Effingham Daily News
A recent weeklong trip to one of the poorest countries in the world was a meaningful gift to a local group of 15 missionaries.
St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church hosted a trip to Haiti from Jan. 10 to 17 to assist sister parish St. Charles Borromeo in construction and medical endeavors. The group also included parishioners from Sacred Heart, St. Francis, St. Michael and St. Mary's Catholic churches.
"It was amazing," said missionary Susan Seiler. "This was my second trip. It was a heart-expanding gift. We got more out of it than we gave."
The group consisted of individuals from 16 to 78 years of age. They took on projects in the Haitian city of Ferrier that included fixing the parish's rectory roof, distributing medicine and bonding with Haitians.
The missionaries saw a lot of nausea and female pain, and although they were equipped with acetaminophen, ibuprofen and other common over-the-counter medication, the supply ran out quickly.
Dr. Paul Rhodes, Dr. Hope Knauer and Dr. Jyoti Sahri were able to make use of their individual medical skills while abroad.
"I brought part of a chiropractic table down there and adjusted probably 40 to 50 patients," Rhodes said. "It was a lot of fun ... I'm glad we could do that."
Knauer said the team had brought about 50 pairs of glasses, which were of great need in the community.
"Very few people wore prescription glasses," she said.
The missionaries had collected monetary and material donations before the trip. They brought a variety of hand tools to use for construction and left them behind for the Haitians.
They found the different business customs interesting.
The group quickly learned they had to stand around the marketplace talking and getting to know the sellers first. A purchase could not be made without an established relationship between the buyer and seller, with the price higher for Americans.
One of the larger problems the group encountered was the language gap. A Haitian medical student acted as interpreter, but with the size of the group, bridging the gap wasn't always possible.
The missionaries were also surprised that Creole was more dominant than French.
During the trip, the group visited the local catholic school in Ferrier.
The school educates 400 students and costs $7 a month to attend for the nine-month school year, while uniforms cost $30 Ñ hefty expenses for the average salary of about $45 a year.
"It really was probably the only meal of the day for some kids," said Penny Meyer.
Missionaries were able to provide the school with four laptops, more than the two computers the school requested. The computers are used by children from 3 to about 12 years old.
"Many want to learn English," Seiler said. "It's a big tool to get out. They frequently were wanting us to teach them English words."
Poverty throughout the area was evident as the missionary group visited a local orphanage. The rooms were nearly bare, they reported, with just bunk beds, no toys, clothes or personal belongings in sight.
"This is what I would imagine a concentration camp to be like," said Jacki Pickowitz.
"It was heart-breaking," Seiler said.
Their surroundings did not appear to affect them, however.
"They were happy," Knauer added.
The group noticed other differences between American and Haitian living, such as the lack of clocks and customary food. For meals, the Americans sampled goat, sardines and fish.
"They would feed us, and when we were done, all the help would come in and eat what was left," said Fr. Dave Hoefler. "I think (they) were nervous (about feeding everyone)."
Still evident throughout the small country was the effects of the catastrophic earthquake in 2010.
"Honestly, it doesn't look a whole lot different (than before the earthquake)," Seiler said.
Despite the impoverished conditions, the group watched mourners in a funeral procession don impeccable clothing. Rhodes said the Haitians dressed in clean white clothes for the occasion.
"They wore white, pressed pants and polished shoes," he said. "How do you keep those things clean?... When they went to church they were dressed to the nines. I haven't worn jeans to church since getting home."
While aware of the help they were offering the people of Ferrier, the team insists the Haitians had so much more to give.
Seiler handed out toothbrushes to local children and relished the opportunity.
"I loved that," she said. "I used that moment to look people in the eye and say merci... ÔNo, you are giving to me."
"They appreciate the little things that we don't even consider to have any value," said Larry Thies. "They respect the little things ... like a piece of gold. We have so much that we have so little respect for. They have so little that they respect so much."
"We thought we were changing their lives, but they did more in ours."
Seiler enjoyed sharing the experience with 16-year-old son, Adam.
"I went six years ago, and when I came back, I said I wanted each of our three children to go to Haiti," she said. "I wanted him to see that. That's a gift I want to give each of the kids. A sense of gratitude and perspective that's impossible to get over here on TV or in the newspapers."
Pickowitz wasn't sure what to expect when she left for Haiti, but felt spiritually enriched by the experience, a sentiment others shared.
"You strip away (belongings) and material crap, and you're left with the raw essence of humanity," she said. "I had no idea what that would be like. Person to person that's what it's about. You'd never get that here... It's such a sense that we are exactly the same, skin and bones.
"I kind of surprised myself. I'm letting go. It's so much easier than I thought it would be."
Rhodes was surprised at how happy he was outside of his daily American lifestyle.
"I didn't think I was really materialistic before I left," he said. "When I got back, I was a lot less. I may want it, but I don't need it. Who cares?"
The group not only noticed the lack of materialism, but also vanity. There were very few mirrors in Ferrier, and the missionaries took this as a sign to avoid looking inward at their needs and instead focus all their energy on their hosts.
Many missionaries felt torn between wanting to stay in Haiti and returning to their normal lives.
"It's like a different planet," Hoefler said. "You can take pictures and try to describe it... It wasn't fun, but it was joyful.
"I always say (the trip was) wonderful, but I want to back up. It tugs at your heart. We brought maybe a little hope and relief, but we brought back so much more. They struggle, but they get that faith and religion are important. They recognize the gifts... How hard it is to communicate our experience. It can't translate."
In spite of scheduled donations, the group gave $640 more than budgeted and weren't concerned about the deficit.
"I would go back tomorrow," Meyer said.
"What is joy?" Rhodes asked. "Now I think I know. You feel joy in your heart."