Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Because of you...

This life I am living, I could never have planned or even imagined.  I really do love my life.  I am happy.  And I am more than blessed.  But there are moments that I wish you were here, so I could tell you...

It’s all because of you

The words I have signed
The career I have chosen
The lessons I have taught
The students I have impacted
The passion I have discovered

15 years later
I want you to know
It’s all because of you

Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Journal from Haiti: Day 2, Part 1

A Journal from Haiti: Telling stories the world should hear.
Experiences and thoughts on the journey translated into words to the best of my ability.

Day 2, Part 1

Sometimes it's tough to sleep well in a strange environment, but I must have been even more exhausted than I knew last night. As soon as Laura flipped off the light and my head hit the pillow, I was fast asleep on a top bunk for the first time since college! I don't even think I even moved...until 4:30 when I was awakened by an unfamiliar sound. Apparently, half past four is what time the rooster next door thinks everyone should rise and shine! Ha! Not exactly expected when you're staying in a house in the middle of a town. Plus, I'm pretty sure waking in this manner was a first for this suburban girl! Once I was awake, I was ready to start the day and had a hard time waiting patiently for everyone else to wake up! When it was finally time for breakfast, I was excited to try out mamba (Haitian Peanut Butter) for the first time. It's definitely different from the Peter Pan I grew up on--in fact I think it's much better! Mamba is made with peanuts, a bit of sugar cane, and a few ground up peppers. Yum! I think it tastes like natural peanut butter in The States with just the perfect amount of added spice. As soon as breakfast was done, we loaded into the van to head to church.

As we drove from Cabaret to Leveque, two things stuck out to me most: the tap taps and the loto booths. Tap-tap is the Haitian word for taxi, but these taxis don't look anything like the yellow cabs New York is famous for! The first one I spotted immediately brought to mind visions of my first international mission trip to Mazatlan. In Mexico, we were quite familiar with their "taxis"--red Mercedes trucks with two benches in the back. The drivers would shout "Ocho, ocho!" as we, ignoring their advice to stop at 8, tried to pile in as many people as we could possible seat somewhat safely on the benches. Unlike in Mexico, the taxis in Haiti have no suggested passenger limit. In fact, it seems to be a competition of sorts to see which tap tap can carry the most passengers. The truck beds are overflowing with people, but that doesn't stop more passengers from climbing aboard. As long as you can find a way to hold on, the driver will happily carry you to your destination. And trucks aren't the only vehicles used as tap taps. There are plenty of motorcycle tap taps as well. I'm pretty sure I saw almost as many motorcycles on our drive to and from Leveque as I saw that time we went to bike week in Daytona. (Yes, I went to bike week in Daytona...It was a bit of an accidental unplanned adventure, but I have been nonetheless. But that, my friends, is a story for another another day and another blog post...) Passengers pile on behind the motorcycle driver--3, 4, and 5 deep! It's quite the sight! As we drove down the road, something else caught my eye immediately--brightly painted little sheds scattered about on the sides of the road. They reminded me of the snowball shacks we have in Maryland. They had words painted on them, but we were going too fast to really see (and then, of course, my Kreyol is still a bit...uh...emerging). I asked Watson what they were and he told me they were loto booths. Yep, loto. As in lotto. As in lottery. Here we are in a country where water and electricity are more than scarce, where children are going hungry, where education is a luxury. But don't worry, there's a loto booth on every corner, so your luck might turn around tomorrow. I know it shouldn't be shocking to me, the lottery is a part of most cultures marked by poverty. That's true even in America. But these colorful snowball-loto shacks surrounded by rubble and trash make the phenomenon so much more difficult to ignore.

We turned off the main road, left the tap-taps and loto booths behind, and headed down the dirt roads leading to the village. It was clear we were getting farther and farther away from town. With the exception of the occasional emaciated horse, donkey, or goat, palm and plantain trees were the only things to be seen. As we bounced along the bumpy terrain, I gazed out the van window and began to wonder how the Leveque we were about to see would compare to the one I had spent the last year imagining. When we came upon the aqueducts, the sudden bustle of activity interrupted my thoughts. There were children playing, teenagers laughing, and women chatting, all gathered around this vital place shared by several nearby villages. Many of them stood on the side of the road , staring after the van as we drove on by. Their eyes were fixed on us, but their faces were expressionless. I wondered--What are they thinking? Suddenly, I realized that I really had no idea how Haitians feel about Americans. Are they thankful when they see these privileged, white visitors come to do short-term relief work. Or are they resentful of these people who could never understand their culture, their ways, their world.

We made a left hand turn and moments later we got our first look at the colorful houses we had seen in the pictures on the internet, and we knew we were in Leveque. The streets and yards were full of activity. Kids, fascinated by the "blans", chased after the van. When they could no longer keep up, they stopped in the middle of the street, their eyes still locked on us. Many of them were covered in dirt and shoeless; others were naked from the waist down. I wanted nothing more than to stop the van and meet each of these precious children. We made our way through the streets to an opening in the center of the village where many teens and children were gathered. There was a large white pavilion-like structure in the middle of the clearing. Kathryn told us that this building, which looked much like the what we would see at a park in America, was the village activity center. I began to notice families, dressed in their Sunday best, making their way toward the hill ahead of us, and I knew we must be close to the church. As we started our slow ascent up the hill, I felt guilty for passing these families to make the ascent in our air conditioned vehicle. As we made the climb we caught glimpses of the village bellow--the rainbow of houses we had passed by just moments before, the distinctive blue tarp structures housing the families still waiting for permanent dwellings, and the concrete block structures that would soon become their new homes. And all of a sudden we were at the top, pulling up next to the church. Stepping out of the van, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the creation below. We could see the village, the countryside, the mountains, and the sea. It was absolutely breathtaking. A beauty beyond photographs and words. A sight I could have spent hours soaking in. Magnificence I had not expected. This was Haiti. The Haiti no one tells you about. The Haiti I was already starting to love.

Monday, July 8, 2013

A Journal from Haiti: Day 1, Part 2

A Journal from Haiti: Telling stories the world should hear.
Experiences and thoughts on the journey translated into words to the best of my ability.

Day 1, Part 2

We continued on our journey to our home for the week--the 410 Bridge house in Cabaret. When we arrived we got a tour of the house and met the staff: Eve, the security guard, and the ladies, Madame Zet-Zet, Madame Ket-Ket, and Madame Celine. Celine is the only one on staff who speaks English. Hopefully that means we'll me learning lots of Creole! We spent the afternoon/evening getting settled in and getting to know William and Watson.

William is a 30 year old deaf man, training to be a pastor. He is a leader in Leveque. He is from Carrefour, a coastal town just west of the epi-center of the earthquake.. He told us Leveque's story.. He explained to us how the deaf in Haiti are looked down upon, how people believe they are incapable, and how difficult it is for them to get an education and find work. When the earthquake hit things became worse. They struggled to find food and water. Many of them came together to help one another. As word spread, more and more deaf from the Port au Prince area began to assemble together in tents and the group continued to grow. The Red Cross stepped in and built 12x12 temporary wooden structures for the disabled--blind, deaf, and physically disabled. This community, just outside of Port au Prince is called La Piste. There are still many families living there 3 and a half years after the earthquake. (Do the math--that's 144 square feet for a family to reside in!) As recovery efforts continued and relief organizations began to help Haiti rebuild, the 410 Bridge got involved with helping the deaf. They began partnering with Mission of Hope to plan Leveque, a permanent community in a rural area almost an hour north of Port au Prince. Leveque is a community for both deaf and hearing families who were displaced by the earthquake. It is unique in that there is no other place in the world that this many deaf individuals live together. It is an amazing story--one that is not yet over. William is among the 140 deaf families who have left the city to make their new home in Leveque, at least 40 more are in La Piste still waiting.

As William told his story, the four of us sat captivated. We had all read the story of Leveque online, but watching it told in Haitian Sign Language (HSL) by a leader in the community was more than surreal. We were exhausted from our day of travel, but didn't want to miss a word. I'm pretty sure I had to remind myself to blink a few times! This was our first real exposure to HSL, the language we will be using all week. Kathryn helped us out by voicing parts of the story when she thought we might not be familiar with the signs he was using, and I started to make a few mental notes about signing differences. William continued on to tell us that he and his wife were married in February and how the community raised funds for solar lights so they could communicate in the streets after dark. One night in March, someone heard a baby's cries coming from a pit latrine. William (being deaf) didn't believe them, but after shining a light into the latrine, he discovered there truly was an infant deep inside the pit.

They tried to make the hole bigger, but debris began to fall on the abandoned baby. They would have to find another way. Eventually William was able to lasso a rope around the baby's tiny ankle and pull him to safety. The newborn was sick and swollen from the fumes, but thanks to William and others he survived and was named Wilson. William beamed with pride as he told us the story of Baby Wilson. And we all sat awed by every detail. Baby Wilson was adopted by William's family. He is now three months old and seems to be healthy and growing. Wilson is a true miracle--one I hope we will have thee opportunity to meet.

We had our first Haitian meal for dinner. Rice, chicken, and watermelon. Yep, I'm pretty sure I'm gonna love Haitian food (and these sweet ladies who work hard to prepare our food)! After learning the names for everything we were eating in both Creole and HSL, we asked Watson how he learned to speak English so well. His response--he taught himself from some books and then started to really study English 6 months ago. Wait, I'm sorry--what!? You mean you haven't been studying English your entire life? I lived in Germany...and my Deutsch is TERRIBLE! I took a year and a half of Spanish...and my Espanol is conversational at best. And I took 4 years of French...and can barely speak en Francais at all! You've been studying English for 6 months and 2 months later started working as an interpreter!? Say what!? How in the world are you so fluent!? Motivation and commitment sure do make a difference. We (Americans) ought to be ashamed of ourselves. That whole foreign language requirement in schools thing is a joke. Why do we even bother. I digress.

Education here, and in most developing countries, is a privilege. Watson didn't attend school until he was 10 years old. Why? Is school not required in Haiti? Well, technically it is. The constitution states that school is to be compulsory (for primary students) and free. But the government lacks to funds to support these mandates. There simply aren't enough public schools to provide all (or even most) children with an education. In order to get an education, children must pay tuition to attend privately run schools, which make up well over 80% of the schools in the country. In other words, schools cost money--money that most Haitians don't have. (Just one of the many reminders of how blessed Americans are and how much we take for granted.) Most Haitians who have the opportunity to go to school only attend through 6th grade. In fact, only 20% of Haitians attend secondary school. Watson was lucky enough to be a part of that 20%. It's a blessing that Watson shows he values deeply. He demonstrates his thankfulness and his servant heart by tutoring boys who can't go to school and making sure his nephew has the chance to get an education.

Watson told us of his passion for languages and for his country. He talked about his dreams of Haitians working together to improve their country. While he would consider furthering his education in the United States, he always wants to come home to Haiti. He said, "I know I am human and the world is mine. But Haiti is my house and I have to take care of her." I love that. Watson gave us a lot of insight into the lives of Haitians. I'm thankful for his stories and honesty. They help us understand the experiences and culture so different from our own. I think that is vital for us as we begin our work here. I know that he will not need to act in his typical role as an interpreter this week, but his perspective and wisdom will be invaluable to our team.

I'm thankful for the opportunity to spend today getting to know the other girls and Watson and William and for the down time we had to begin mentally preparing for our work here. After dinner, we hung around outside for a bit. Laura tried to climb the mango tree and we met some chickens, which I'm sure we'll see again later this week (on our plates!)

Snapshots of our evening as we settled into our home for the week.

It was a great day, but I was grateful when it was time to shower and head to bed. I was even more grateful that I remembered to pack a flashlight once we ventured back outside to take showers long after the sun had set! As I climbed into my top bunk and tucked myself into my mosquito net, I realized how fortunate we were. We are staying in a house with toilets, showers, and a generator that allows us to use the lights, fans, and AC at night. Yep, I said AC. I feel like we're being a little spoiled, but I'm definitely not going to complain!

Tomorrow morning we will go to the deaf church in Leveque. I am excited to see Pastor William preach. His prayer tonight showed the passion in his heart. We'll get a chance to meet his wife and some of the deaf at the church and in the community in the afternoon. I can't wait. We'll spend the evening making final preparations for the deaf education workshop we'll be leading. I'm still not sure I know what to expect, but I do know it will be amazing.

I am so very thankful for this opportunity. I know this week will be life-changing. I'm sure it will fly by. Although I'll try to find the time to journal, I know there won't be enough time to get it all down each night. And even if I had hours to write, I know I'd never be able to remember or articulate it all. We've only been on this beautiful island for 12 hours and I'm already sure I'll be returning.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Journal From Haiti: Day 1, Part 1

A Journal from Haiti: Telling stories the world should hear.

Experiences and thoughts on the journey translated into words to the best of my ability.

Day 1, Part 1

A short 2 hours after my head hit the pillow, my alarm awakened me from a deep slumber. Though it was 4:30 in the morning, I jumped out of bed in total disbelief that this day had finally arrived. I have only been planning to go on this trip for less than 4 months, but this opportunity is something I have been preparing for my entire life. So much of the last 16 years has been leading me to this very moment.  It is a response to so many whys. A long-awaited hope and dream. A beginning for things to come. An answer to prayer. After a few last minute tasks, I headed out the door to the airport, full of anticipation and excitement for this short journey.

Now that I'm here in Haiti, this morning seems so very long ago. I don't even know where to begin...I've hardly taken any photos because they could never adequately capture this trip. I feel like I will never be  able to put the things I will see and experience here into words...but I want to share the stories of Haiti, of Leveque, and of my journey to this place I already love, so I will try.

I met up with Cally, Hayley, and Laura on our second (and final) flight out of Atlanta. When we landed in Port au Prince, we made our way apprehensively through customs. We rounded the corner past a band playing what can only be described as "island music" and came to a beautiful wall of photos where I learned (well inferred and later confirmed) that Haiti in Creole (Kreyol) is spelled "Ayiti.

We ventured downstairs where we turned in our Customs cards and entered a sea of people. The baggage area was completed packed. It was hot, chaotic, and overflowing with travelers attempting to collect their belongings. I seriously couldn't figure out where they had all come from. Were there that many people on our plane? It seemed impossible There had to be more planes? Like four or five more planes...right? Also did everyone (except me) on these planes check a bag!?

Because I had no bags to collect, I found a spot away as far away from the madness as possible to wait for the girls on my team. I sat on my suitcase soaking it all in. Their were Haitian families carrying bags overflowing with purchases revealing of their recent visits to Disneyworld and other tourist hotspots, but large groups of American church mission teams dominated the crowd. Teenage girls snapping photos and practicing the Haitian Creole written in their guide books. Their male counterparts collecting the teams' bags and boxes from the luggage carousel. The adults frantically trying to ensure that all persons and parcels were accounted for. The occasional Haitian businessmen donning designer suits sauntering comfortably through the sea of Americans while talking on his cell phone. With the exception of the absence of arrival and departure screens and other obvious technologies that one tends to see in this environment and a few of the sights upstairs, there was little indication that we were actually "here". We had yet to see anything reminiscent of the country we've all seen on television.

It's possible that, like those teenage girls, we took a selfie in the airport. 
After what seemed like a long time, the girls had their bags and we headed out to locate the people we knew 410 Bridge was sending to pick us up. On the other side of the doors we were met with our first glimpses of a country, language, and culture that were completely foreign to us. After our eyes had adjusted to the low lighting in the airport, the sun was so bright, I felt as if it were reflecting off the dirt beneath our feet. The heat, much more dry than what I had imagined, seemed to take my breath away. And the crowd was unexpected and overwhelming. We stayed close together and clung tightly to our bags, replying "No, mesi" to the endless supply of men offering their assistance, while scanning the area for the familiar 410 Bridge Logo. Somehow we forged a path through the people and located them:  Kathryn, our team leader, William, the deaf pastor in Leveque, and Watson, our interpreter.

We clambered into the van, immediately thankful for the refuge, water, and air conditioning. I was only slightly worried that my suitcase (which contained my passport, money, and camera!) had been thrown into an uncovered metal basket on the roof of the vehicle as we bounced along the road and on to the "highway"! We headed north to Cabaret and caught our first glimpses of Haiti along the way. I must admit I was immediately stunned at how beautiful this country is. Though there is rubble and trash, the mountains and sea are breathtaking.

We stopped at the mass grave on the way out of Port au Prince. The monument was inscribed with "12 janvier 2010 nou pap janm bliyew" (We will never forget you.) As we snapped pictures and stood trying to absorb it all, Kathryn reminded us that everyone we will meet was effected by the earthquake. It is estimated that 300,000 people died as a result of the quake. The death and destruction are truly inconceivable. This disaster has changed life for all Haitians.

As we stood at the monument, Watson began to tell us his story. He was in his house when the ground began to shake. At first he didn't know what was happening. He then realized it was an earthquake. The bottom floor of his home collapsed. Thankfully, he was upstairs. He ran into the street in shock. His girlfriend and many of his friends died. He told us, "I thought I was going to die. I thought it was the end. And I still don't know why I didn't--why I survived. But I know that God has a plan for my life." It's one thing to know that 300,000 people died in the earthquake. It's another to suddenly stand in a place where many of them are buried, hear a survivor's story, and know that his tale is just one of the many. Everyone in this beautiful country was impacted by this tragedy. That is something we will never truly be able to fathom.

While we were at the memorial children came from houses all around, asking for food and trying to pull my bracelet off my wrist. This was not my first encounter with this type of experience, but it honestly never gets easier. It is always heartbreaking to see such poverty, to see such need and be unable to do anything to help. I wanted to reach down and scoop them up. I'd like to think that's just basic human nature. I wanted to do something to help. But I knew I couldn't. Instead we got back in the van and watched the children grow smaller and smaller as we drove off into the distance toward our destination and the work we had come to do.

A Journal From Haiti

I've been a pretty bad blogger in the last year.  I've had lots of adventures and had plenty of things to write about, I just haven't been able to find the time to sit down and type!

While moments of free time continue to be scarce, I've decided to make blogging a priority so I can write about my latest adventure on the journey.  I just returned from a life-changing trip to Haiti and there is so much to write about.  The trip was only 6 days, but I'm pretty sure I could write enough pages to fill a book.  There are so many experiences I want to remember.  Moments I want to share.  Stories I want to tell.  God is doing amazing things in Haiti, in Leveque, and in deaf ed.  I believe that this is only the beginning in so many ways.

When people ask me about my trip the only things I can find to say are--It was amazing.  I want to go back.  or I will definitely go back.  Before, I described the trip as life-changing.  That's not a cliche.  It really was.  Haiti touched me in a way that no other place has or likely will.  Without hesitation, it leaped into my soul, found my heart patiently waiting, and settled into the corner that was created for this very purpose.   There is no doubt in my mind that my work in Haiti is far from over.  It is something I have known I was meant to be a part of long before this trip.

When I try to explain why the trip was so amazing or why I can hardly wait to return, the words seem to melt like snowflakes on the tip of my tongue.  All I can say is that this trip to Haiti is the epitome of my "journey to where".  Finding the words to tell these stories is a daunting commitment, but it's something I know I have to do, no matter how many hours or entries it takes.  Using our team's daily e-mail updates, the pictures we took while on the trip, and the journal entries I penned each night,  I am creating a blog version of my journal from Haiti.

And so it begins...

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Why We Teach...

  • Teachers are over-worked. 
  • Teachers earn very little money.    
  • Teachers make a lot of sacrifices.  
  • Teachers receive very little respect.  
  • Teachers are emotionally drained.  
  • Teachers are blamed by politicians. 
  • Teachers are under-appreciated.  
I could go on.  There are countless unpleasantries (to put it mildly) today's teachers face.  Being a teacher is tough!  And yet, most teachers I know love their job. Why?  Because there are moments when we know that we have made a difference.  Something we have said or done has helped a student to grow as a learner and/or as a person.  And suddenly, all those things we wish we could change about our profession are irrelevant for at least that moment...and being a teacher is the most rewarding job in the world.  Moments like this are why we teach.  

Last night, I received the note pictured below from a former student. Her thank you note brought tears to my eyes.  I couldn't help but think that I should be the one thanking her. She could never know how much her words meant to me.  I am beyond thankful that she took the time to remind me of the rewards of teaching. Moments like this are why we teach.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Dear Students,

I was asked to write a "letter to students" as a course assignment.  The letter below is what flowed out when my hands began to type.  I submitted it to my professor and read it aloud to my classmates, but you, dear students, are the real audience.  I know that most of you will never see letter, but I hope that by sharing it here on my blog, some of you might have the opportunity to read these words intended just for you.   

To each and every one of you—I am writing this letter, because I want to say thank you.

My tiniest little dancers--Club Body Co, 2004

Thank you for inspiring me.  You are the reason I do what I do.  I could not imagine a more rewarding way to spend my days.  I know that there are many other journeys I could have chosen.  Yet, when I think about the other career paths I once imagined for my life, I am confident that none of them could be as fulfilling as being an educator.  Every day, I am inspired by the things you say, the things you accomplish, and the things you teach me.  My paycheck will never measure up to that of a doctor, lawyer, or even a politician, but thanks to you I will always have purpose, I will always have passion, and I will always be rich.

A few of my 5th graders--CES, 2005

Thank you for challenging me.  You’ve helped me learn how to stand up for what I believe in and to be a voice for those without one.  You’ve taught me what it means to overcome.  You’ve made me want to be a better teacher and a better person.  You make me want to aim higher.  You make sure than I never stop learning and that I never stop wanting to learn.  You ensure that I set goals and follow through with them, and you are always my biggest cheerleaders.  Your support means more than you could ever imagine.

Marathon congratulations from my 8th grade fan club--FSDB DMS, 2011

Thank you for being honest.  You keep it real, and I appreciate that.  You tell me when my outfit is “way old school”, my hair is “outta control”, my drawings are terrible, or my lessons are totally boring.  Sometimes your honesty is tough to swallow, but that’s okay—because it means even more when you pay me that rare compliment.  You’ll never know how much it means...when you tell me that you love my read alouds, when you tell me that you used to hate poetry but now you sorta-kinda-almost like it, or when you tell me, with tears in your eyes, that you’re going to miss our class next year. 

One of my readers--FSDB DMS, 2010

Thank you for trusting me.  Most of us begin the year as strangers, but soon enough we begin to build relationships.  We argue, we laugh, we cry, and we share our lives.  This takes courage. And it isn’t just me that you trust.  You trust each other.  The writing we do, the discussions we have, and the community we create would never be possible without your willingness to be vulnerable.  I admire you for that.  It isn’t easy.  I know. 

My crazy 7th & 8th graders--FSDB DMS, 2012

Thank you for making me smile.  I won’t lie--there are days when being an educator isn’t easy.  In fact, most days are difficult.  I don’t remember many days in the classroom that haven’t included some sort of challenge.  And yet, I cannot recall a day devoid of happiness.  When I’ve had a bad morning, you always have a story that brightens my day.  When I’m up late grading papers, your unintentionally hilarious stories make me laugh out loud.  And when I see you accomplish the goals you hadn’t always believed to be possible, I cannot help but smile and forget about all the struggles. 

Silly 8th Grade Girls in the National Sculpture Garden--FSDB DMS, 2011

Thank you for giving me hope.  I often hear adults grumbling about the youth of today.  But you have showed me that things aren’t always as they seem.  Your curiosity is proof that you want to learn.  Your kindness and compassion show me that you really do care.  Your perspectives challenge me to view the world in a new way.  You are the teachers of tomorrow—and that doesn’t scare me, because you’ve already taught me so much.  I believe in you, and I always hope that you know that. 

A few of my cottage girls at Ijams--TSD, 2007

Thank you for making me proud.  The time I have with you is always far too short.  After a year or two, you or I move on.   I once thought that meant that you would no longer be “my kids” and I would never know what you went on to accomplish, but I was wrong.  I’ve watched you chase your dreams...from joining the soccer team, to joining the circus.  I’ve witnessed your graduations from elementary school, middle school, high school and for some—even college.  And although I don’t want to admit that many of you are no longer “kids”, I’ve seen photographs of your weddings and your children.  And I couldn’t be prouder—of the things you’ve done, the things you’re doing, and the things you will do.  You amaze me.

Varsity Cheerleaders at NC State Camp--ACHS, 2005

I’m writing this letter because I want to say thank you.  Thank you for inspiring me, for challenging me, for being honest, for trusting me, for making me smile, for giving me hope, for making me proud, and most of all, for being you.  You have taught me far more than I could ever teach you.  And I couldn’t be more grateful. 

The 8th grade crew at Gallaudet--FSDB DMS, 2011

Thank you from the bottom of my heart,
(aka--Miss Jen/KP/Coach KP/Miss KP/Miss Kilpatrick)