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May 17, 2013A comfort zone is a rather unique phenomena in the human experience. It develops virtually without intentional action, evolving naturally from a repetition of routine and surroundings. Then it becomes all-encompassing and remarkably difficult to break away from.
It is the feeling of being comfortable in daily life, and when that comfort is achieved, when routines have been established and surroundings have been familiarized, there is no need for a person to challenge himself or herself, no reason to push the boundaries of comfort or test the limits of familiarity.
But in those rare moments when a person ventures outside his or her comfort zone, when he or she is no longer cradled - or restrained - by the reassuring comfort of routine, when familiarity has been stripped away and every environmental element is unfamiliar, something happens.
"In my experience, the most formative and transformational experiences you can have are the ones where you step outside what you're comfortable with and are challenged," says Mark Steffey. "And especially when you do so in an environment and a place where you've never been and where things are much different than where you're from."
Steffey is a Pitt campus staff worker for the Coalition of Christian Outreach, a campus ministry that works with local churches and other campus organizations, and he has been closely involved with student-athletes. Last spring he took 15 Pitt student-athletes to Haiti for a week-long mission trip, and the feedback was so positive - both from the Pitt student-athletes and the Haitians they met and worked with - that Steffey and fellow CCO staffer Kelly Cooke organized another trip to the poverty-stricken nation.
This time, 16 Pitt student-athletes, nine males and seven females representing a variety of Panther sports, flew to Haiti to live in and work around the EBAC Christian Academy and Orphanage and the I.D.A.D.E.E. Orphanage in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, for a week in late April.
Cap-Haitien is located about 150 miles north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, and approximately 1,500 miles from Pittsburgh as the crow flies. But that mileage doesn't begin to measure how far the Pitt student-athletes traveled outside their comfort zones during their week in the Caribbean. And when a group of people step that far away from what is comfortable and what is familiar the shared experience can be a powerful one.
"You get down there and there's no phones or anything, and everybody just meshes together," said Mark Giubilato, a redshirt sophomore fullback on the football team. "You realize that we're all there for the same reason; that's what I thought was so special. It doesn't matter what background you're from or where you're from at home or what sport you play; we're all down here for the same reason, in another country, one of the poorest countries in the world, giving one of our weeks off to try to make a difference down there.
"That's why I have so much respect for everybody that came with us and the friendships I've made and the people I've got to meet and get close with. It's something that's really special to me and it means a lot to me."
Giubilato was on the trip last spring, so this year was his second time in Haiti. But his teammate, redshirt freshman linebacker Mike Caprara, experienced it for the first time, and his experience was a lot like Giubilato's.
"I thought it was a great opportunity to get out of my comfort zone," Caprara said. "Me, personally, I like doing that and being in those situations.
"Being out of your comfort zone, I think it brings the whole group together, and that was one thing I liked about the whole trip. Of course Haiti affected us, but the team we went down with, we became so much closer, it's like you couldn't even put it into words. It was amazing."
The obvious culture shock of Haiti was the poverty. The Pitt student-athletes left Pittsburgh expecting to see staggering levels of poverty, whether it came in the form of children without shoes or adults living on little more than bread and water. And while they saw vivid exhibits of squalor - they even lost water themselves for a stretch - at least one experience made a bigger impact.
The main daily activities for the student-athletes involved spending time with children at the orphanage and helping with schoolwork. That led to more personal, one-on-one experiences for the student-athletes, and they all spoke of relationships they built with their young companions at EBAC and I.D.A.D.E.E.
One day, the Pitt student-athletes and some companions set off to climb a mountain. At the top of the mountain was a church that had been built by young adults from the Cap-Haitien orphanages through a "brick brigade," passing cinder blocks and 25-pound bags of cement mix up the mountain. The student-athletes set off for the church in order to worship, testify, and sing at a service.
What they didn't expect was what they came across on the hike up the mountain as they passed village after village of increasing poverty.
"The mountain really hit me the hardest of all the things we did," gymnast Tiara Chardran said. "You get off the plane and you go through the city and you have the culture shock. And even at the orphanage, it's so much different from here; it's beyond words. And then you go to the mountain, and it's ten times worse than anything we had seen on the trip.
"Climbing the mountain, some of the villagers were clothes-less and it just really hit you. As we were climbing it, they just kept joining our group and following us, and by the time we got to the church, there were about a hundred Haitians surrounding us."
The trip up the mountain was powerful for all of the Pitt student-athletes, including wide receiver Devin Street. He and Giubilato were handing out bags of food and clothes as they climbed, and as he took in the rush of experiences - the stories of children eating dirt to simulate the feeling of having a full stomach or the young shoeless girl whose feet were the perfect size for a pair of pretty sandals he was carrying - Street became overwhelmed.
"That just touched me; I broke down on the mountain, just to think that people have to live like that," he said.
It wasn't the last time that would happen. Street had noticed that two brothers in the orphanage seemed to have two shirts and two pairs of shorts between them, and they would swap the shirts and shorts so as to avoid wearing the same thing every day. So, on the final day, he gave the brothers seven shirts, five pairs of pants, and three pairs of shoes from the clothing he had brought with him on the trip.
"That was another breaking point for me," Street said. "I had to go behind the bus and break down again, that kids have to go through that and live through that, and yet they have so much hope and don't complain."
"You spend a week with kids and people who appreciate every single thing they have, and they don't know any different," said soccer player Katie Lippert. "Then coming back and being around people who have never been or had an experience like that and realizing how much we take for granted and how much we don't cherish the things that we have, it's hard for the first few weeks. You just want to go back and be with the same group of people again. That was the hardest thing for me."