TPS students take a service trip to Haiti
Ten Pennington students, plus five other members of the Pennington School community, spent a portion of Spring Break on a service trip to Haiti in cooperation with Harmony Ministries, a Haiti-based aid organization that provides medical care, food, and water to those in need. Some of the students worked in medical clinics; others taught the local children games or crafts or played soccer with them. Haiti had extreme poverty even before the disastrous earthquake of 2010; the destruction from the quake, still very much in evidence, exacerbated the situation.
Students were selected to go on the trip after they had submitted a detailed written application that provided insight into their character, experiences, potential, and maturity, according to Chaplain Aaron Twitchell, who led the group. The project had been proposed by Pennington parent Robyn Campbell, director of children’s ministry at the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, which has supported Harmony Ministries for many years. After securing approval for the trip, Twitchell and Community Service Coordinator Keri Willard-Crist began to assemble a team and make the extensive preparations necessary.
The students who made the trip were Matthew Butler ’13, Mary Kate Freeman ’13, Collette King ’13, Devon Landis ’13, Zhongyuan Ma ’13, MacKenzie Meyer ’13, Logan Campbell ’14, Mia Jones ’14, Oscar Lee ’14, and Austin Sumners ’14. In addition to Twitchell and Robyn Campbell, rounding out the Pennington contingent were Richard Levandowski, School physician; Lisa Tucci, pediatric surgery nurse at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and wife of TPS Board Chair Peter Tucci ’79; and parent Renee Sumners, who joined the group when a family emergency forced Willard-Crist to cancel.
Two of the students were especially far from home: Ma, from China, and Lee, from Taiwan. The Haitians, especially the children, were fascinated by the fact that the two looked different not only from the Haitians themselves but also from others in the Pennington group. Twitchell says that the two handled people’s curiosity with humor and grace.
Ma described the experience as an “unforgettable” time when he “had the chance to really hold people’s hands and feel their suffering.” He said he was grateful for the opportunity to help people directly, “rather than just donating money.” As were others, he was struck by the smiles and laughter of the Haitian people amid terrible living conditions. Reflecting on the trip, he said, “I felt that what we have done is far from enough. What we have done is just one drop of water in the ocean.”
Freeman’s facility in French, one of Haiti’s official languages, was invaluable, too, Twitchell says. Most of the adults and all of the children spoke Haitian Creole, the other official language. Renee Sumners, the latecomer to the journey, was “a tremendous asset” in that respect, Twitchell says. Of Haitian descent, she speaks both French and Creole. “She had not been to Haiti in many years,” Twitchell says, “and the connection with its people and culture seemed to be restored immediately; it was like she had never left.” Austin Sumners was also able to experience part of his heritage in a very special way.
“We spent months preparing,” Twitchell says. “The students planned activities, crafts, and games to play with the children of each village we visited. We purchased supplies such as glitter, paper, bubbles, sports equipment, and jewelry. Thankfully, many of our materials were donated by area businesses.” In addition, the group raised more than $10,000 toward the cost of the trip, as well as additional funds for supplies and food. “The students worked tirelessly to fulfill our fundraising obligations while maintaining athletic schedules, academic demands, and other commitments,” he adds, and they publicized their project by attending services and writing letters.
After landing in Port-au-Prince, the group traveled three hours by bus into the mountains, going to the villages of Thoman and Léogâne. There the students saw what Twitchell describes as “profound poverty. Many children were not even fully clothed as they ran and played.” The medical clinics were constantly busy, dealing with a range of ailments from untreated diabetes and kidney failure to iron deficiency. Students King, Campbell, Butler, and Ma worked almost exclusively in the medical clinics on the journey, learning to take blood pressure, administer medications, and triage patients. In Thoman, Levandowski and Tucci performed minor surgery on an eight-year-old girl, draining a painful abscess on her ear without anesthesia. The child’s grandmother was so grateful, Twitchell says, that “she promised to bring fresh eggs to our team should we ever come back to Thoman—eggs upon which she surely depends for her family’s survival.”
“When going down to Haiti, I didn’t know what to expect,” says King. “The first night in Thoman was very hard. . . . You cannot imagine the poverty in this country unless you see it, and even then, I have no understanding what it would be like to live in such poverty.” She was struck by the children’s excitement at being given something as simple as a notebook. She describes the Haitian people as “strong and proud people who are doing everything that they can to improve their lives,” and noted that the group’s security detail worked side-by-side with the volunteers each day.
In Léogâne, the team also got to see the primary school founded and operated by Pastor Luc Deratus, founder of Harmony Ministries. The students had had the opportunity to meet Deratus in February, when he visited the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville. He has been a religious leader in Haiti for many years, founding schools, clinics, and churches. At his main church in Port-au-Prince, the Pennington group distributed school supplies, food, and medicine. They also spent several hours constructing new school desks for the children out of raw materials.”This was one of the more memorable tasks of the trip,” says Twitchell, “as people with a wide range of backgrounds and talents in construction worked together to build these much-needed desks.”
On the team’s final day, they attended church with Pastor Deratus and his associates and were introduced to the congregation. While Deratus translated, Twitchell preached the sermon of the day. Pennington for Haiti returned home later that day, tired and with a new perspective. (See the Gallery at right for more photos from the service trip.)