trips, but well worth the continuing journeys.

Gil Hanke is the top staff executive of the General Commission on United Methodist Men.

Read more United Methodist Men blogs here.

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