OT students spend summer break at orphanage in Haiti
By Matt Westerfield
When Casey Stevens and a group of fellow occupational therapy students left for Haiti in August, they took with them three large suitcases stuffed with a hodgepodge of household things, like shelf liner, pipe insulation and leopard print duct tape.
They weren’t exactly sure what they’d use them for, but they found even the most commonplace materials can make a big difference at an orphanage in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.
Similarly, Stevens learned that volunteering overseas doesn’t require special skills or a mastery of other languages – just a willingness to help. What began as a personal interest in missionary work sprouted into a grassroots effort organized by 10 second-year OT students in the School of Health Related Professions to spend their only week off for the summer with orphaned and disabled children.
“We had always wanted to do something as a class, like take a trip or something, because I think our class is very unique and tight-knit,” said Stevens.
Through his church and other connections, he learned about a Christian orphanage in Port-au-Prince called New Life Children’s Home, which terms itself a “rescue center” for abandoned, handicapped and orphaned children. New Life is supported by World Harvest Missions.
“At the beginning of the summer when I first started to think about this, I just mentioned it to my classmates wondering if they’d be interested,” Stevens said. “I thought we might have four of five people go. But we ended up with 10 people, which was great.”
Stevens said each was responsible for raising about $1,000 to cover the cost of the plane ticket as well as housing and meals at the orphanage. By the time they’d all booked their tickets, one of their professors, Carol Tubbs, got wind of what they were planning and asked if she could tag along.
“We were all excited about that, too, because it gave us more comfort having someone with experience,” Stevens said. “We haven’t had any extensive field work experiences yet.”
Upon arriving in Haiti Aug. 5, they found a country reeling in poverty, still recovering from a devastating 2010 earthquake that killed up to 300,000 people.
“There are entire cities made of tarps and sticks,” Stevens said. “You couldn’t tell if what you were seeing was the result of the earthquake or just poverty.
“Probably over half of those kids at New Life had something to do with the earthquake.”
In spite of that, the students were amazed by how happy the children at New Life were.
“I was expecting the kids to be depressed and unhappy,” said Omari Pittman. “We served kids that were in the midst of being impoverished, but over the week’s span, we never saw a child without a smile on their face.”
The orphanage was home to more than 100 children, about 20 of whom had physical or mental disabilities and were bound to wheelchairs, Stevens said.
They put the household items they brought to use in modifying the aging wheelchairs. The shelf liner made for handy placemats, keeping plates from sliding around the table.
They got the kids out of their wheelchairs as much as possible, stretching them and working on their positioning and flexibility. They also spent a lot of time feeding the younger children.
The kids savored the attention, Stevens said.
“We put leopard print on a girl’s wheelchair and then everybody wanted leopard print, even the kids who weren’t disabled,” he recalled.
For one child who is deaf and mute, a few of the students created a picture book to hang around his neck. The child quickly learned that pointing to one picture would get him a turn on the swing set.
The students also visited other orphanages around the city with far fewer resources than New Life.
“The whole experience was one I will never forget,” said Kayla Adair. “Despite the economic turmoil that is occurring in Haiti, all the Haitian children were so full of hope and joy in their lives.
“It was such a blessing to be able to spend time with them and serve them.”
Parker Gregory called it the experience of a lifetime and said all of the students hope to return. Courtney Shankle encourages others to go as well.
Rounding out the group of students were Katie Fondren, Kristin Geeslin, Kelsi Knight, Mollie Nelson and Kelly Sterling.
Stevens said the trip reaffirmed for him how important every life is and how the smallest effort can make a big difference.
“It doesn’t take special skills or a training course,” he said. “We were just a group of 23-year-olds willing to do something with a suitcase full of random household items.”
All photos courtesy of Casey Stevens.