Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Building Boxes to Store Treasures

Day 5 Continued (Thursday, Aug. 5)

Leogane, Haiti

Many of the Haitians don’t understand personal responsibility or pride of ownership because of one very good reason: They don’t own anything. We decided to build open-ended boxes that would slide under the children’s bunkbeds so children could have a place to store their possessions, what little they have. Most of what they have has been given to them by our church’s short-term missionaries who came here this summer.

Throughout the week, we could tell when the kids were wearing t-shirts from the Bay Area. My favorite t-shirt was emblazoned with a tennis club from Marin County. I don’t think there are many tennis players at the orphanage. But every day, those kids had clean clothes to wear.

One of the things that slowed us down in the building of the boxes was the thought of only some of the kids receiving the boxes before we left. We could not built all 40 needed for the girls side of the orphanage, to say nothing about the 38 boys across the street.

In every decision we made, we tried to think how it would impact the children as a group. We were told to do certain things out of fairness to the children, such as not giving individuals presents. We didn’t give individual kids snacks. We didn’t want other children to feel slighted, and we certainly didn’t want children to be emotionally or physically abused so another kid could have a gift we had given to someone else.

Most of these kids have few possessions. Everyone has a toothbrush and toothpaste, and everyone has the necessary toiletries. Everyone has their own bed, but that’s about it. Kids don’t have toys to play with, for the most part, except for what we brought. And because the toys don’t belong to the kids, there is little personal responsibility on the part of the children to take care of them so they could play with them the next day. Often, toys disappeared for a day or two, only to be found later, in the weeds or on the other side of the compound.

Part of what I thought about with the boxes was how the children would feel when they got the boxes. “Great, I got a box for my stuff, but I don’t have any stuff to put in it. What good does that do me?” Or maybe, “Thanks, and does this mean you’re going to give me something to put in my box?” I wish I had better answers. (Many of the teenagers did have their own cell phones. Where they got the money to pay for them, I don’t know.)

Sometimes, Americans have grandiose illusions of things they can do for the children of third-world countries such as Haiti. Does it really benefit these kids if they are given some luxury item that’s going to disappear in a few days or weeks or months?

What happens to these kids after we leave this summer? Did we build up their hopes for nothing? Did we promise something we couldn’t keep? That’s a question our church is wrestling with now: What next? That answer will come from more discussions and much prayer.

The worst part about the boxes (aside from the fact I worked on them, and none of them were plum, or square) was that we would not be there when the children received them. The decision was made to not give them the boxes until all of them were completed and could be given out together.

* * *

Working with the Haitians can try your patience sometimes, whether it’s the language barrier or the difference in speed of life. The children’s boxes were to be painted today. Oopsie. We fine American mathematicians, many of us college graduates, didn’t add so good. In fairness to Doug L and myself, the boxes were designed by a certain contractor who shall remain nameless. The original design didn’t consider the half inch on the bottom of the box, which made the fit under the beds a little too tight. One could not put their fingers on the top of the box without smacking them into the metal bed frame. New design: wack off an inch on the sides.

As the group’s designated painting teacher, I was an abject failure. The interpreters were not around, so “what we had here is a failure to communicate.” I tried to teach Jid, one of the Haitian teenage boys, how to paint, stroking going with the grain. Every time I would look away for a minute or do another chore, I would return to see Jid painting up and down instead of side to side. Perhaps “with the grain” doesn’t translate in Creole.

Then, two of the boys did not seal the lid on the plastic paint container, and it spilled all over the grass around us. It’s hard to get mad at them for attempting to something they’ve never done before. I tried to stop them from using the paint on the ground because of the dirt and grass combination, but it didn’t work so well. “Non” suddenly became indecipherable to the Haitians.

When they finished, the box really looked sharp. I congratulated the boys on a fine job. They beamed. Later, I saw it after the paint had dried. Then, I could see the grass imbedded in the paint. It was actually kind of funny. I told everyone we were seeking a natural look. “The green tones bring out the color in the white paint.”

When we finished painting, I told Jid we needed water to wash the paintbrush, so I marched off, bucket in hand, to the neighborhood well a hundred yards away. Thirty yards later, I realized I was not alone; Jid was walking with me. I pumped the water, then grabbed the bucket for the return trip, but Jid took it from me and insisted on carrying it. At that moment, I felt the respect of a teenage boy. I don’t know when Jid lost his dad, but it sure felt like he appreciated another man doing something for him.

The Haitians see certain jobs belonging to women, water carrying being one of those tasks. Jid did not look at it that way. That skill will one day make Jid a better employee, a better employer, a better husband, a better dad, and a better man. Today, Jid discovered humility.

* * *

We never know how little things might impact the Haitians. Yesterday, while the men were getting lessons in using the skill saw, one of the men, Jacque, who is 53, did not have a pair of safety glasses, whereas the other six did. I saw the problem and quickly went over to Jacque and pulled off my own glasses and offered them to him. His broad smile said “thank you.” Jacque felt a part of something.

Today, Jacque is still wearing those glasses, quite proudly, I might add. Even though we were told not to give the Haitians presents, I later gave Jacque those glasses. He needs them more than I do. I can’t remember the last time I used them. I didn’t like them any way.

* * *

Random happenings from our group today:

Three people from our team went with the Haitians to take a few of the sick children to a local free clinic. One of the boys, Charlie, had severe diarrhea, but didn’t get to see the doctor. The doctor used the triage method, taking the worst cases first. Charlie’s case wasn’t severe enough. After six hours of sitting, our team felt like it didn’t get much accomplished today.

Said Hilary, a first-grade teacher at Cornerstone Christian School in Antioch, who was with that group: “DMV has nothing on Haitian hospitals.”

Said Catherine, also with the group: “I’ll never complain about American health care again.

Amy, who quit her job to come to Haiti, had the best story, though. She had to go to the bathroom and stood in line for a few minutes. When she finally got in, she laughed, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear her. When she came out, all the locals were laughing with her, knowing why she was laughing. She was laughing at the fact that the toilet consisted of a hole in the ground.

One of the sick children at the hospital needed his diapers changed. “Anybody up for the task?” one of the ladies asked. John, one of the 17-year-old twins on our team, said he would do it, and took the child in hand. Then he asked, “How?” Everyone in our group roared with laughter.

* * *

I’ve decided I complain too much. I complain about the lack of space back home in our 1,100-square foot, two-bedroom 1.5 bath condominium, shared by my wife, her son and her dad at the moment. I whine when I have to wait 15 minutes for the shower. Yet, every day, I get to take a hot shower. Every day, I write on my laptop, search the Internet on the Wi-fi. Every day, I grind coffee beans to percolate my fine, Colombian coffee. Every day, I reach into my 38-degree refrigerator for cold half/half. I have a 33-inch TV (though no cable, by choice). I am a chef by trade, but at home, I cook in a teensy-weensy kitchen, but at least it’s inside; my kitchen is also indoors; I have an air conditioner that keeps our house at a cool 72 degrees when it’s 100 degrees outside. Most of these Haitians would think I live in the lap of luxury.

Members of our team often joke about how many Haitians we could “cram” into our tiny homes. We could get 3-4 Haitian families living comfortably in my condo. None of them would complain about being cramped. Dustin and his wife live in a 1-bedroom, 600-square foot condo. Twelve was the number we came up with for his home.

My dinky 4-cylinder Honda Accord goes twice as fast as most of the cars in Haiti. I don’t think it’s ever held more than the maximum allowed by law, five seat-belted passengers. Here in Haiti, the locals would cram a 10 people in my car, with a few more in the trunk and maybe two on the roof.

It’s all a matter of perspective. The next time my toilet seat is a little cold in the winter time, I’ll remember that I don’t have to squat, as the Haitians do (and which Amy refused to do in the doctor’s office) every day. When I complain of a poor night’s sleep because my mattress is too hard, I’ll be thankful I’m not on the cold, hard ground. Next time I start sweating in my house, I can walk over to the air conditioner and turn it on to cool off.

Thank you, Lord, for the many luxuries you give me.

Caption: This simple, wooden box will one day hold the treasures of the Haitian orphans we cared for in Leogane.

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