(Editor’s note: On May 14th, RSOCWeekly editor Tim Hillman, Karen Lovern and Shay Brown left for 10 days in Haiti. Karen is office worker at the Ohio County Elementary Middle School and Shay is a registered nurse in the emergency room at Dearborn County Hospital and first timer. Karen has been several times. Tim tells of their adventures.)
Life in the Caribbean is one of the most breathtaking, awesome and eye opening experiences, especially in the country of Haiti.
Known as the poorest country in he Western Hemisphere, one can see the poverty everywhere. But don’t judge a book by its cover or the tragic news often reported on in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
Our trek was to Port-de-Paix and Sonlight Academy in the northwest corner of Haiti.
For those who have followed my adventures, this and every trip is different. Not one of my 18 visits has been the same- whether it was the travel, the work done there or the country’s many changes.
Our main mission was to attend graduation and help out in any way possible as the teachers prepared for the final days of school and a return to the states.
Sonlight Academy is a Christian school with over 330 students in preschool through high school with 11 graduating. Sonlight Bible College had 11 graduates as well. Many of the students have been sponsored over the years by members of the Rising Sun Church of Christ.
The trip began with a send-off at the Rising Sun Church of Christ where team chaplain Bobbie Hastings sent us off with a special blessing because she was unable to make the trip. She chose our theme of God Will Provide. And did He!
Security at the Cincinnati (CVG) was the first of many differences from the past. One year our priority tickets took us through quickly. This year no special treatment and, after the body scan, I was pulled out and taken to a security room because the scanner showed the money belt I’ve worn each of the previous 17 times since 1999.
As I reflect on this trip, you’ll see a lot of I and we did this or that. But truly, it was God who provided for us and a group of nine from Crossroads Christian Church in Evansville, where Sy Fuller provided the graduation speech.
Graduation was special as Phebee Gue, a young woman I have sponsored since fourth grade, was among the unique class of 11 young ladies. They themselves had a unique opportunity to visit Washington D.C. on their senior trip, just as so many Rising Sun graduates have over the years. They returned to Sonlight on Sunday, the morning that we arrived in Port-au-Prince. However, they had to take the long bus ride while we flew on MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship- a Christian mission where pilots transport missionaries).
It was a once in a lifetime experience for the seniors- as we did not know that we were about to get not one but two once in a lifetime opportunities.
After an evening in the Miami International Airport Hotel we traveled to Port-au-Prince. We arrived on a Sunday for the first time and spent the night at Mon Chez Moi (a hotel we had stayed in the past). We arrived at Sonlight just in time for lunch and the end of the school day on Monday. It was at orientation that we found out we would be able to sign u for trips to the island, the beach, House of Hope and the Market.
God provided us with many opportunities to see the country, see what missionaries did in their spared time and experience its beauty.
Tuesday (our first full day at the school) started with breakfast, devotions and greeting children as they arrived -a daily ritual as we received many hugs, kisses and high fives.
For Shay it was helping in preschool and kindergarten while Karen was in the office working on report cards. Meanwhile, I was getting around to take pictures in classrooms and enjoying time at recess.
That afternoon, missionary Ryan King led us on a Prayer Walk throughout the town including Gri Gris, an area well known where the Gue family resides. I’ve traveled the countryside many times but never had I stopped at the lagoon, filled with trash, and took time to pray. We did pass a once vacant lot where many youth gathered to play soccer. It has a great view and wonderful breeze. I always hoped that somebody would build something there and they are.
The first truly once in a lifetime experience came on Wednesday. It was Haiti’s Flag Day and there was no school. Once again Ryan (an avid IU fan) along with his wife Catherine and toddler Conrad hosted us on a trip to “the beach.”- A possible two-hour drive through the potholes, past a variety of animals and through villages. All this in the back of a pick up truck. Ryan was treating some students to a day of fun for their hard work.
Two trucks (tap-taps) were rented. We’ll call the good truck with Ryan in along with Karen and the bad truck with Shay and I. I had ridden a tap-tap only once before and that was with one leg over th tailgate and one on the bumper. Little did I know that would be the smoothest ride ever.
Every year I read a tap-tap book that describes the ride and how a little girl gets to ride in one after earning money at the market (a trip we skipped the following day in order to visit). The tap-taps are beautifully colored and covered while packed with Haitians and whatever they would carry.
The two hour ride became four hours as radiator problems started right away in the bad truck. Meanwhile it was the good truck that had the first flat time of the day. It wasn’t until we were nearly there that our bad truck had a flat tire. It was at the bottom of the hill at the only stop sign seen along the way. Conveniently located there was a guy with all of tools ready to patch our tire’s inter-tube.
Ryan offered to wait for us because the driver said “it won’t take long.” However, after realizing it was Haitian time, Ryan and his group agreed to go ahead.
After an hour, our truck was back on the road. Once there, I reflected back on my first visit to Haiti. We stayed at the Wahoo Bay Resort, about an hour out of the capital, before continuing the next morning on an eight hour bus ride (similar to the tap-tap ride and roads). I called it the bus to Cartagena like in the movie Romancing the Stone.
First time tap-tap riders got the opposite experience than I did. The beauty of Wahoo was followed by the poverty seen during the bus ride. We did not need to take the bus this time. We flew in a four seater including the pilot and Shay as co-pilot. During our trip to the beach, we saw the country and poverty only to be provided with the beauty of the crystal blue water and white sand beach.
We switched vehicles on the way back. This time it took only two hours and we arrived back in time for supper. The bad truck continued to have its problems as it returned later, but not until having additional flat tires. A passerby with a good vehicle offered to take them back to Sonlight as darkness was quickly upon them.
After getting books ready for the next school year, spending time in classrooms and spending time with seniors, Thursday was a trip to market day which we skipped in order to visit with children we have sponsored and neighborhood kids.
Friday was a busy final full day of school. Afterwards it was off to the House of Hope orphanage and hospital but not before Shay was able to use her nursing care knowledge to put fluoride on the kindergarten children’s teeth.
The House of Hope trip was in another tap-tap but nothing like the first. Our tour guide was Tara Hibbs, high school English teacher, who was leaving Haiti to work on her masters.
Teachers at Sonlight not only provide a great education but they become involved in the community and country. The House of Hope trip gives me the most heart wrenching but satisfying moments. This trip was different as Tara brought nail polish, coloring books, chalk and some bouncing balls with God is Love and similar writings on them.
Undoubtedly, the second once in a lifetime opportunity came on Saturday when Tara along with Scott and Alicia Bridges took us on a boat ride to “the island” known as Tortugue, Haiti (where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed). The secluded part of the island had a couple dozen children flock to us, garnering attention. The Bridges’ daughter Anessa was class valedictorian and several family members were there for graduation. They enjoyed the day with us and the other group.
Finally, graduation day came on Sunday. After church service and lunch, it was time to set up for graduation. There were 11 high school and 11 bible college graduates along with numerous associate degrees presented.
The ceremony (done in English and the native Creole language) lasted from 4 to 6 p.m. Then came the chaos of trying to find your graduates (If you find it hard getting together outside after the Rising Sun graduation, this is much more cramped inside and you have to get to higher ground to find somebody. You can’t wait until outside because there is a busy street and darkness sets in shortly after 6.
After a party at the hotel, it was time to get ready for our return trip on Monday morning. We stayed a night at Mon Chez Moi and enjoyed a good meal along with some swimming.
On Tuesday, May 24th it was early to rise for our return trip home. Our flight was delayed when a scratch was found on the fuselage and photos had to be taken and sent to Dallas for the okay from engineers. We were unable to meet our connecting flight in Miami. However, we were automatically re-booked for a later flight to Charlotte, where we found ourselves on the runway for an hour, longer than the flight home to CVG. There we were greeted by family members.
All this sounds like an unbelievable adventure. However, you can’t write or show in pictures the love you feel from the Haitian people.
None of this would have been possible without Sonlight, its teachers, aides and students (many of whom graduate and find work at the school, go to college or even the bible college).
As I often say, every trip is different. The big difference was that Roger and Norma Alexander (founders of Sonlight in 1983) were back in the states in Evansville. Norma had stem cell transplant for blood cancer.
Their legacy lives on in their children including John and Carmen Niehaus. Carmen and John live in Aurora during the summer but Haiti is home. Carmen is the principal and has taken over a lot of cooking duties that Norma had always done. John makes sure the work is done and returned home this summer to have neck surgery.
Cara (Carmen’s younger sister and a Sonlight graduate) teaches kindergarten, Sunday School and others. Her husband Thom is a passionate sixth grade teacher who will be leaving the classroom this fall to help with some of the office work Roger had done.
While in Haiti, Bobbie along with Charlene Fancher, and Sheila Hobson made a visit to Norma. We could feel the table in Haiti shaking that night, where they usually sat and enjoyed a good laugh.
You cand help support Sonlight by sponsoring a student or teacher ($45/month), become a teacher or donate supplies or financial support. Contact Carmen at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the school’s website at Sonlightministries.org to find out what is needed.
You can find out more by contacting Tim Hillman at 812-438-2963 or come to the Rising Sun Church of Christ at 9:30 this Sunday for a presentation during the Sunday School hour.