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In this post, I’m sharing with you my experience volunteering abroad in Haiti. Through this post, I want to address some of the misconceptions and the reality of service trips and volunteering abroad in college.
My Service Trip Experience to Haiti
After the first day I was in Haiti for a service trip with my college, I wrote in my daily reflection journal. The first thing I wrote was:
“Before arriving in Haiti, I had generated an idea of what to expect. But when I actually got here, I realized I had no idea.”
Looking back on this trip from two years ago, this statement couldn’t be truer. Now that I’ve graduated undergrad, experienced more of the world through traveling, and contemplated my views on the world, my trip to Haiti was truly a life-changing experience for myself. I had time to think about how my experience in one of the most impoverished countries in the world differs from other service trips and how Haiti taught me so much about myself and the humanity. And today I want to take some time to talk about how going on a service trip changed me and what it’s really like to visit a third-world country. After reading this post, I hope you will agree with me that service trips are a valuable experience for anyone.
Change Minds, Change Lives
The service trip I went on to Haiti probably isn’t the trip you’re were expecting to hear when you clicked on this post. I didn’t go into Haiti with a group whose goal it was to paint a school or clean up a church. Our goal was to educate and immerse ourselves in the culture and view the world from Haiti’s eyes. And most importantly, we learned about effective poverty alleviation through sustainable methods. By changing our minds about poverty and how to alleviate it, we can change lives.
Before leaving on our trip, our group had participated in weekly readings and discussions about Haiti’s history, so we could understand how Haiti has ben institutionalized impoverished since it’s colonization. By understanding the history and systemic problems that influence a culture and cause poverty, you can better understand how and why poverty alleviation is most effective through sustainable ways.
While in Haiti, I had the opportunity to learn about reputable programs that work to empower and develop communities.
Sustainable Poverty Alleviation in Haiti
Fonkoze is an organization that accepts families into their microfinance program. In this program, the family is provided with educational and financial tools to build a better life. Families are provided with productive assets to generate income in addition to materials for building a home and latrine. The 18-month program works to provide these families with a livelihood, clean water, healthcare, and education so they can climb the staircase out of poverty.
Fondation Enfant Jesus (FEJ) is an organization in the Lamardelle community. At FEJ’s campus, there is a medical clinic, elementary school, women empowerment program, and vocational training school that provides for the community. The orphanage was recently moved to Kenscoff.
Peace Cycle is business that works to provide jobs while reducing waste and pollution in Haiti. Haitian have the chance to purchase 4oz pouches of clean water. Although this provides clean water, these pouches create lots of plastic waste. To reduce waste and provide jobs, Peace Cycle was formed. Peace Cycle hires locals to collect and clean the plastic bags which are then sewn into useful products.
How A Service Trip Changed My World View
Going on a service trip is emotionally difficult. It was hard going back to our guesthouse at night and not having to worry about my next meal or if I would get a shower. It made sad wondering about all of the people I saw that day. I began to question everything that I knew before I got off that plane. It was hard seeing how much these humans go through to survive. Seeing firsthand how Haitians live showed me how real poverty is. It sounds obvious, but driving through these communities and seeing people trying to make a living by selling simple things, you could see the struggle. It was a reminder to me that someone who is privileged in the first world, I can’t ignore or forget about what these people feel. Poverty isn’t something that is just happening in countries like Haiti; there are people in the US who experience the world in poverty. The human interaction and firsthand witness to poverty have changed me. If anything it’s inspired me to take what I learned and apply it to our society in the United States.
With all of these thoughts flowing through my head, it was relieving to know there are organizations that strive to do the right thing. And that their actions are truly helping people.
Going to Haiti made me more self-aware of my own actions and thoughts. By visiting people who benefit from these programs, I was not only about to see how the programs are successful, but I learned more about the human experience in Haiti. It was remarkable how these programs help instill a sense of empowerment in the people. Speaking with them directly, you could tell how proud they were of what they accomplished. I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a program to focuses on sustainability because it works. I saw it firsthand.Providing human to human contact and a little bit of faith in these people gives them the motivation and power to succeed. Providing the means through education helps families sustain themselves. IT WORKS.
It was remarkable interacting with the Haitian people. So much kindness surrounded me. They were so welcoming and excited to share with me their stories and few things they owned. The children were so inquisitive and excited to learn about us. No one expected sympathy or for us to care of them. They wanted to learn, experience, and share their lives with us. These moments were so pure. Even though I was so different from them, they welcomed me, a foreigner, into their community. All of this kindness reminded me how to our core, we are all humans who deserve dignity and compassion.
Feeling Guilty After Service Trips
The hardest things for me was returning home from the service trip to Haiti. It was hard coming home knowing that there were so many people struggling to make ends meet that I had to leave behind in Haiti. It was hard returning to real privilege, even though I was still living in privilege when I was in Haiti. I didn’t have to worry about anything while I was in Haiti, let alone when I returned home. It was difficult coming back to my reality. If anything, these feelings served as a reminder of my duty to continue serving those in Haiti after returning home.
As I mentioned before, I became more self-aware of my thoughts and actions in everyday life. I try not to create as much waste, I try not to be wasteful with food and resources. I take time to appreciate what I have. I take money out of my paycheck to contribute in the right ways. And I strive to educate others about what I learned and experienced in Haiti.
After meeting with so many people who are working with programs like Fonkoze and Peace Cycle, it was amazing to see how proud they were of their accomplishments. They were genuinely so appreciative of others who reach out to them. Even though these people have little to nothing, they demonstrated how hardworking they are and how they translate their success to happiness and empowerment. These hard-working families put value in the things that can’t be touched or seen. Seeing this made me question how materialistic American society can be. We put value in things that are so meaningless.
The White Savior Complex and Service Trip Controversy
By educating ourselves in addition to experiencing Haiti firsthand, I feel that now have the knowledge tools and experiences that I share with others to promote a sustainable poverty alleviation. Unfortunately, from this experience and what I learned, is that a lot of “service trips” aren’t helpful to the impoverished in the long term. Simply doing a task is an instantaneous form of service, but after you leave, that task’s lifetime in terms of utility is relatively short. I’m not saying doing something like this is useless, but there are better ways to assist as I described previously.
The white savior complex is a hot topic for service trips. There are two types of people who go on service trips. There are people and groups who go into impoverished countries and really help and want to help from the goodness of their hearts. And then there are people who go into impoverished countries and act like they’re swooping down from the heavens and saving these people. Then they swoop right back out and pat themselves on the back. This second example demonstrates the white savior complex. This type of service trip is not what you want to be. Going on a service trip should be for the benefit of someone else, not for yourself or your ego.
Another controversial topic in service trips, or even trips to third world countries in general, is photography. I personally feel that photography is an art and a tool for sharing aspects of the world literally from your lens. Photographs should be taken with the respect of the people and culture in mind and not for an egotistic side of social media. I.e. that “Posing with a local so I can get claps on Instagram” I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking photos as long as it’s respectful and with permission.
How You Can Help
If you’re interested in helping those Haiti, please consider donating to one of these reputable programs.
Rich in Mercy Institute. This organization was founded by the professor at my college who organized this service trip.
Fonkoze. Haiti’s leading microfinance program for sustainable poverty alleviation for families and communities.
Fondation Enfant Jesus. A leading non-profit organization providing education and health resources to empower and develop the Lamardelle community in Haiti.