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When constructing a home, school or some other important building in Haiti, the wall goes up first.
Always. Usually a thick, 10- or 12-foot-high concrete cinder block wall, often topped with barbed wire. That’s simply how it’s done in the world’s poorest nation.
No such barriers hinder personal interaction.
Haitians laugh and smile easily, join in song with friends and strangers, all hours of the day or night. They treat guests with joy and equanimity — to the point of spontaneously offering a baby for adoption (and a better life) to a foreigner who simply notes the child’s irresistible charm.
These are but two lessons absorbed by northwest Vancouver resident Haylee Castro, 15, about to begin her sophomore year at Columbia River High School.
She’s got a dazzling answer to the obvious question, “So, how did you spend your summer?”
In sum, 15 days in and around sweltering, sticky, earthquake-devastated Port-au-Prince, the capital city, and nearby Merger (pronounced “mare-zhay” in Haitian’s Creole-French tongue). Haylee pitched in on quake relief and missionary work linked to her hometown Glenwood Community Church, in Barberton.
“It’s weird,” said Haylee, who returned in late July with a few mementos, many photos and a priceless experience. The U.S. and Haiti are “two of the most opposite places: We have so much, they have so little.
“Everything was pretty much cracked, the roads are uneven.”
Yet, the human spirit shines brightly in the poor Caribbean nation, shoved further into profound struggle by a ruinous, 7.0-magnitude quake on Jan. 12, 2010. The temblor killed an estimated 200,000 residents outright and thousands more since, through lingering injuries, infection and outbreaks of cholera and other disease.
Haylee’s mother, Ruth, shares the insight provided by Haylee’s sister, Lauren Young.
Lauren, 22, and her husband, Mason, a Clark County native she met in church, have served multiple stints at the STEP Bible University just uphill from central Port-au-Prince — both pre- and post-quake.
Lauren told Ruth, “Mom, it’s third-world, a poor country. There was a lot of rubble before. There’s just more, now,” she said. Still, Lauren added, “The people are so happy, they’re just joyous.”
Follows sisters’ path
Ruth and Pete Castro, as well as Haylee, youngest of their three daughters, keep in nearly daily touch with Lauren and Mason in Haiti through Skype Internet service.
That reassurance, and past church-sponsored service trips in Mexico by Lauren and eldest daughter, Megan Johnson, 25, suggested it might be Haylee’s turn to venture abroad. In late June, a generous gift from Ruth’s sister helped pay her way.
A world traveler, Ruth’s sister has served in Africa and grabs every chance to support her nieces’ growth, Ruth said. “She really wanted Haylee to have that experience.”
How to prepare a 15-year-old for a solo trip to Haiti?
First, a rush to Seattle, where Haylee’s first passport could be processed in a single day. And the first doses of anti-malarial medicine, which continue, with a few final doses remaining. (Long-term visitors such as Mason and Lauren don’t bother: It’s simply assumed they’ll contract, and deal with, mild malaria on their own, Ruth said.)
Ruth was able to book Haylee’s flight through Miami without a night’s layover. Haylee packed books, her iPod and extra crafts materials (sewing and such) for the missionaries, their children and young Haitian pupils.
All went well. Lauren had helped Haylee brace for the squalor, the open sewers and daily struggle to find or create clean water to wash clothes, bathe, drink.
Haylee helped to reorganize the Merger school library and paint a children’s clubhouse and one missionary family’s home.
On her own, she took in the amazing scene that is Haiti:
• Blue-helmeted United Nations soldiers, many from Sri Lanka, staging anti-drug warlord operations from the Bible school campus, mingling with curious children. Young Haitian men zipping around on motorbikes, selling rides, and the brilliantly adorned local buses, dubbed “tap-taps” by the natives.
• The massive tent cities that house quake refugees. The ubiquitous “Hey, you!” shouts of young children (the only English that many know), eager to play street soccer with anyone.
• New foods, such as the lime-like citron fruit and fried, thin-sliced plantain (banana-like plant) that resembles our sweet-potato fries. Hearty, traditional Haitian rice-and-bean dishes, and fresh mango and pineapple, at times.
• One very uneasy night, trying to ignore cockroaches creeping over her air mattress bed. A draining five-hour church service, made so by heat and humidity and long Creole passages she couldn’t understand.
• And, amid the cacophony of daily life, occasional gunshots and explosions outside the campus, and stones heaved over its wall by some passers-by.
Despite the prevailing buoyant spirit, or perhaps owing to it, Haitians display incredible stoicism, given their challenges. “You rarely ever see them cry,” Haylee said.
She carries those indelible images as she resumes her all-American life. There’s already cheer camp, for varsity cheerleading this fall at Columbia River, to be followed by gymnastics during winter, and track in spring.
“She’s a busy girl,” Ruth said. “I think it’s opened her eyes, to more appreciation of what she has here.”
Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or firstname.lastname@example.org.