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May 18, 2012

A powerful experience for Pitt athletes in Haiti

The Pitt student-athletes who made a service trip to Haiti at the end of April knew they would experience some stark contrasts in lifestyle from what they were used to in Pittsburgh.

They knew they would see poverty and dilapidation. They knew to expect things like daily power outages and potholes that would make Pittsburgh's worst roads blush. They knew that their time at the EBAC and IDADEE orphanages in Cap-Haitien would put them in the company of youths whose lives have been filled with more desperation and less material goods than their visitors from Pittsburgh could imagine.

But what the Pitt student-athletes didn't expect, what they weren't prepared for, and what made the biggest impact wasn't the physical state of Haiti; rather, it was the mental, emotional, and spiritual state of the people of Haiti.

"We went down to Haiti to help them and do what we could for them, but it's kind of funny, because they did things for us," Pitt wrestler Tyler Wilps said Friday. "We learned things from them, and we're all just overall more well-rounded and better people from the experience.

"In reality, they helped us."


Making the decision

The trip's origins stretch back to 1978, when a group from the Orchard Hill Church in the North Hills took interest in mission trips to Haiti. From there, Brad Henderson, who serves as team chaplain for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Penguins, took up the cause, which eventually led to efforts from local professional athletes like Sean Casey and Max Talbot.

Through the lineage of those efforts, Mark Steffey, who operates Athlete Ministry for the Coalition for Christian Outreach (COO), worked with Vince Burens, the Chief Operating Officer of COO and a former Pitt soccer player, to coordinate a trip for Pitt student-athletes. The word was spread through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and email, and eventually the concept reached 15 student-athletes who volunteered to join the trip: three football players, three wrestlers, six womens' soccer players, one mens' soccer player, and two female divers.

Andrew Taglianetti was the first football player to get on board, and Hubie Graham and Mark Giubilato quickly joined him.

"You hear a lot of ideas about this kind of stuff, but a lot of it over time just kind of fades away into, 'Oh, I could have done that but I didn't,'" Giubilato said. "This was something that I really wanted to take advantage of."

The group flew from Pittsburgh to Florida on April 27 and flew into Haiti the next day. They stayed for six days before flying back to Florida on May 3 and flying into Pittsburgh the following day. The trip was self-funded, with the student-athletes providing money of their own and raising donations to cover the costs of flights and other expenses.

The week was centered around the EBAC Christian Academy and Orphanage and the I.D.A.D.E.E. Orphanage, where the student-athletes helped build a dormitory, painted a cafeteria, worked on other projects, and generally spent time with the children.

Both orphanages are located in Cap-Haitien, which is about 150 miles north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital and the epicenter of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck the nation in 2010. Cap-Haitien's distance from the epicenter prevented it from suffering much physical damage beyond the wear and tear of years of poverty, but that doesn't mean the effects of the earthquake weren't felt.

"I had a kid I was with the whole week, and he told me on the first day, 'My whole family died in the earthquake in Port-au-Prince,'" Giubilato said. "But he had been in the orphanage before the earthquake, and he didn't find out that his parents died until two months after the earthquake. Aunts, uncles, everybody died. He was the only survivor."


Selfless

On the third day of the trip, soccer player Danielle Benner had a powerful experience. After the night's dinner, Benner and one of the group leaders were taking a trash bag outside to the orphanage's burn pile (Haiti has no formal landfills or garbage collection; refuse is burned).

When Benner reached the bottom of the steps, several children who lived on the street outside the EBAC Orphanage ran up and grabbed the trash bag. Benner's first thought was that the children were being helpful and carrying the bag to the burn pile.

That notion was incorrect.

"They ran over to the corner of the orphanage and we saw them start to dump out the trash," Benner said in a conference room at the Petersen Events Center on Friday. "They started to go through it, and there were some Ragu bottles in there because of the spaghetti we had, and they started to just lick out the inside of the bottle.

"That was what hit me the hardest on the entire trip. You hear about it and you see it in the movies and stuff like that, but seeing it first-hand, someone eating your trash, was a whole different experience. It was just an unreal experience."

After Benner shared her experience with the other Pitt student-athletes, the group decided to change its practices. The next day, Benner and the others saved their leftovers and gave them to the street kids.

"I had two plates of oatmeal and I brought it down to them and I was kind of freaking out because there were so many kids and I thought they were going to start fighting over it," Benner said. "I went down and the oldest kid there split up the kids into two groups; each group had one spoon, and they would take a bite, pass, take a bite, pass, and they would go around until the plate was finished.

"Not once did they fight, not once did they argue, not once did they yell at each other; it was the most incredible thing I think I've ever seen in my life. Kids who have nothing but were willing to share with each other."

Benner's experience was powerful, but not unique. All of the student-athletes forged connections with the children at the orphanages, and seemingly every one of them came away with a story like Benner's.

Hubie Graham, for example, gave a granola bar to a young boy, only to watch him take one bite and then pass it to each of his friends for a bite. Likewise, Giubilato gave one boy two ten-dollar bills. After the boy wept at the gift, he went back to his room and gave one of the bills to his roommates to share.

At the end of the trip, the student-athletes donated virtually all of their clothes to the orphanages and the children. Even the donations, which often came as gifts from the student-athletes to specific children they had bonded with, turned into a display of selflessness from the Haitians.

"I gave my shoes, a pair of Nikes, to this boy," Graham said. "He was with me the whole trip and was kind of always by my side. I gave them to him and he was so excited, but he didn't try them on; he was just putting them in his bag. I said, 'Aren't you going to try them on?' He said, 'No, no, I'm going to bring them home for my father.' He said he was a stone mason and had never had shoes.

"I thought that was pretty incredible."


The impact

The 15 student-athletes who traveled to Haiti last month aren't likely to soon forget the physical sights they took in. They rode around Cap-Haitien in the back of a flatbed truck that was, more often than not, a harrowing experience. They helped lay concrete and paint and build a dormitory. They saw the garbage and dust and debris that comes from poverty and a total lack of infrastructure.

"It really is like a scene from a movie driving through Haiti; it's that poor," Wilps said. "But it's not like a scene from a movie because you're there."

Those images won't fade over time for the student-athletes, but they also won't supplant the real impact of the experience, the impressions that made the trip worthwhile and have almost all of the student-athletes already prepared to make the trip again next year.

The impact was the people.

"It kind of opened my eyes that there is a bigger picture, and they have a much better grip on the bigger picture than any of us do," Benner said on Friday.

"You have this perception of what Haiti is going to be like," Taglianetti added. "You know it's going to be impoverished, you know it's going to be something you can't really fathom. But driving through was just eye-opening, and seeing these kids and seeing how happy they are…it was tremendously eye-opening.

"Us being there five days, the impact that we can have on their lives is miniscule, because in six months when more missionaries come down, they're going to remember them but not necessarily remember us. But I think the impact that we took from that is something that will last a lifetime."






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