Pioneering the way in Haiti

I was fortunate to be selected as a Haiti ambassador and join ten BCD Travel colleagues on a service trip this month to Mirebalais, Haiti. The honor came with a slew of emotions that ranged from nervous to excited. I would be traveling with a group of colleagues I’d never met, to a destination I’d never visited, to participate in a project with limited details. Being a pioneer has always been in my genes. I’d forged new paths before – attending a brand new college, starting up sports programs, founding academic committees, and most recently, working with the Advito team to develop service offerings for Traveler Engagement. This was another opportunity to act as a pioneer, and I embraced it.

BCD Service group November 2017 [back row: Laura Brown, Courtney Bryson, April Bridgeman, Nienke Jans and Kelly Ellis; front row: Andrea Taylor, Fred Borer, John Johnstonbaugh, Ash Kulaga, Sherron Burgess and Carina Bernardes]

Advito representatives: Kelly Ellis and April Bridgeman

My limited knowledge

Through the various briefings, I knew our objective was to volunteer with the 6th grade class at l’Ecole de Choix and help them to complete their annual social responsibility project. The 6th graders had identified a need to improve their community and surroundings by collecting and properly disposing of trash throughout the city. I quickly envisioned orange vests, trash grabbers and US roadways that I’m used to and thought, this is doable!

In addition to the service project, I had a personal objective to learn about the Haitian culture, form bonds with the students, and appreciate a new perspective of life. I was eager to meet the children and actively participate.

What I quickly came to realize

The 6th grade class was taking on an extremely ambitious pioneering role of their own. In addition to collecting trash around their school, they targeted the local hospital and city square for a deep clean. I was impressed that children at this young age took the lead in cleaning their home environment. Through this service project they were able to set-the-stage and positively impact their families, neighbors and the entire community.

Back to my imagination of what a trash collection project looks like (a chip bag here, a plastic water bottle there)… I couldn’t have been further off. The City of Mirebalais has no waste management infrastructure. No bins. No bags. No process for removal. The refuse of generations surrounds the citizens – along road sides, in their front yards, in the creeks, riverbeds and ditches. To try to explain the sight is truly impossible – it’s hard to understand the scale until you’re standing in it. Our group became overwhelmed with emotion and our purpose truly sank in.

Community service roadside clean up

We tackled it together

I was teamed up with four students for the duration of the trip. They worked together to tackle the massive project ahead of them by planning, executing and solving problems along the way. I took an active role as their mentor and motivator, working side-by-side with each of them for four very long days. Together, we raked and shoveled trash piles – what I would deem as mini landfills – into hundreds of bags, then loaded those bags into a small truck to be taken to a designated waste area.

Kelly with some of her 6th grade team

The smell of success

While we received a few inquiring looks, the general sentiment of the local community was curiosity and encouragement. We fielded lots of questions: what were we doing, who were the kids, and how can they help. Rewardingly, many citizens gave thumbs-up, positive affirmations and some people even showed up multiple days in a row to see our progress. Community members came out of their homes and contributed toward the clean-up around their yards, asking for bags and supplies. Neighbors of the school posted a sign that read, “do not throw trash here” almost immediately after we moved through the area. It was truly a movement.

Neighbors of the school posted a sign that read “do not throw trash here” after we cleaned the area

Even with language barriers, our group bonded with the children by creating team names and personal hi-fives by the end of the week. Our main objective in Haiti may have been to physically lend helping hands with this pioneering project, but I can only hope that our group left as warm and heartfelt lasting impressions with each of the 6th graders as what we felt in our hearts from them.

As I share this brief glimpse into my experience, I encourage each one of you to be a pioneer for change – in whatever project or group you believe in. I’ve learned that small things I often take for granted, can sometimes have the most significant impact on others. I left Haiti feeling moved, overwhelmed and a tad disappointed that we weren’t able to do more. I take comfort in knowing that the bonds and inspiration we left behind will continue to grow and evolve throughout their futures.

For more information about this BCD Travel-sponsored service trip, visit www.bcdhaiti.com.