Andrew Mersmann – Volunteer Alum in Haiti
Andrew Mersmann is a Los Angeles-based travel writer and author (Frommer’s “500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference). He was a client on the Elevate Destinations “Urgent Service” trip to southern Haiti in 2010 after the earthquake, and returned this year as a volunteer team leader. Andrew’s blog, Change By Doing focuses on volunteering and service around the world.
What: Volunteering with Elevate Destinations
Volunteer with children in Haiti
Morning: We were sleeping in either tents outside or under mosquito netting in a large, dirt-floored classroom…and it was July in Haiti, so I generally woke in a puddle of sweat. 15 of us shared a bathroom with no running water, just a large barrel of cistern water to use for bucket baths and flushing the toilet, and we had a jug of drinking water to brush our teeth, drink, etc. Breakfast, like every meal, was lovingly prepared for us, and we scarfed down peanut butter for protein and lots of carbs for energy.
The morning work detail was transporting sand, gravel, and bags of concrete, bucket brigade-style, up the precipitous side of the rocky hill, to build the kitchen and depot for Let Haiti Live headquarters. Grueling physical labor in intense heat, passing plastic buckets to the next volunteer up the hill, and passing empties back down to be refilled, we made games of staying hydrated, sang songs, shared life stories, and laughed until our sides ached.
Afternoon: The afternoon work was based in education for 40 young people, ages 5-25, in the requested areas of English and Leadership Skills. There were two age-divided classes going simultaneously for three sessions each afternoon, for a total of six lessons a day. We had a lesson plan and general direction for each class, some stood alone as individual lessons, some as continuation on the work of the previous day. Each volunteer taught at least once, then assisted other volunteer class leaders in other sessions. We exchanged cultural experiences (describe foods, sing national anthem and other common songs, share stories everyone learns as a child) and more practical advice (first aid training, entrepreneurship, even yoga) with the help of English translators. At the end of the week, the kids had prepared a program of dance and song and cultural presentation for us when we all shared a day at the beach.
Volunteers hard at work in Haiti
Evening: The young people we were there to serve went home to their families in the evening, so this was when we had time to really bond as a volunteer team. We’d stare down the hill at the waning light over the ocean before we had to grab up flashlights. One evening we joined our hosts at a highly competitive and celebratory community soccer match, another night we pooled a small amount of money so a local resto/pub owner could hire a band and we danced with lots of locals deep into the night. Other evenings we hung out in camp, headlamps as our only light, wishing for a cooling breeze, and dodging tarantulas on our way to the bathroom or eventually to bed/tent. Again, the laughter was always the most prominent sound.
Highlights: The highlight for me was after some circumstances waylaid or final day of lessons and we had to skip presentations of student projects (the older group had divided into small groups to create original “campaigns” for Haiti, developing posters, logos, radio commercial scripts, etc about a topic they were passionate about: the environment, education for all, better roads and infrastructure for the country, agriculture/food/hunger)…all of the kids voted to come back to class Saturday morning to finish, even though that had not been scheduled. Them seeing, and valuing, the benefit in what we were all doing together, made it all resonate so forcefully for me.
Quiet time with a 5-year-old growing sleepy as she sat in my lap, or helping clean and bandage a girl’s cut toe as she bravely squeezed my shoulder instead of crying, or a group of teen boys making necklaces for each of us to say goodbye, are subtle memories I’ll have forever.