Locals build trade school in Haiti
The work was strenuous but gratifying nevertheless.
That was the sentiment expressed by area volunteers who helped build a trade school in Haiti last month. A group of about 15 parishioners of the Packwood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) joined 15 others from southeast Iowa on a weeklong mission in the mountainous village of Gramothe, 13 miles southeast of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
It was the fifth year in a row members of Packwood Christian Church have traveled to the Caribbean nation. Those who went this year were divided into a medical team and a construction team. Packwood area residents Jane Pierce, Betty Sines and Eunice Van Voorst were on the medical team and helped out at the medical clinic in the village, where they distributed medications. Most of the other members were part of the construction team, which was tasked with building a school where students could learn a skill to become a welder, bricklayer or electrician, to name a few occupations. The trade school is still under construction.
“Frosty” Van Voorst was on his fifth trip to Haiti in as many years and his 20th mission trip overall. In prior years he has gone to Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. He was on the construction crew, which had to mix cement with a shovel and carry it in five-gallon buckets to be poured into place.
“Our construction is very slow and all by hand,” he said.
Van Voorst said the Haitians he worked alongside put their nose to the grindstone every day.
“They out-worked us,” he said. “They have a knack for really getting after it.”
Van Voorst said he was usually sore by the end of the day and that he “welcomed the time off.”
The past few years the group has gone to Haiti it has worked in or near Port-au-Prince, which is normally very hot. Van Voorst said working in the mountains was much more comfortable since the temperature was at least 10-15 degrees cooler than in the capital, although it could still reach the mid-90s in the afternoon.
When it was time to retire for the evening, the group stayed at a guesthouse about 1.5 miles from the trade school. The guesthouse is owned by Willem and Beth Charles, who run Mountaintop Ministries, the organization in charge of the volunteer building projects in the area.
Fairfield resident Bridget Hollingsworth said the 1.5-mile path they traveled each day led the group through a dry riverbed and incredibly steep terrain. It was so arduous to navigate that the volunteers would have already worked up a sweat by the time they arrived at the worksite.
Hollingsworth said the Haitians did most of the cement mixing while the volunteers carried and poured the mixture. People lined up to pass the buckets of cement from one person to the other so no one had to carry the buckets very far.
“I looked forward to the physical labor because I needed to be tired to get to sleep,” Hollingsworth said. “Dogs barked all night and then in the early morning the roosters started crowing.”
When they weren’t working on a construction project or helping at a medical outpost, a few of the volunteers taught local children a game that was new to them: basketball.
Fairfield resident Jordan Sathoff helped run a basketball clinic in which he instructed students at a nearby school in the rules and fundamentals of the game.
“Soccer is their No. 1 sport, and basketball is not something they have much access to,” Sathoff said. “I taught them the basics of ball handling, passing and shooting. It was definitely a breath of fresh air for them.”
The trip was Sathoff’s second to Haiti. He built churches and homes in Honduras on the trips he took beginning in eighth grade through his senior year of high school, but had to remain stateside for four years while he was in college.
Sathoff said the living conditions of most Haitians are very poor, and seeing them made him realize how good he has it in America.
“You don’t see your traditional three-bedroom, two-bathroom houses in Haiti,” he said. “Running water was a luxury. We saw a lot of cement-block homes with tin roofs. Some people were even living in tents. What keeps me going back is how humbling it is for me. It makes us realize how blessed we are.”
Sathoff used a week of vacation for the trip, which lasted from March 7-15. While most people spend their vacations relaxing, Sathoff spent his volunteering at a construction site.
“It doesn’t feel like work because it’s the right type of work,” he said.
Sathoff’s mother, Cindy Sathoff, was on her 11th mission trip in as many years. She said the group from the Packwood Christian Church goes every year in March because the spring is the best time to build in Haiti. Summer is the country’s rainy season.
Sathoff was part of the medical team last year but part of the construction team this year. For the first few days, she painted picnic tables to be placed in a park near the school. Once those were done, she joined the rest of the crew that was building the trade school.
What stuck out to Sathoff about the village was the extreme distance the students had to walk to attend school.
“Some of the kids walked three to four hours to school each way,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing that everyday.”
The school in the village was markedly different from a typical American school. Sathoff said the students didn’t use textbooks. Classes consisted of a teacher saying something and having the students repeat it.
Many Haitian children cannot afford to go to school at all. Sathoff was moved by the poverty she witnessed and decided to sponsor a little girl’s education. She even got to meet the girl, and spoke to her through an interpreter.
“I told her I was glad to meet her and that I wanted her to work hard because getting an education is so important,” she said.
Most Haitians speak creole, a combination of French and West African languages. The majority of communication between the volunteers and the Haitians they worked with was done through Creole-English interpreters.