Written by Phil Cerroni
By Elaine Paniszczyn
Before sunrise on a chilly, windy Monday morning in early February, 11 pilgrims from Flower Mound, Highland Village and Lewisville met at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport to begin a journey to Haiti via American Airlines. Previous pilgrims said the trip would change their lives. These new pilgrims were unsure they wanted their lives to change, but said they felt a calling to visit the Haitians on that tiny island in the Caribbean Haiti shares with Dominican Republic.
In their checked luggage, they carried toothbrushes and toothpaste for over 1,000 children, new dresses for little girls, baby blankets, Beanie Babies and medical supplies.
All had tetanus and other shots updated before the trip, and most took medications to prevent malaria.
Two of the travelers were best friends, and two were a married couple, but other than that, all were virtual strangers who met briefly at meetings before the trip.
The group’s first stop was Fort Lauderdale where they met representatives of Food for the Poor (FFP), who sponsored them in Haiti. Administrators at FFP headquarters prepared the pilgrims for what they would encounter and armed them with knowledge to keep them and those they met safe. Rule Number One: Only drink bottled water; if you accidentally rinse your toothbrush with tap water, throw it away and get a new one. Rule Two: Only eat cooked food.
Haitian women are modest. Most wear long skirts and shirts with sleeves. Pilgrims were instructed ahead of time to wear closed-toe shoes, no tank tops or shorts, and modest jewelry only.
Tuesday morning, the group landed at Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince, their home for the next four days.
About 85 percent of Haitians are unemployed; 70 percent of those who work earn $1 or less each day.
“If you hit rock bottom (in the United States), you have food stamps, free schools, clean running water, free or reduced lunch, and Medicaid,” said LeAnn Chong with FFP.
She said Haitians pay for uniforms, shoes and books for school. Siblings often take turns going to school because they have to share shoes. Often, they eat on alternate days.
“In Haiti, one out of four children die before age six,” Chong said. “Some get washed away in heavy rains.”
On their way to FFP’s compound, the pilgrims got their first glimpse of Haiti –miles of poverty…tap-taps (Haitian buses)...armed guards outside a grocery store…people huddled under make-shift shelters…women stripped to the waist attempting to bathe on the street. None had running water, plumbing or electricity. Recovery from the earthquake of 2010 and Hurricane Sandy last year is slow. Children were left without families and families without roofs over their heads. Government offices were pancaked in the earthquake, and land records were lost.
Haitian children learn to carry heavy burdens on their heads. Every day they walk to public wells, pump water into buckets, and carry water back to their families.
At the entrance to Food for the Poor, an armed guard holding a shotgun with a pistol grip handle greeted the pilgrims. There, the group had their first meal in Haiti before going to the public side of the compound to help feed families gathered in a courtyard. The masses carried buckets for rations being handed out. Some had walked for miles and stood in line for hours for five or six ladles of food.
The pilgrims left their comfort zones.
During their four days in Haiti, the travelers met the lucky Haitians – those being helped by FFP which spends over 95 percent of the monies donated to help those in need. They join cooperating organizations to build houses and to open schools and orphanages.
The pilgrims did not meet the masses they saw from their bus windows – those stranded in the streets, alleyways, and dumps of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area.
The pilgrims visited schools, an elder home where they helped bathe the frail and danced with those still able, an orphanage where they planted 200 trees and helped arrange the library, a housing development where they gave out food and clothing, a hospital, a home for cognitively challenged children where the group spoon-fed some and blew bubbles for all, and a FFP farm. A security guard with a walkie-talkie traveled on the bus with them. Following directly behind was a black SUV with a driver and a 6’7” armed guard – just in case.
On the last day, many left clothes at the hotel for people who cleaned their rooms to wear or to trade for things they or their families needed.
The pilgrims returned to DFW with suitcases mostly empty except for a few souvenirs, mainly Haitian rum, coffee, and artwork.
They also had 10 new forever-friends.