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Reflections of My First Missions Trip

Scripture:  Matthew 28:19 “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”   The medical/dental mission trip to Grand Goave, Haiti consisted of a four-person team including two nurses, a dental assistant and an orthodontist. This was the first mission trip for two members of the team and the other members we could refer to them as veteran mission travelers.  Grand Goave, a region of Haiti characterized as a small rural village is populated with approximately 100,000 residents is located about 32 miles south of the capital Port au Prince. The two hour drive from the airport in Port-au-Prince to Grand Goave, provided a glimpse of the differences between what is considered an urban city and a rural town in Haiti.  In Port-au-Prince there was more people, buildings, and traffic. Although less congestion in Grand Goave, the common element was the evidence of the earthquake’s destruction- crumbled buildings and mounds of debris along the roadside.  Although not considered to be severely affected by the 2010 earthquake

Our team, assigned to the Siloe Baptist Church and School site supported by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship performed health screenings of the school children, a dental clinic providing mostly extractions, cleaning and some filings and maintenance and minor illness care to two remote medical clinic sites (Mt. Tabor and Norgaisse). Each day was a moving experience in that our team was challenged physically, emotionally and spiritually. Our days were long beginning at 7:00 am when we were picked up by a driver and transported to the Siloe church site for breakfast and preparation for the day’s activities. And we returned to Siloe for our evening meal prior to returning to the guest house most days after 7:00pm.  The team hit the ground running so to speak beginning with day one school screening and dental clinic at Siloe.  Day two consisted of an hour’s drive to the mountains (Mt. Tabor Church).  Our team along with nurse Jenny and her team which included a lab technician, a pharmacist assistant, three translators, and a driver loaded supplies and medicines onto a 4-wheeled drive truck for the journey. We soon realized why the 4-wheeled drive truck was necessary.  The roads were narrow, rugged and in some instances appeared washed out from the rains.  Never the less we came to notice a common occurrence, school children neatly dressed in uniforms walking to school. Another common site was residents pounding rocks or clearing brush and tree limbs in the field. While riding along the mountainside, the view was impressive we saw green mountain ridges dotted with livestock.  The truck had a seating capacity of five people including the driver.  Therefore everyone else rode in the back, which proved to be somewhat challenging as we bounced along the road.  I chose not to be one of the outside riders.  As we neared the Mt. Tabor church we began to see people lined along the roadway in anticipation of the clinic opening. Nurse Jenny, traveled to the remote clinics once a month for medication management and non-emergency care. The clinic patients spanned all ages and because our team included a dentist, not a regular member of the medical team, many more dental patients showed up.  Two of the dental patients not seen at Mt. Tabor walked to the Nargaisse site the following Tuesday in order to be seen.

We completed two days of school screenings at Siloe and conducted two remote medical clinics caring for over 137 patients.  A unique difference between usual practices followed when treating children at a clinic in the states and treating them in Haiti.  We saw a number of children at the clinics without an accompanying parent. However, during one of our difficult dental cases the teen left without the work complete.  We were pleasantly surprised when on the next dental clinic day; the teen was brought in by his father to have the work completed. We learned that the young man had been buried in rubble during the earthquake which was a contributing factor for his increased anxiety related to the dental procedure.  Because of generosity of the team members who traveled on mission’s trips before, they thought to bring non-medical gifts and supplies.  Linda, for example brought 130 girls sun dresses that were made by members of First Baptist Church of Manassas, Virginia. She even solicited valentine candy from others of us because our trip extended over the holiday. Kristian had recently visited Grand Goave providing dental care was responsible for dental supplies which included toothbrushes and toothpaste to justify the candy brought for the children, although the adults enjoyed the candy as well.

 The weekend was time off from our medical responsibilities. On Saturday the time was spent exploring the town’s market, the bakery, and finally the English School. The walk through the market and the town bakery, reminded me of my humble beginnings with relatives who earned their living as farmers.  We learned that the farmers who traveled from the mountains needed to begin their trip down to the town as early as midnight in order to arrive in time for the day’s sale which occurred rain or shine. On display were fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, fabric, hair products, and fresh poultry as in live chickens.  Goods were transported by borrows or piled high on the tops of their heads.  It was amazing how skilled even young children were at this remarking art. Describing in words doesn’t do justice to the things we saw carried this way during our trip.  At the town’s bakery, yeast-type bread was prepared by young men in the town.  The process involved mixing the dough, allowing the dough to rise overnight followed by passing it through this vice-type device several times before dividing into individual sized portions to be baked in a hot wood fired oven, similar to a pizza oven. We each took turns turning the vice, although the only person offered a full-time job in the bakery was Brent.  Turning the vice was much like rowing a boat for hours at a time – a great upper-body workout.

English speaking classes is a private enterprise.  Young people are anxious to learn to speak English because it increases their employment opportunities.  Each of us was assigned to a class to practice basic speaking phrases with a class.  The students were teenager and young adults who were curious about everything American. After practicing a number of phrases, the group I was assigned wanted to learn a Michael Jackson song.  Needless to say my Michael Jackson singing only comes to mind during a sing along with the radio.  Instead of Michael Jackson, they got, “Oh Magnify the Lord.”  The students graciously accepted what I had to offer.  That evening we were treated with a cookout in the yard of the guest house complete with hamburgers, sodas and marshmallows.  Because the group kept a stash of chocolate, we made Samoa’s over the grill.

Sunday began with worship services at Siloe and much to my surprise, Jenny informed me that as the “team leader” I would be called on to introduce the members and give remarks.  With such short notice, there was little time to get nervous and as I opened my Bible, the scripture, Psalms 103 brought a song to mind, “Bless the Lord Oh My Soul.”  My remarks included reading and singing verses from that scripture.  Following church there was dinner and a couple of hours at the beach. Getting to the shoreline was a harrowing as driving to the mountains as the roadway was narrow and rugged requiring the 4-wheel truck for transport.  Once at the beach it was as if God had smiled on this vast body of land and water. The water was this beautiful clear blue-green color punctuated by gentle waves that crested at the shoreline. Brent equipped with snorkeling gear went out to explore beyond the shoreline, only to surface missing one flipper. He wasn’t aware when he lost it. The rocky beach and ocean floor made this strolling along the beach almost impossible without water shoes.  The beach could be described as a full- service outing because there we sampled grilled spine-legged lobster and conch while doing a little souvenir shopping from the locals.   The day ended with attending a youth concert at a nearby church. The church was packed with teens and young adults who sang passionately about their love for God.

This was the first mission trip for half of our team, but we each vowed it would not be our last.  Touched by the willingness of the people of Grand Goave to allow us into their lives to share the goodness of God in our lives begs to be repeated.  Unforgettable memories for me included watching the school children conduct devotions that included singing, “How Great Thou Art,” pledge to the flag and prayer in the courtyard of the Siloe school or in the midst of the rubble on the ground and the nearby tents just outside the walls of the guesthouse most evenings we retreated to the roof of the guest house and as we look up the sky was clear and bright with numerous constellations hardly visible at home.  I am reminded of an incident that occurred during school screening. To track the students that had completed the school screening each was given the opportunity to select a sticker the kind printed with happy faces or stars.  There was one teenage girl who was given a sticker after completing her check, but as she walked away she discarded the anti-parasite medication on the ground.  So I asked her to return the sticker since she didn’t swallow the medicine. She was so disappointed that she returned and agreed to take the medicine so she could wear a sticker like her classmates.  I was amazed at the amount of pride each child exhibited over wearing a “happy face” sticker.

Song:   “Everyday is a day of Thanksgiving” was the song that came to mind as we began our exit session with our host.  My feelings of gratitude seemed to pale their expressions of appreciation which brought tears to my eyes once more.  When called on to speak for the team, my first response was to sing a few bars of “Everyday is a Day of Thanksgiving,”  which was how I felt and based on the expressions of the others on the team, we all felt blessed and grateful for this experience.  In other words, “To God Be the Glory.”

 About the author: Richardean Benjamin, MPH,  PhD, PMH-BC, ANEF, FAAN is the Associate Dean, College of Health Sciences, Old Dominion University