Of the many beautiful things Haiti has taught me since opening her arms to me, the art of slowing down is one proving to be a continuing lesson. I walk the same 1.5 mile route to the school where my ministry is taking shape, sometimes four times a day. In the first walk of my day, as kids in various brightly colored uniforms meander to school (or full on sprint depending on the morning they’re having!), I spend time reflecting on various things and in conversation with God, asking for guidance in the day and opportunities to share life with these wonderful humans. It’s a bit of jaunt, dodging motos, kamyons (big trucks), and the many women walking with enormous bundles on their heads to market, but it’s a firm part of life down here. And in the many moments where I wait for any of the three to pass, I’m afforded the chance to engage with someone, ask them how they are, and talk about whatever is going on around us. It’s simple, but in this slowing down of things, something I don’t do often enough in the states, I find little joys I might have otherwise missed. I often end up walking the last part of the dirt road hand-in-hand with some of the 500 students the school hosts.
Our community has many people, but is far from being considered a big town, let alone a city. We are surrounded by mountains on virtually all sides, which is refreshing when you come from a state flatter than a pancake (yes Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore)! You can walk anywhere in town under an hour. The Jesus Mary school I’ve been working with, run by the Religious of Jesus and Mary sisters, has many students who can’t afford education. The sisters do a lot to provide these kids with a solid education. The instructors are great, and work well with the students. Like with the rest of the country, many people struggle to find work. There are several families that are classified below poverty, labeled to be living in abject misery. The need for better living is great, and education is the foundation for getting there. One of the amazing things about the school is that it provides a meal for the children after recess. This is huge, as for many, it might be the only one they receive each day. As a result of the school taking care of some basic needs, the students are able to better focus on their education. Just so, like with students anywhere, there are still some who seem adamantly opposed to education. That is one of the things I am trying to work with the teachers to improve.
Arriving at school, the students are usually finishing up with morning announcements, prayer, and saluting the flag. I then decide which class I want to work with that day, and ask the instructor if I can sit with them. Herein lies one of my main ministries (so far). I observe what the teachers do, recording notes on method, strategies, and how the kids are responding. After lessons, I talk with the instructor about how it went, we discuss what was awesome, what seemed to be difficult, and what we might use to improve the lesson even more. We also discuss potential projects and what resources would be needed to make them a reality.
For instance, one of the first grade teachers used an example of the students’ mothers cutting up a zaboka (avocado) or chadek (grapefruit) to help give the kids a visual for understanding basic geometric principles in how shapes can be divided. In one of the absolute best moments we teachers get to see, a lot of light bulbs turned on as the kids who had been struggling made the connection! It was great, and afterward she and I started brainstorming ideas for how to use that same idea and bring even more discovery into the lesson. We now have plans to bring actual fruit into a similar lesson, to give the kids a kinesthetic experience and get hands on with the lesson. Bonus, they also get a nutritious and delicious snack! To continue with the same concept, we’re planning a science lesson to attach to this, so we can get the kids in the dirt, learning about planting and agriculture using the seeds from their math snacks!
When the students work individually on math and in their Kreyòl workbooks, I walk around and work with them if they need help, or find ways I can bombard them with encouragement and praise. When it comes to their French lessons, let’s just say I do what I can to make them smile, because unlike them, I am so lost! Seriously, why does that language feel the need to have a fifteen letter word that only verbalizes six of those letters?! At any rate, I’m grateful for these moments, as they allow me to actively engage with them and make strong connections. Recess is a great time in the day, as it again allows me to get hands on with the kids during the endless games we play. For my first and second graders, tag – the kind where it’s all students v. Abby – is their favorite, and man I get my workout in for the day with this one! With my older students, I cheer on the boys as they play soccer (practically everyone’s favorite sport in Haiti) and talk with the girls as they fuss with my hair or sunglasses or ask for pictures. They are so curious about why only some of my hair is blonde, and struggle to believe I don’t have it dyed that way.
In the afternoons Monday through Wednesday, I come back to school after lunch to help with soccer. Mind you, of the many different sports my parents had me participate in when I was growing, soccer was never one of them. I have done a lot of research since coming here and fortunately, one of the instructors is the main coach and has actually played for the town’s team. We work with them on agilities and drills before we let them scrimmage. Herein lies my other main ministry. I’m in the process of establishing a sports program between four of the schools here. I have locked in a donor deal with a sports facility in the US, who has agreed to donate many resources for us to get this up and running. This however, is in it’s infancy, and has been a big instructor in the art of patience and slowing down (at times a painful growth for me). It is my hope that the directors of the schools, the coaches, and myself can work together to have the schools start competing together as early as next year.
One of the facets of this program I’ve orchestrated with the director of my main school and coach is a “Second Chance” program. If the students agree to three things, they are allowed to come to practices or music or art, even if they don’t have the grade they need for it. The students are required to have a 5.5 average score (out of 10 possible) to participate. However, with this new program we’re starting, if they come to school on time, don’t have unexcused absences, and come to tutoring after school two times a week, we give them a second chance. We want them to be able to participate, and if they show they’re committed to trying to do better, then they earn certain graces. I have always been blessed when it comes to education. I just get it. However, I know so many wonderful, intelligent, and gifted humans who had a hell of a time in school. I have so much respect for them, and I am so blessed by the lessons they’ve taught me about being human. I know full well school is hard for a lot of people, and that’s even without a hard home life or hunger that many of our kids face. Therefore, to give them the benefit of the doubt and surround them with as much support as possible while still giving them autonomy, we developed “Second Chance.” Everyone, children especially, deserve to have things that make them happy, that enable them to feel a sense of self-pride and love. Sports, music, and art are some of those things that kids can thrive in without thriving in academics. So an opportunity to work in both is great!
Another project I am so excited to have us start in the fall will be taking place in the fifth grade classrooms. I took it from one I got to do when I was in middle school. The teachers and I are working together to develop this project, which will involve both big and little students. We’ll have the fifth graders go through the process of drafting, writing, and illustrating children’s books in Kreyòl! I approached them with this project because I noticed the library lacked many books in the native language, but had many in French and English. We want the kids to take pride in the language and culture that is theirs, and this project provides that opportunity well! It also gives the big kids a chance to show off their story telling and artistic skills. When the students finish their final drafts, they will get to share them with the younger grades, who have a set time for learning the grammar and written portions of Kreyòl. I can’t wait to see how this works!
In one of the funnier instances I’ve had with the kids at soccer practice, I was reminded of the power of laughter and of the grace I need to give myself far more often than I do. Last week we had so much rain, even for the rainy season. At any rate, during the older boys’ practice, one started to lose the bottom of his shoe. Trying to make sure his foot was protected from the elements, I ran into the school storage room and grabbed bright orange “Gorilla Tape.” You know, the stuff that’s supposed to be one of the strongest holds? I had him sit down for a minute as I went to work, trying to mend his shoe. The other students there and our coach, Sony, watched in mild amusement as the toe part of his shoe was being transformed into this bright orange point. He looked at me with curiosity and maybe a little doubt, but went right back to playing. I kid you not, maybe 30 seconds later, he went to kick the ball and with it went this lovely formed duct-tape impression of the toe part of his shoe and the sole, which had just completely come off. Everyone erupted into laughter, Sony and I looked at each other and also broke out laughing. Our little trooper simply kicked off his shoes and went to work to help his team win the scrimmage. That day I’d been wondering, rather negatively, at my efforts here. I just didn’t feel like I was contributing like I thought I would be when I came into this line of living.
I had this idea that each day I’d be super hands on in how “I can make a difference.” What has been asked of me since being here is much different, much less about my own ideas on how to fix the world. Humility is a necessity for life, especially one which takes place in another land and culture than one’s native roots. It’s not about me having it all figure out or rushing from one thing to the next, which my native culture shouts from the roof tops to do in order to have success and happiness. Haiti has gently and over the time I’ve been here, asked me to take a step back, slow down, look, listen, and learn. Seeing life through the Haitian culture is beautiful, not at all points, as with any other, and expresses the idea of what it is to be human in a uniquely Haitian vision. How one life relates to another, how we serve one another as brother and sister, how we share in the pain and hurt as well as the joy and the love; we are, all of us, connected.
In the unbecoming of Abby, young woman who “had to have it all figured out to function,” I’ve been allowed to enter into the becoming of Abbagail, young woman who is learning to slow down and enjoy the journey to who God’s asked me to be, and trust that I don’t have to have it all together all the time. I have learned to take on spiders on my own, to take hold of an opportunity to sit down to eat with a friend, that soccer is absolutely more fun in the pouring rain (just ask my girls!), there’s a certain freedom when you’re riding on the back of a moto as it zips through town, there is no taste quite like a fresh mango, and when love is invested, so too is life. And what an absolutely crazy, wonderful, chaotic, glorious life it is proving to be!
I still struggle every day at some point with the language, I’ve been at it for about six months, so it’s still coming. I am quite sure it’ll still be coming when I end this contract! We can always be learning more, even in our native tongue. It’s still frustrating for me to understand more than I can speak right now, but that too is coming, and I have to remember to give myself grace. I am so grateful for the patience of the people here, who let me try a few times if I need to get out what I want to say. Haiti’s gifted me with that reminder too, to give myself grace, the same as I would give any other human in my position. I do not know why so many of us are reluctant to grace ourselves with love, when we so willingly do it for others. A dear friend, missioning beautifully in Bolivia, voiced what I knew but needed to hear, “self-care is crucial to success in mission and you need to give yourself a break. If you don’t take care of yourself, you cannot justly take care of others.” Haiti is teaching me to love myself in ways I didn’t know I needed. In so doing, I am better able to love in return. To love better; this is the greatest gift, honor, and lesson I could ever hope to pull from mission. And so I go on, in the discovery of new ways to love and live better with the time God’s given me. I continue growing, struggling, rising, and discovering all the time. I am, among all peoples, most richly blessed.