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Natalie Wernette

Upon arriving on US soil, I was not only grateful for all those little things that go unnoticed in my life, but also swimming with Haiti memories and sustainability ideas. They say, “You can give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish and he’ll eat forever.” Sounds simple enough until you realize that there is no advantage to teaching a man how to fish if he will soon die from a bacterial infection caused by a poor water source or a simple tooth infection. So the focus of our missions must also be to get that “man” healthy enough to be taught how to “fish.” The battle becomes a balancing of giving to ensure basic needs and that of teaching sustainability in a culture that has grown to use every last dollar to survive for that day. There is little knowledge basis for saving for the furture when spending that money now may not only save your family, but also the family that you gave the money to.

And it is clear that those basic needs are still not being met. We stopped at Sisters of Charity Hospital in Port-au-Prince. It’s a hospital for malnourished children. We headed into the “sick child” area and were met with dozens of cribs. Here were all these little ones confined in a haven of safety and searching for the next touch. Some were crying from their parents’ recent departure. Some were lying there with eyes that appeared to wonder if you would hold them next. The torture of making a choice! We were blessed that others had come with us that day to wrap more children in embraces. I scooped up the first little guy I was able to reach. There was a moment of fear that he would be too fragile in my under-padded arms. What a preposterous idea! He was such a ham! He had an infectious laughter and comical character that made you forget you were in a hospital.

The two of us swirled around the room tickling the feet of other children in an atmosphere of delight. He was my buddy for awhile, but I passed him off to another apprehensive group member in hopes of breaking their walls of concern that I had felt moments before too. It was a success! The little boy laughed away any fear.

Finding the delivery a success, I turned around and there he was: my next companion. He was so thin. It took all of his strength to hold his head up, and he didn’t have enough left to pull himself up in the crib. My goal was to be gentle, but his long boney arms and fingers flailed to grab anything that was connected to me. This was a moment I really had to work to compose myself. His mouth was ajar and his eyes remained opened wide as if his thoughts were on being placed in a lion’s den. And here he was grabbing hold to something that may save him. He would not smile. There was no sound of laughter. Nothing would break his mold and I cannot imagine the thoughts in his head. We traveled throughout the room and out into the playground. There he unclenched his tight grip on me just long enough to touch a leaf. The moment was just enough before he recaptured my shirt.

In our travels together throughout the hospital, we visited some of his roommates. I’m sure they understood nothing that I said, but it didn’t matter. The two of us were on a tickling mission even if my companion’s role was to cling tight to me. It was encouraging to see so many 1 to 1.5 year-olds look like they were gaining some mass. Looking at their hospital nametags proved that their body lied about their age. Many of these infants were actually toddlers! At first I disbelieved their bands. How could this infant actually be 3 years old? How can this one be 4 when he looks the same size as the others? I can’t image how tiny they were when they first came to the hospital.

I spent the most time with my frail friend, although it was not nearly long enough. The moment of placing him back in his crib was the hardest of anything I had to do on this trip. The pain of watching him desperately gab ahold of any part of me tugged at my heart. He didn’t have enough strength to pull himself up, and he would fall backwards if I didn’t catch him. He never cried out, and his expression was the same as it had been the entire time. I soothed him with a gentle caress until his posture relaxed. Lunch was headed his way, and that became my consolation. My thought was that I would be there to comfort the children and here I was feeling emotionally distraught. Before our visit came to an end I was able to feed another little boy, which was encouraging. He ate so well without spilling a drop. I think I taught him how to “high-five.” That visit was so immensely moving and I was able to leave with trophies of sticky sucker debris.

That visit reminded me of how huge the needs of Haiti are. We must first abolish the idea that we as Americans have the perfect solution. That was one of the most eye-opening parts of the trip: to see how undereducated I was. Also, one of the most empowering parts of the trip was talking with other missionaries at Mathew 25 Guest House. Many missionaries passing through those walls have discovered and implemented some type of the need/sustainability balance. Some are still at the providing basic needs stage while others have just started to teach “fishing courses.” It created a synergistic discussion at the table that also educated each one of us. The wheel was not reinvented, but discussed as to what kind of wheels we needed in our community. In general, those higher up the mountain have greater basic needs, while those in lower lands have more care resources if not simply because of easier access. These mountainous people are not forgotten however.

So while our main mission for this trip was to provide the simple service of extracting decayed teeth (“simple” used as a loose term, as these decayed teeth were very painful and some life-threatening), a deeper foundation was laid. Part of that was in future prevention through the use of free fluoride, the comical “how to brush” demonstration, and our tooth brush/paste dispensing. These are building blocks that we may not see results from for several generations. In honesty the dentists believe they are seeing great progress through healthier children’s teeth already.

In parallel to the dental mission was that of our 1.5 year-old drinkable well. I think the entire group was shocked to see that it had already begun to wear from the handle to the bearings. It’s clear as to why. Not once did I see that well be unmanned. Perhaps “unmanned” is a misleading term since many of those collecting water were children who would carry the precious water home on their heads. Although they may have been laughing and socializing while filling their buckets, not once did they misuse the water by splashing each other. Not that a drop wasn’t spilled, but you could see a respect for the resource.

Our home community saved money with the intention of quickly getting the Haitian community a safe, drinkable water source. Now the challenge was to decide how to handle its maintenance. This was a topic that we were surprised to need to tackle so soon. Were they ready to go in the fishing boat? We decided as a group that we would provide funding for the first maintenance since it was so soon and we had not begun to form any saving practices. Then we went before the parish after Mass to encourage their problem-solving strategies among their community. We offered some suggestions including electing an honest 3-panel committee to oversee the collection of funds… possibly for each bucket of water collected from the well. Or perhaps once a month? How do they think it would be best to care for the well?

It’s hard to judge their reaction. I wouldn’t be surprised if I received some death stares. The transition from a free supply into a community-sustained one cannot be easy. The goal was to give the community the power to work together to find solutions. After talking with experiences of other missionaries at Matthew 25, we may find that the community is not capable of forming any type of solution on their own. There is, however, a huge importance in offering them decision-making roles from the beginning. They have survived in their rough life up until this point somehow by working as a community. Now we pray that their communal nature will bring them to a unified decision. We want to see if they know how to fish, when given a pole, before we start teaching. We’re also here to be their safety net so they can get started.

My apologies for a blog that has begun to look like the start of a dissertation. I cannot end this blog without giving thanks. In complete truth, there is no way our home community would have been able to organize such an amazing and efficient dental team without the help of Tim Ryan and Haiti Needs You (and our glorious Lord of course!). It was such a blessing for our home and Haitian community. Please continue to pray for and support these communities. Haiti truly does need you!

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