Volunteer Experience in Haiti | “We have accomplished an amazing task”

In a final post, volunteer and BAM Ireland employee Jan Gottsche marks the handover of the newly-renovated Jean Jean School in Gressier, following an intense week of work and commitment from the 36 participants in our 2018 Volunteer Programme.

The days fly by and, before we know it, it is Friday, which means the last day for us to work at Jean Jean School. The group I was working in start the day by finishing off the remaining concrete paths, while, all around the site, an ant colony of red, blue, and white Haven t-shirts are busy putting the final touches to the remaining jobs. By lunchtime, everything is starting to come together, as balloons are inflated and the goat chilli arrives to feed an army of children. Haiti is famous for its Creole cuisine and this goat chilli is served at three school locations, including Jean Jean School, every Wednesday by Christianville. One portion is enough to provide 100% of the required nutrients which a child needs for one day.

There is still lots to do as the crowds gather outside the school gate, but everybody rallies around, and the last wheelbarrow of yellow stone is poured just in time as the DJ sets up for the big unveiling party. The excitement builds, and it is clear that the children can’t wait to get inside the gates to see their new school. Once we knew we were finished, people just sat or lay down where they stood as the tiredness kicked in hard, and we were finally able to relax and take in all that we had accomplished.

It is hard to describe the feeling as the keys were handed over and the children took to the football and basketball fields for the first time. It was an emotional time as we knew that the trip was coming to an end, but we were also overjoyed, knowing what we were leaving behind for the children at Jean Jean School.

160 students will benefit from the work completed by volunteers at Jean Jean School in Haiti

We congregate in a group in a corner of the site and share some bottles of Coke and Prestige as we toast what we have accomplished. We savour the moment and try to take in the events of the past week and of that day, and we share some special moments as people embrace and take some group photos. Before we know it, it is once again time to load onto the Tap Tap for our final trip back across the Momance river bed, leaving Jean Jean School behind for the final time. Again, this is an emotional time, but we know that we have accomplished an amazing task, and we have helped build hope in the community.

We arrive back at our accommodation in Christianville, and there is one final visit that I wanted to make before the week was out. There are an estimated 32,000 children living in 760 orphanages across Haiti and the amazing Mama Sue runs one such orphanage in Christianville. I walk down to the building with Mick and Orla and, as we enter, the older children are singing hymns in their room, while the younger kids are watching a cartoon before they head off to sleep. These kids are no different from children in Ireland and, as we sat with them, all they wanted was some hugs and affection. Despite the language barrier, we spend some time with them and share some laughs and smiles before, all too quickly, we have to leave so that they can go to sleep for the night. As we walk back up the path in total silence, our brains trying to process the experience, Mick summed it up by saying, “there are no words to describe it really”. Indeed.

After the final night’s festivities, it is another early rise, as we are whisked off to the airport with our security detail in tow. The air con on the bus is a blessing after a week with none, and, on the way to the airport, we pass the presidential palace which was destroyed by the earthquake, a ‘gingerbread’ architecture type house. A short flight sees us back in JFK Airport and it is time to say goodbye to the American members of our team, before we board for the final leg back to Dublin. The flight passes quickly as we all grab some much-needed sleep and, once we land and collect our bags, it is time for the final goodbyes. Tears are shed, numbers are exchanged, and reassuring hugs are provided as we file out of the airport and head our separate ways for the first time in a week. This is when it really hits you that it’s back to reality with a bang, and the initial hours spent at home finally give us some time to process the previous week, although it would take some time to fully process the week’s events.

To summarise, I am reminded of a Greek proverb which I stumbled across last year: 

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit under.

If you want to see more of the 2018 Volunteer Programme, take a look at our video diary series where we show you all the behind-the-scenes action..

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