Once again, I’ve taken an almost four-month hiatus from publishing here without any forewarning. I’ve spent some time thinking about why I do that. Often in my life, having a place to publish the things I am processing forces me to clarify my thoughts and articulate myself in a way that I think others will understand. In that writing and clarifying process I find it easier to identify solutions for the experiences I struggle with, or, more often, I find a way to sit with my discomfort and confusion in a way that feels meaningful.
For the past four months there has been a significant amount of discomfort and confusion to sit with. So much that, at times, I felt like I was drowning in it. Not only was I avoiding online publishing, I was neglecting my personal journal, and I was pushing my difficulties back further and further into myself until I couldn’t see them anymore. But they were still there and resurface they did. A lot of the muck swirling around in my mind was wrapped up in my return from Haiti to the US. It’s been difficult to work my way through it, at times, so I’m grateful I was forced to start early.
The first week I was back I was asked to speak with a group from my church, who had visited, about my experiences at Espwa. That was the first time I had to sift through some of the mess up there and make sense of it–put it into words. Below is the speech I delivered at my church at the beginning of the summer. I think it belongs on this page among my other experiences because it does a good job of tying them into my transition back home.
With this essay out in the word, almost-fully-processed, published online, I hope I will be able to sort through some of my other experiences from the summer and the new year ahead. I write this now from where I sit in my room in Pittsburgh, in cross-legged perch on the Peruvian sheet draped over my bed. From this place there are reminders of Espwa and Haiti on the walls around me: in photographs tucked behind the ribbons of a cork board and in a painting of a colorful and busy village that I’ve kept since my first trip to Haiti two years ago…
My experiences in Haiti began with a one-week mission trip in 2013. I got an email from my university that I could apply to travel to Haiti with a small group of students and faculty to an orphanage called “Espwa.” I applied, not knowing much about the country, but seeing this as an opportunity for service and travel. I landed in Port-au-Prince a few hours into my 21st birthday. The group of students and I spent the week organizing inventory in the clinic and painting the girl’s homes. During that one week, I met only a handful of the 450 children living there at the time and got only a small taste of just how complex and multifaceted the organization was. I barely dipped my toes into the water, but I was still moved in some lasting way. On the last day, one of the girls I’d spent most of the week with asked me when I was coming back. Without thinking, I told her I’d be back in one year. At the time I had no idea how I would go back, if I would have enough money after graduating from college, if I would be employed somewhere else, but I felt compelled to make that promise to her and trusted that things would work themselves out.
That fall, I got an email from my friend Kelsey that Espwa was looking for a pair of Volunteer Coordinators for 2014-2015. She asked me if I would apply with her. The timing couldn’t have been better. Exactly one month after graduation we flew from Miami to Port-au-Prince and made the hot 4-hour drive to Espwa. Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to get to know many of the 450 kids, the intricacies of the organization and hundreds of individual volunteers from all walks of life, from all over the United States. Most of our groups visit for only one week, and almost all of them become regular visitors. Espwa is not a place that is easy to forget. The kids are not easy to leave behind.
Looking back at the volunteers I’ve met this year, it’s really beautiful to see the ways they have been touched by their time at Espwa and inspired to do more.
Just last week I was with a volunteer who is sponsoring one of my dearest friends, Placide, as he attends college in Washington state this fall. The volunteer first visited Espwa 10 years ago and made a connection with little Placide—the charismatic preteen boy who could sing and dance and wanted to learn English. Over the past year I got to be a part of the process of helping Placide apply to schools, go through the visa application and study for the TOEFL exam. I even got to travel to the airport with him for his first flight out of the country to meet his sponsor in the states. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more proud of anyone than I feel proud of Placide. His opportunity gives me hope that others at Espwa have a chance to be successful even though the system they are stuck within makes it very difficult.
One of the most important facets of any volunteer trip is allowing your experience to affect you deeply and responding with your whole self when you feel called to do something about it. For me, I was called to go back to work in Haiti for a year. Now that year is finished. I already feel called to do something more, there are many others like Placide who deserve to be given a chance.
My favorite Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat, has a line in one of her novels that has stayed with me for months after reading it. She writes:
“[My mother] told me about a group of people in Guinea who carry the sky on their heads. They are the people of Creation. Strong, tall, and mighty people who can bear anything. Their Maker, she said, gives them the sky to carry because they are strong. These people do not know who they are, but if you see a lot of trouble in your life, it is because you were chosen to carry part of the sky on your head.”
― Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory
I believe the kids I met at Espwa are carrying the sky on their heads. Which begs the question: Don’t we who are under that same sky have a responsibility to share their load?
I’d like to read a segment of a letter I wrote to the incoming Volunteer Coordinators a few weeks ago:
Kate and Brenda,
It’s impossible for me to sum up what you will experience this year. For me, it has been a year with some of the most joyful, most frustrating, most thought-provoking and most infuriating things I’ve ever witnessed and been a part of. Some days I was ready to buy a plane ticket back home and give up. Sometimes living in Haiti, everything around you makes you feel hopeless. I spent many nights wondering if it was worth it when I know that many of these kids will not get the college education they want and deserve, that many of them will not be treated fairly by society, that many of them have been told they’re not worth anything and some part of them believes it. Some months those hopeless days outnumber the good ones. But, for me, all the bad days are worth it for days like today. For weeks like this week. It has been a week of hopeful days for me: congratulating Placide on his visa, celebrating the friendships we’ve made this past year, dancing together under the stars, spending time with the kids. On these days I can’t remember why I am leaving this place at all.
Espwa is a family. I’m sure you will have already seen that in the first week you are here. People here look out for each other, they get on each other’s nerves in ways only family can, and they also collaborate to create some of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. It’s not just the good parts of a family, it’s all of the mess too. With over 400 kids and 200 employees, you could expect no less. It’s not glamorous most days, but it’s home for these kids and it’s become a home for me too.
In some ways, leaving here will be harder for me than leaving college. I have family now and I feel like I’m uprooting myself, abandoning my support system of the past year and leaving them behind. It makes it much easier to know that we are leaving them in your loving and capable hands. I know you will treat this place and these people with the same kindness and compassion that I’ve felt from them. It’s not easy, but I want to tell you from where I stand now, it’s entirely worth every minute.
Take advantage of the time. Try to be present as much as you can and let yourself be challenged and tested. Reach out to people when you need help, they need help too.