It’s not easy to decide to go on a mission to Haiti with your wife when you have small children. Yet Josh Snyder and his wife found loving caretakers for their children so they could join the group of 13 volunteers from The Chapel’s north campus for a week of service in Haiti. Snyder is the Norwalk public works director.
And yes, they set aside the idea of a fun vacation to pay their own tickets and passports for a fun week of working for others.
Pam Snyder was a returning volunteer who described scenes of the poverty-stricken Caribbean Island which still suffers from a 2010 earthquake. So Josh had expectations of what it would be like.
“The reality is something else, however,” he said. “No one can do justice to it in words.”
The group stayed at Double Harvest, 10 miles east of Port-au-Prince. It is a 200-acre farm with a clinic, a private faith-based school, a church — all included in a compound with a high wall around it.
Because typhoid thrives on dirty water when streams are used as a waste disposal system by many people along them, a well provides clean water to crops of vegetables and ornamentals and for tilapia fish ponds at the farm. It serves the people and chickens living there and for all village neighbors outside the compound.
Planning weeks ahead for the trip included the logistics of packing tools, supplies to be shipped in a large box. On arrival, men are to do carpentry, working in teams.
Pam, a nurse practitioner, worked in the clinic. It can have up to 50 patients daily, most of whom suffer typhoid or complications caused by it. Other women volunteers teach hygiene and feminine empowerment to village women.
The new group sleeps in dormitory-like quarters on the upper floor of the clinic and eats in the cafeteria with the students. This serves food grown on Double Harvest farm, a branch of Green Circle growers out of Oberlin, set up about five years ago. Workers there are Haitians from the nearby village, and their year-round manager is American-born. The pastor, also superintendent of the school, speaks Haitian Creole and translates for the newbies, who immediately find that gestures and sign language are their main connection to the locals helping on the week’s projects.
The project is to install doors and lock sets in the school and drop-ceilings which will keep temperatures bearable as the tin roofs heat up fast here in the tropics.
On Day One the men find their teamwork goes so well that they are ahead of schedule - until Day Two. Glitch.
The battery chargers for the drills and screwdrivers won’t charge and not enough have been included in the imported tool box. Time to drag out the corded drills, also stowed in the luggage. By Day Three, chargers are working again, so there is a rush to put a roof on a 20-foot by 15-foot new building.
Young Haitian men want to help.
After watching for hours, some take up the drills. Sign language and hand gestures flourish as volunteers assist the learners to put screws into the locks, bookshelves or cabinets being installed in classrooms. A good time is had by all.
Now the women come in and, elbow-to-elbow with students, together they paint all the school rooms. So close do they stand as they paint that some of the children find edges of their faces being painted in the excitement of the project, adding to their laughter. It makes the work seem like fun.
Josh Snyder explained that all the swings on the playground were broken from such excessive use that the chains holding them up had completely worn through. A broken-down basketball backboard had no net.
The children had very little in the way of toys, but are imaginative and creative enough to use “even junk to make drums from empty water bottles,” Snyder said, to which they dance happily as they drum.
Empathy, appreciation for the poor
“For my first day and a half, I felt so bad for how poor they are and for what they didn’t have, but as the third day rolled around, I began to appreciate them as people who were survivors. Whose main question daily is where their next meal comes from,” he said.
“I saw they are not inundated with ads telling them to want such-and-such things, since there are no TVs. That simplicity turned me from being sad to being jealous of them for their simple existence. They did not have e-mails to respond to, nor have to update texts continually. It was a big take-away for me.”
“We were able to repair all the swing chains and improvised old tires as swings where seats had worn away. With a little help, we repaired the basketball backboard and played a short game with one of the Haitians. They are appreciative of any little thing.
“Much of the country lacks education, TVs, has very few cell phones with spotty reception. The only way to explain to locals where we live in the USA was to find they recognized LeBron James, but not Cleveland. They were excited to know we are only an hour from where their icon plays. Even the nightly police guard understood the ‘geography’ of LeBron James,” Snyder said.
“I came to appreciate all the things they have done for us, so much spiritually. Through their simple existence that we in the States don’t have anymore, I glimpsed a happiness we don’t understand. Every high school student in the U.S. should have to visit a foreign country. Being there is not like seeing a place on TV, YouTube or the movies. Spiritually (the Haitians) have internal happiness and peace. They are happy to be alive, an attitude that we in the States don’t have.”
Snyder said there was “a new connection with the 13 in our group.”
“We did devotionals together, recapped the day by asking, ‘Where did you see God today?’ One instance was when one of our group gave a local man half of his peanut butter sandwich at lunch. That man then gave half of the half to a 9-year-old boy. Look. A guy who had nothing was still sharing that little bit. We don’t see that here, much,” he said.
Snyder intended to give away his dress shoes before leaving and was on the lookout for a man who had nearly the same size feet as “my big feet.”
“I had noticed one of the farm workers and gestured for him to come over. I took my shoes off and handed them to him, pointed to him. He took them with a big smile and walked out of the compound,” he said.
Their group gave away the extra suitcases they had brought, packed with items for the villagers, 40 “family bags” for the nearby village, plus 20 large sacks of rice, beans, shoes, etc. for the nearby sister church members.
“I had turned off my phone until our last day when I decided to check it,” Snyder said. “There were 152 emails and over 50 texts waiting.”