Resourceful Idaho group finds a way to make the most of a mission trip to Haiti that seemly goes awry.
The following story appeared in the August 13 Idaho Catholic Register.
Some of the ministry team that went on the mission trip to Haiti are pictured here with one of the hotel employees they helped. From left are Stella Dignan, Lisa Kassa, server Christian Charvelle, Sandy Babin, Sadie Dignan and Ryan Dignan. (Courtesy photo)
By Gene Fadness
SANDPOINT – Some of the five young people and three adults from St. Joseph Parish in Sandpoint had never been outside the United States, and even a few not even outside Idaho, when they planned more than a year ago to do a mission trip to Haiti with the organization, Haiti180, which helps to build orphanages, schools, senior living centers and medical clinics in the impoverished nation.
But the trip, to have happened last summer, was postponed to this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year the trip looked a bit tenuous due to political unrest and gang activity in the country that’s just a 2-hour flight south from Miami.
But the mission officials from Haiti180 told the group not to worry because most of the gang-related activity is centered in and around Port-au-Prince, and that within an hour after landing in that city, the group would be helicoptered to the rural area where Haiti180 does much of its mission work.
And for nearly all the time, that was true. But even Haiti180 officials could not have anticipated the misfortune that would befall the Idaho group.
On the Tuesday morning the group flew into Port-au-Prince they learned that a helicopter had crashed the day before, killing all six on board. Because the helicopter
was not licensed or insured, the Haitian government grounded all helicopter flights in the country. Even though the helicopter that was to carry the Idaho contingent to the mission just 50 Dan Rodriguez miles away was licensed and insured, the group was told there would be no flight, out at least right away.
“So we’re picked up in the van with a couple of armed guards and whisked to this hotel that was surrounded by an 8-foot concrete wall with barbed wire,” said Dan Rodriguez, a Bonner County prosecutor who is president of the parish council at St. Joseph’s.
The security detail with intimidating looking rifles, the hotel surrounded by concrete and barbed wire and a lobby “crawling with people trying to rip you off,” was definitely an eye-opener for the young people, Rodriguez said.
But their adventures had only just begun.
On the morning after what they thought would be a one-night stay at the hotel, the president of Haiti, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated. The country’s interim president declared a state of emergency. All flights were grounded.
“We never got out of the hotel,” with the group arriving on a Tuesday night and flying out on Friday morning, Rodriguez said.
With the pandemic last year and the freakish events this year, it may have appeared that this trip was “cursed from the start,” Rodriguez said, but it didn’t turn out that way.
Almost immediately, the Idaho team volunteered to help out at the hotel. Because of the travel lockdown, many of the hotel’s employees were not able to make it into work.
“They had one person in the kitchen and one server in the whole place. So when we were done eating breakfast, we realized that tables needed to be bused and the place cleaned, so the kids did so and were fantastic about it,” Rodriguez said.
“They got to know the very friendly staff and talked to the other guests there,” many of whom were in the same locked-down situation as the Sandpoint team.
Reflecting back on the trip, three things stuck out to Rodriguez.
“I expected a lot fear, perhaps some tears at the onset, but there was none of that. They were incredibly well-behaved.” Then, when boredom set in, he anticipated there might be some complaining. But, again, not so. “They helped wherever they were needed. They renewed my faith in the next generation.”
Second, he said, is the fact that both adults and young people gained a greater appreciation for their homeland. “We’ve been hearing lots of anti-American sentiment back home and anti-police sentiment. So, I encouraged them to remember what it feels like to be in a country where you cannot trust the government or the police. We all gained an incredible appreciation for our country and what it really means to be free.”
Third, their time allowed opportunity for spiritual growth. “We said rosaries and had time for personal prayer.” Rodriguez told the story behind the “91st Psalm Brigade,” the soldier’s Psalm of protection that the group prayed every day.
“You find out you really believe when you are in a tense situation like that,” he said.
Sadie Dignan, 15, said the St. Joseph’s group started holding fundraisers two years ago for the Haiti trip, only to have to cancel last year, but still with hopes to go this year.
And even though this year the group was never able to leave the hotel room, she’s still glad they went.
Initially, she was not impressed with Port-au-Prince.
“The city was a wreck,” perhaps exacerbated by the unrest following the assassination and subsequent lock-down. “There was trash in the streets and stray animals, which you couldn’t touch because they might have rabies. It definitely taught me to be grateful to live in an amazing place like America.”
However, she quickly added, she noted that the Haitian people, “however poor they were, were very grateful for what they had. It was definitely an eye-opener for someone like me who has lived in a First World country all my life,” she said.
In the end, the trip was “very rewarding, even though we didn’t leave Port-au-Prince. We were completely safe. The hotel was lovely and all of my teachers were very competent and calm.”
Haiti180 is a mission organization founded by Sean Forrester, a former youth minister and musician at St. Mark’s Parish in Boise. Its website is Haiti180.com.
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