Two Cedarville students with hearts for Haiti went to minister to the disaster-ridden island after a massive hurricane recently struck the region.
Leslie Pence and Samantha Reece had been to Haiti before on multiple missions trips. They both were upset to hear that a hurricane was headed directly for where they had ministered during the previous summer.
“We follow what’s happening in Haiti because we have a heart for it,” said Reece. “We saw the course of where the hurricane was going and we started praying right then and there for the people.”
Hurricane Matthew ravaged the island of Hispaniola and much of the Western Atlantic from Sept. 28 to Oct. 10. It was the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the Caribbean in nearly a decade. According to the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 80 percent of all homes within the path of the storm were destroyed. It is estimated that 2.1 million people were affected by the storm.
“I saw that it was happening in Les Cayes, which was the exact place I’d been to in May,” Pence said. “I was confused and angry — I thought, why those people? They already have nothing. I was really upset, and then this opportunity to go just dropped in my lap, so I knew God had a purpose in it all.”
Pence and Reece traveled with Bethesda Evangelical Mission of Connecticut, an organization Cedarville collaborates withthrough the Global Outreach department. Aftertrouble with lost passports and a scramble to get everything in order on such short notice, they left.A week and a half after the hurricane made landfall on Haiti, their team was the first relief team to pass through Les Cayes, amajor port city. They also visited several surrounding towns in the countryside, traveling by bus along routes that wereoftentimes washed out by the torrential rain. They stopped at local churches and schools to hand out food and minister to families who lost everything. The team fed over 1,000 families with bags of rice and beans, and cooking oil over the six days they were there.
Reece said the Haitian people were desperate for food, and the team had to hide the food to avoid being mobbed. They hauled bags weighing dozens of pounds up flights of stairs to keep the food from being stolen. Relief organizations besides theirs also suffered from the lack of security in the region.
Pence and Reece said they watched Hatians raid a United Nations truck right in front of them. A group of Haitians blocked the road ahead with a coconut tree and then slashed the truck’s tires, broke the lock, and started throwing out hundred-pound bags of rice.
“I understand, though,” Reece said. “If my baby was starving, I’d be fighting for food, too.”
Pence said distributing the food was difficult since they had such a limited supply.
“You never know how many family members they have at home relying on getting that food,” Pence said.
In addition to handing out food, the team visited many orphanages and provided emotional support for the people who had lost what little they had.
“We really focused on being there and just letting them know that someone actually cares about them — letting them know that they’re not alone through this disaster,” Reese said, “There will be other teams coming through who will rebuild, but for us it was moreso just being there and being encouraging.”
Despite being unable to speak Creole — the pidgin language with Spanish, French, African and Native American roots spoken by most Haitians — Reece and Pence found they were able to communicate with the people they served in the lingua franca of smiles.
“We couldn’t speak to them, but we’d just smile at them,” said Pence. “Some of them would have tears rolling down their face as we handed them the food, and you just knew how appreciative they were.”
Though they visited Haiti to serve the people there, Reece and Pence said they both felt blessed by the joy of the people of the country in the face of such destruction. They got the opportunity to go to a Haitian church service, which they said they enjoyed.
“I have no clue what they’re saying, but their body language tells you so much,” Pence said. “You can’t tell that they just lost everything. If you were completely naive to your surroundings and the news and you just got dropped in the middle of a Haitian church service, you would have no clue.”
“My favorite moment was the first church we went to,” she added. “We sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ I was standing between two Haitian ladies, them singing in Creole, me singing in English. They had tears streaming down their faces, I had tears streaming down my face — it was awesome.”
Reece said her favorite moment was playing with some of the Haitian boys at one of the orphanages they went to.
“There were a group of boys who were around six or seven,” she said. “I walked over to them and started making goofy faces because they didn’t speak English. The group kept growing — I had a group that was two, then three, then four … we ended up with seven boys, and I hung out with them the entire time we were there. We played tag, and I was always it. I had boys jumping onto my arms, flipping over me … I just had so much fun listening to their giggles.”Though they went to Haiti to help the less fortunate, they both felt that they had also learned what God had to teach them.
Reece expressed her appreciation at being able to return to Haiti again and enjoyed the time she spent in the company of the people.
“I’m kind of a natural leader, and I realized that this was one of those trips where I needed to just be a follower,” Reece said. “I was able to step back and watch what was going on. I think God was really teaching me to put myself in their shoes and look at the world through their eyes. I would sit with the Haitian people and watch what they were seeing. It was neat not standing in the front, but rather sitting in a corner with them.”
Pence had been to Haiti twice before this, but she said being there in the face of disaster impacted her uniquely. Though the country is one of the poorest in the world, with one of the lowest GDP’s worldwide according to the World Bank, the Haitians’ poverty was magnified in light of the hurricane.
“I was taught gratefulness,” Pence said. “Though we gave them a sack of food that at most would last them a week, they were crying because they were so thankful. Someone on our team said that if you were to go hand a bag of rice on the street to someone in America, they would just look at you and laugh — even if you handed them a bag of McDonalds, no one would be thankful for that. Yet the little bit that we did actually changed lives.”
Alexandria Hentschel is a freshman international studies major and an off-campus news writer for Cedars. She enjoys old books, strong coffee and honest debate.