While Wisconsinites were still in the midst of holiday revelry, 23 members of RiverGlen Christian Church, S31 W30601 Sunset Drive, Waukesha, put aside Christmas gifts, packed their bags and headed to Haiti on Dec. 26 to serve.
There was no white Christmas in Haiti. Only the chaos of a poverty-stricken country still decimated from an earthquake four years ago. About half the buildings the team saw on their short ride from the airport were severely damaged, and many remained abandoned, Steve Vock of Mukwonago wrote on a blog for the mission trip.
They stayed in a compound "adjacent to incredible poverty," next door to a building where 120 disabled and abandoned children were cared for. The River Glen group was lucky enough to have nice beds, linens, towels and running water. During the week, group members spent time among the tin and wood shed homes in Onaville, which were built little by little as owners could afford the materials; in the tent city Cite' Sole; diverted their gaze as they walked past women squatting outside to urinate; and welcomed hundreds of smiling children waiting for a hug.
Some mornings involved packing bags of rice, beans, oil and sardines into bags no bigger than an infant, that would feed a family of four to five for two to four weeks. Under the shade of a mango tree, members of the mission group paused their work to hold bags in their laps and pray for the families they would feed.
Mukwonago High School junior Nicole Phelps suddenly realized they were doing "something that could change how these people were living," sustain them physically and give them hope.
"It amazed me that something this small was going to be able to feed a family of four, two meals a day for two to three weeks," said Phelps. "That amount of food is something we here take for granted."
Providing food for 1,000 families during the week, the group distributed bags of food in a fenced, supervised police yard for one distribution as people chosen by lottery scrambled on the other side of the fence, pushing for their turn at sustenance.
"They have nothing," said Vock. "It's kind of every man for themselves. There's no industry and few jobs."
For the first time in her life, Mukwonago High School senior Hannah Schultz had to trust God with her safety.
"That was a huge step — actually having to trust God," Schultz said.
Despite the chaos, the people of Haiti were welcoming. Language was no barrier as they played games with the children at the orphanage.
"They just loved hugging us and hanging on us even if we didn't have anything to say to them," said Lauren Vock, a Mukwonago High School junior.
Impact of trip
The experience was eye-opening and life-changing for members of the mission trip, who also helped paint homes and a church along with providing some Christian Bible studies.
During a church dedication that lasted more than three hours, Kettle Moraine High School junior Aaron Kosma realized, "no matter what language we're singing to our creator in, it's all one language to him."
Painting the homes took longer than anticipated, explained Scott Anderson of North Prairie, a 2012 Kettle Moraine High School graduate.
"That shows that we judged them and looked at the houses and thought they're so simple, but they are still people's homes and people are living in them," Anderson said.
Sam Kremer, a 2008 Waukesha West graduate and University of Minnesota student almost missed the experience that completely changed her when she became dehydrated and and needed two liters of intravenous fluids and lots of prayers.
"Had I not been able to experience it, I wouldn't have experienced all the joy that I got from helping all those kids," Kremer said. "Every time we got off the bus we had kids just running up to you with so much love and so much joy. All they wanted was to be loved and to be held."
John Tillison of Waukesha felt the kids of Haiti work on him as well. Taking a break from putting food bags together one morning, Tillison wasn't feeling well. Walking over to the children's home next door, he saw a boy sitting in a wheelchair with a tear in his eye. The boy reached out to Tillison, grabbed Tillison's hands and walked with him for about 15 minutes. Setting the tired boy back in his chair, Tillison went back to making food bags.
"Miraculously, I felt fine," Tillison said. "All of my maladies were gone."
A mother holding a sick infant handed the baby to Catholic Memorial student Hannah Warkaske of North Prairie and walked away, "like super ashamed."
"She never came back for the baby," said Warkaske, who gave the baby to another mother standing nearby to care for.
Shelly Delisle of Genesee, the RiverGlen global missions coordinator, said their work is not done. Group members are planning events to help less fortunate people closer to home, and another RiverGlen group will return to Haiti this spring.
"We have an obligation to treat them with compassion and have a relationship," said Delisle. "We're going to do something sustainable there."
"We can love more in Haiti. But we can also love 'the least of these' closer to home," Vock wrote on the blog.