January 2019 Visit is the Best Ever!
Our visits to Haiti just keep getting better and better. After an outstanding visit in 2017, the 2019 version surpassed, even if only because more people got to experience Haiti. The following is Steve Skripak's trip report. It cannot do justice to all the good things that were experienced on this visit....
In the early morning hours of January 5, fourteen people, who mostly had not met or barely knew each other, embarked on a journey that would not only unite them but also forge friendships and provide experiences that will undoubtedly prove to be life changing.
Sadly, before the trip could even begin, our member Amber Chase contracted pneumonia and had to withdraw. We hope she will be able to join us next year. She nevertheless played an important role in the composition of the group.
Coming from northern Virginia by way of Richmond airport were Virginia Tech students Genna Coan and Lauren Buellesbach – ironically it was Amber who recruited them to the group. It was the first visit to Haiti for both of these young women.
From Fredericksburg came the mother and son team of Debbie and Lyle Kindig. Debbie’s objective was to introduce Lyle to Haiti, with this being her ninth visit to the country. For Lyle, a senior at Virginia Tech, it was his first visit to the country.
Pulaski, Virginia sent two of its own in Peter Huber, a retired county administrator, and Emma-Kate Greene, a senior at Radford High School. It was also their first visit, and Pete’s participation on the trip greatly reduced any anxiety felt by Emma-Kate’s parents.
Coming for the second time was Steve Bodtke from Blacksburg. He enjoyed his first experience in Haiti so much that he brought his lovely wife Mikie and her two daughters Lili and Belle. Lili is a junior at Blacksburg High while Belle is a seventh grader at Blacksburg Middle School.
Joining the group were Kathline Langenfeld and Lexi Rubin, Virginia Tech students who met through Young Life, and Diane Naff, a veteran school teacher from Blacksburg whose membership in the group would prove to be indispensable. Rounding out the team was six-time Haiti veteran Steve Skripak, the theoretical group leader.
The ten coming from Blacksburg caravanned to Greensboro airport to save on airfare, which required a 4:15am departure from Blue Ridge Church. At the airport, Diane quickly established herself as “Mom”, and we all know that Moms are the quickest thinkers. Diane’s Delta credit card allowed us to check seven bags free, leaving funds to allow us to do other things useful for the school.
The full group connected in Atlanta and made some quick introductions before boarding a thankfully uneventful flight to Port au Prince. Then the chaos of a Haitian arrival began! Uniformed agents began grabbing bags, insisting we would only get through customs with their help. Surrendering to the inevitable, we exited the airport down $44 in tips and cart rental fees. We did clear customs without incident, and then stepped out into the bright Haitian sunshine. We were quickly marked as a money-making opportunity by men hanging around outside the airport who also wanted to help with our bags. By then, though, our hosts had arrived with plenty of help. Unfortunately being told in three languages that we did not want help and would not pay them did not dissuade these guys from keeping a hand on the cart like a kid would do in a supermarket. They walked away angry with only a $2 tip to split between them, given mostly just to avoid further incident.
Three vehicles caravanned to Cange where we settled into our rooms and were soon treated to one of the many excellent Haitian dinners we would enjoy. The group continued to get acquainted with each other and our new hosts. Our first big experience was on Sunday, a two-hour-plus church service with almost no English spoken. Of course, group prayer and praise music can be appreciated without understanding words. Late in the service, Steve S was called on to give a message in French. It has been said “never let them see you sweat”, but the nerves and heat made this impossible for Steve. Also, right before leaving Virginia, he had used Google Translate to provide an English translation for the team. He should have proofread it. “Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a day” somehow became “Teach a man to sin….”. Needless to say, there was some explaining needed after the service!
During the rest of the week, the group would split up for the day, with part of the team going to the fish farm to build a storage depot while the others went to Ecole Philadelphia to do crafts, English lessons, Bible stories, and other activities with the children. The “slime-making” activity brought by Lili and Belle proved to be one of the most popular!
There were just too many great things that happened on this visit to go into detail about every one, so this report will just hit some of the many highlights.
One huge success was Diane and the younger women organizing and delivering the crafts. Children left with a variety of fun objects like jellyfish and stained glass crosses which used tissue paper in place of the glass. Diane’s experience as a school teacher was just so vital to all of this working out so well. Our translator Camesuze Neptune was also a big blessing to us in being able to communicate with the students and by just being our friend.
Another big success was getting the Douglas Day computer lab fully operational. Prior to the visit, the school had only been able to use some of the capabilities of the laptops because a key launch file had been either deleted or not loaded on to the original computers. Fortunately the file was on all of the five new computers we brought with us, and by copying it to the other computers, we gained access to more than a thousand books in Creole and the entire Kahn Academy platform. The older students started coming into the lab on their breaks to use Wikipedia to search for things that are interesting to them, and during one break, we found Claude, one of the instructors, watching a Kahn Academy video about the mathematics of energy. As the faculty explore these new capabilities, use of the lab is likely to increase exponentially.
The depot construction was another key success, although not without challenges. Our block vendor did not deliver on time, and that caused us to get behind. It also resulted in some changes to work assignments, since there was not enough to do on the farm for everyone who had planned to work there. When the block finally was delivered, though, the team pulled together to move it from the delivery point to where it was needed, a distance of about 100 yards. The women easily matched the strength and determination of the men. Most impressive was 90-pound Mikie carrying cinder blocks on both shoulders. They probably weighed only slightly less than she does! About 75% of the block was laid before we left, and our Haitian brothers will finish the rest. Steve B and Boss Fanfan have developed such a tight working relationship that should they work together again, they will probably be able to build a building without even using words…..
Steve S was also able to meet with the pond agronomist who has been helping us plan and launch our farm effort. We should have a complete start-up plan in place by the end of January. We hope to start with half of our fourteen basins if funds allow. The basins can contain between ten and eighteen thousand fish each, so we will be putting a whole lot of fish into a desperately needy market.
Although not directly related to our group, one thing that bears mentioning is our outstanding new academic director Wilson Pierre. A young man of 28 with a beautiful one-year-old daughter, Wilson radiates enthusiasm and professionalism. He is a great addition to what is already considered the best school in the Bayas area.
Our last evening was spent singing praise songs in both Creole and English. It started with one young man of about 8 with a pink child-sized guitar coming to sing a few songs for us. He is the nephew of our hosts Pradel and Emmanier, and the cousin of our host Davidson. Really the word “host” is too impersonal – they are really our brothers in Christ. Pradel then did a song for us, and things kind of built spontaneously from there, with no one really wanting the experience to end. At times, things got so emotional that tears flowed freely. While our time together had to end for this visit, just about everyone in the group has expressed a strong desire to come back.
Although this report is already long, your writer Steve S feels like he is leaving out 99% of the good things that happened on this trip. The group was cohesive, enthusiastic, and productive. It was trip that was richly blessed by the Lord. We only look forward to more opportunities to serve that are as rewarding and fulfilling as this one.
Visit photos can be found on the In Pictures tab.....if you open the top one, you can scroll through larger images of the entire batch!
A New Year Begins
School is back in session in Haiti, and we are excited for a year that promises to be our best ever. In addition to having the new Douglas Day Computer Lab operational and solar-powered for the full year, our school had a nice facelift over the summer, with repairs to the hangar and a new coat of paint on the exterior of the building.
In January 2019, the school will also be welcoming a group of at least 10 brothers and sisters from four different churches in the USA who will come to work with the children and to help with the construction of a storage building on our fish farm. The farm purchase was completed a couple of months ago, and a fence has been installed for security. The storage building is the next step on our way to making the farm operational. And once it is fully operational, profits from the farm are expected to fully fund the needs of the school.
We are extremely excited to take this major step on the way to making the school self-sufficient!
Sheets, Socks, and Pillows Fundraiser
Southern Sheets has helped us create a new fundraiser - selling bed sheets, pillows, and socks online! We hope it will make a significant dent in the amount we still need to start up the farm project.
The products are super high quality - all of them are amazingly comfortable!
Of course we would love for you to make a purchase, yet it is even more crucial to our success that you also share this information with as many people as you can – friends, family, Sunday school classes, small groups, growth groups, sports teams – really anyone who sleeps or wears socks!
Visit our online school store by using this link: https://ecolep.text4funds.com.
You can also access this store directly on your smartphone simply by texting ecolep to 20300, making for a portable brochure to send to your contacts for easy purchase using credit/debit cards.
The items available can be shipped directly to homes or businesses anywhere in the continental USA. So please share the link with family and friends, no matter if they live next door, or across the country.
Thank you for helping to support Ecole Philadelphia.
Farm Investment to Fund School for Future
A few months ago, the administrators of our school began to develop a plan that would make the school self-supporting in five years’ time, since a donor-based funding model may be difficult to sustain in the long run. After evaluating a number of ideas, the school has made an offer to purchase a 3.18 acre plot of land already equipped with 13 basins for fish farming and with room to expand into other forms of agriculture as time and funds allow.
While the business plan is still being finalized, the financial projections indicate that farm profits will support the full financial needs of the school within two years, including both the teacher salaries and an annual construction project for the build-out of our physical space.
The upfront costs of this undertaking are daunting by comparison to what we have accomplished in the past. We will need at least $40,000 to become operational as a fish farm, which includes $22,000 for the land and survey, as well as other startup expenses. At the time of the offer to purchase, we have $13,000 available, so we have a long way to go, but we do have an offer to match the first $10,000 donated to support this project. Please consult our progress trak graphs to keep up with the latest on funding this effort.
Once operational, the farm will not only provide funds to support the school, but it will also feed people in an area of the country where no one can take his or her next meal for granted. This farm is truly the future for our school, and we would welcome your partnership in making it possible.
Solar Now Powers Computer Lab!
Thanks to three Virginia Rotary Clubs Blacksburg, Montgomery County, and Christiansburg-Blacksburg, our computer lab is now solar-powered! When the computer lab project was first identified as a need, power to the school was more or less reliable, but by the time the lab was ready for operation, the reliability was no longer there. In order to ensure that the children could continue to learn despite frequent power interruptions, a better solution was needed. One resource Haiti has in abundance is sunshine, making solar the logical choice to solve this problem. A collaborative effort across three clubs from the same area of the state ensured that this need would be met. Rotary has also be instrumental in providing books to our school on multiple occasions. Our sincere thanks to the members of all three organizations for their faithful support of education in Haiti.
Hazel Creek Baptist Raises over $800 for Ecole Philadelphia
Led by the BMW, for Baptist Middle Women, the members of Hazel Creek Baptist Church in Mt. Airy, Georgia made a big impact on Ecole Philadelphia, one penny at a time. Using mason jars to collect change and small bills over a six-week period, the church raised $861.27 to support the teacher salary fund at our school. On Sunday September 24, EP fundraiser Steve Skripak was invited to speak and accept the donation by Jenny Thacker, a long-time member and family friend. Pastor Trent Smith then led a prayer for the funds to make a positive difference in Haiti, and the women posed for a picture with their jars.
When the funds were delivered to the bank, the tellers were wide-eyed as they debated who would get the chance to run the change machine. The pennies alone filled two bank bags completely! Through this generous donation, Hazel Creek Baptist has made possible the education of four Haitian children this year. Our sincere thanks to the BMW, Pastor Smith, Jenny, and all the members of Hazel Creek!
January 2017 Haiti Trip Report – Best. Visit. Ever.
Steve Skripak, January 11, 2017
What a blessed trip…it’s hard to know where to start or how much to include. First, let me introduce the team, which included folks from five different area churches: Dawn Crigger (Lifeline), Steve Bodtke (Northstar), Jim Wyers (BCF), Clark Lentz (BUMC), and Amanda Tuggle, James Jackson, Noah Ramsey, Stacy Ramsey (Noah’s Dad), John and Donna Travis, Roald Seidemann (all from Blue Ridge Church), Camesuze Neptume Joachim, our translator, and of course your writer. If there’s ever been a harder working, more collaborative, and genuinely nice group of people traveling together, I would like to meet them. If I was a coach, I could not have drawn it up any better.
We spent Monday, January 2, getting to Haiti and settling into our accommodations in Cange. On Tuesday morning, the real fun began. Rather than a day-by-day account of what we did, let me instead focus on some of the highlights – there were too many to include every one, and I could not possibly be there for every significant thing that happened.
The women and the teenagers (James and Noah) mainly interacted with the children. Since school was still on break, the kids were a mix of Ecole Philadelphia students and those who live in the surrounding area. James and Noah played countless games of soccer and keep-away, mostly with the older boys, while Amanda, Dawn, and Donna led crafts and Bible classes. Donna also led music classes, which used over 30 recorders that she brought with her. Camesuze was invaluable, since none of the kids speak much English, and her translations made the Bible stories come alive for the kids just as much as Donna’s enthusiastic story-telling. Just about every time I turned around, Dawn and Amanda had children in their arms, loving them almost like they were their mothers. Meanwhile, back on the soccer field, James and Noah kept the organized chaos under control. The American-bought practice goals we brought were broken by the end of day one, and the games soon returned to the Haitian standard of two cinder blocks marking the goal. One day, I foolishly decided to play goalkeeper. In less than 20 minutes, I had a dislocated finger (according to Dr. Wyers), a strained hamstring, and even took a hard shot directly off the face from a 10-year-old who is a future Olympian. It didn’t go in the goal, so I considered it a save, even though I barely saw it coming. The kids, of course, thought it was hilarious that the old guy got schooled, and they made fun of me for the rest of the day and into the next.
In the front of the school, a great transformation was taking place, as new layers of concrete block were added to the computer lab daily. Roald, Jim, Clark, and Steve B worked alongside the Haitians all week, somehow communicating in spite of no one speaking each other’s languages. John and Stacy went back and forth between working in the front sifting sand or carrying block and going out back to help out with the kids. Clark took measurements and will help devise a building plan to replace our deteriorating wooden structure, which just can’t endure in the Haitian climate. These guys worked like they were building their own houses - and a big storm was imminent. Their energy level was unbelievable. Breaks were taken, but none for very long, and over the week, the guys developed a tremendous rapport with Haitian masons and rebar workers like FaFa and Pierre-Paul. Those guys even came to join us at church on Sunday, a sign of the mutual respect that developed between our guys and our Haitian coworkers. The week ended with all the walls in place, which was our objective. The Haitians will complete the roof, add the tables and the power, and have the lab operational soon. I can’t wait to see the pictures.
Since I know nothing about laying block, and we had enough knowledgeable people, I played the role of floater – toting water from the back of the school to the construction site, moving blocks from the pile to where they could be more easily accessed, playing cards with some of the children, and checking up on things in back. On the first day, a girl named Claudialove introduced herself to me. She came to talk with me every time she saw me come to the back to fetch more water. We would talk while the bucket filled. Once, Claudialove brought a little plastic ball, and we batted it up in the air to each other like we were playing ping pong. I never saw a kid laugh so much. Sadly, one of the boys took the ball from her while I was gone; he broke it, and that was the end of our game. Claudialove was the only kid I met all week who did not ask me for anything. Everyone else, quite understandably, wanted candy, snacks, my hat, my sunglasses…. She only wanted to be my friend. At the end of the week, we danced together at the big party (more on that in a moment). I took her aside out of the view of the other kids and gave her a few dollars to buy a gift for herself, because I didn’t know where I could do that. It brought tears to my eyes to realize that it was probably the most money she has ever had in her hand at one time. I made her promise to hide it and keep it secret until she got home to make sure it didn’t get stolen from her.
Evenings were showers (or bucket baths in some cases), amazing dinners prepared by the loving hands of our hosts Reymonde and Michou, games of UNO and checkers which in many cases included our main hosts Pradel and Emmanier. A lot of trash talking, cutting up, story-telling, and the like helped further build the rapport, even though it seemed to be there from the start. Along the way, we told some self-effacing stories, and somehow, no one found it the least bit surprising that I am A.D.D. – I never knew it was that obvious. We had a lot of four-legged visitors – goats and lizards mostly – and saw a few tarantulas too. I shooed the first one out a window, but he came back in another and fell into my clothes pile, so the next time I saw him, when I could not encourage him to leave quietly, he sadly had to be terminated. The next day, Jim called me and said “You killed the son….Mom is here for revenge.” Her diameter was almost the size of a softball. Using a Harvard business article I had brought to read, I managed to sweep her half the length of the house and outside to safety. After that, any spider-related activity was delegated to me.
On our final day at the school site, they had a huge party for the kids. Some of the Moms cooked all morning over charcoal fires to prepare enough rice and beans for at least 200 people. It was sweltering hot in their semi-outdoor kitchen, but they endured it cheerfully. Many of the older kids helped serve the food, which needless to say took a long time. I was amazed by how well-behaved everyone was while waiting for their food – heaping plates that I’m sure satisfied everyone. While we waited, I shared a kindergarten-sized chair with Claudialove, and the children played with my arm hair – they were fascinated by it because it’s so different from theirs. Kids tried on my VT hat, my sunglasses, and my work gloves, and we all had a great laugh over the “cool factor” with each new kid that wore the shades. The half hour I spent interacting with the kids while they waited were some of the most precious ones I spent all week.
Of course on Sunday, we went to church – at 2 ½ hours, it’s a bit longer than most of us are used to. But since I gave the talk, I was able to shorten it by at least 20 minutes from the usual duration. I gave Emmanier a hard time that he only asked me to do it so he could have a day off. I’m sure it was unspectacular, but I understand that a chicken went across the stage during the service at a point where I must have had my eyes closed praying, because I never saw it. Only in Haiti. The worship was inspired. Even without knowing what was being said, one could sense the spirit. During the service, they introduced Clark, who was the architect who had originally designed the very church in which we sat. He was so humble; it was inspiring. He said that the building is not the church – the people are the church. Spot on.
On Sunday evening, our hosts had a wonderful dinner and thank-you party for us. Pradel played the guitar and Widson, our academic director at the school, played a song on a recorder that Donna had given him. Many of the school administrators and area leaders stood up and gave short thank-you speeches. It was a touching show of support for our work in their country.
I’m sure that I’ve left out more than I’ve included, and that everyone else on the team has stories to tell that I haven’t even heard yet. I can’t wait to go back. We are already planning a group for the same week next year. The building progress was meaningful, but somehow I feel the relationship aspect – both within our team and between our team and our hosts – and showing God’s love to each other - was the real essence of our visit.
So who’s in for 2018?