Student Mission to Haiti is Transformative Experience

When the opportunity came along to travel to Haiti, Caitlin Baard, a senior at Felician College, didn’t hesitate.

“I knew it would be a very different kind of experience than what I had already done,” said Caitlin, who recently spent 12 days in the island nation with fellow students Shaina Plowman and Kristen Raven Wilson and adjunct professor Sister Honorata Grzeszczuk. “We were going to spend most of our time teaching English to children, so it was definitely something I wanted to do.”

The Felician Sisters have initiated several programs to supports the Haitians’ own efforts in becoming self-sufficient, rather than relying solely on financial aid.

“This was the first time that Felician College students were invited to collaborate with the Felician Sisters in their mission in Haiti. Since the children and young people have repeatedly expressed a desire to learn the English language, our students served as teachers and tutors in ESL classes,” said Sister Honorata, who explained that the three volunteers received “teaching” instructions here on campus before embarking on the trip to the village of Jacmel where the Felician Sisters’ mission is located. “The students were very committed.”

Anywhere from 20 to 50 children ages 5 to 18 came to the class every day, Caitlin added. Most of them were very eager to learn.

Caitlin and Shaina had previously participated in the College’s Nicaragua mission, and Kristen is planning the trip this summer, so they are familiar with service activities abroad. Still, the Haiti mission proved life-changing and truly an example of living the Felician core values: respect for human dignity, compassion, transformation, solidarity with the poor and justice and peace.

“While visiting the children’s families, our students had an opportunity to observe unimaginably poor living conditions. For someone who lives in the United States, the sight of that abject poverty is shocking,” said Sister Honorata. “No one can experience this and stay indifferent to the problem. This program benefits not only Haitians but also the student volunteers. It develops a spirit of compassion and a desire to reach out in loving service to others.”

Kristen found the experience to be one that would change her life forever.

“Mahatma Gandhi once said ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’ By opening my mind and heart to the Haitian people I was truly able to embrace the transformation,” she said. “The love that they gave me made it easy to interact with them, but it also made it that much harder for me to leave.”

Caitlin said what inspired her most was the hope she saw in these young children, who lived through devastating natural disasters.

“Some of them lost their parents or brothers and sisters in the earthquake, all of them were so poor, and yet they laughed and smiled all the time,” she said. “We are often raised to feel sad if we lose something or don’t have what other people have, but these kids aren’t like that. Maybe they were raised to accept life and move on. They truly inspired me. It was amazing.”

Sister Honorata said she too was moved by the experience.

“It is so worth it to promote the idea of volunteering, and this program had a big impact on my personal commitment to do so,” she said, adding that she is grateful to Felician College President Dr. Anne Prisco and Provost Sister Rosita Brennan for their support given to the program in its early stage.

“Most importantly this opportunity has made me realize that we need to do more to help our worldly brothers and sisters who are crying out for our help,” said Kristen. "As a Franciscan college we should be involved in more action plans to help resolve some of the catastrophes of the world. This trip … ignited a fire in me to educate people about the struggles in the world."

Click here to view photos of the Haiti mission.