This article was originally published in the July 31, 2016 edition of the Sun.
Purchase a Worcester Sun membership for as low as $2, or sign up for our email newsletter below.
“Haiti? Why would you want to go back there?” is the response I got from many when I explained I was headed back to the island nation to volunteer at my favorite organization, Be Like Brit.
After I explain the story of Britney Gengel — a college student who perished in the 2010 earthquake while on a mission trip, whose parents created an orphanage in her honor — many are eager to learn more about my travels.
Be Like Brit is a family. Once you’re in, you’re in for life.
Once again, it is difficult to put this experience into words. It is hard to explain the sadness my heart ached for, the love I felt, and the hope that I saw.
Landing in Haiti, at the airport in Port-au-Prince, I only felt excitement. It was a very different feeling than last year. This time around, I felt like I was on a trip to visit family. Although the poverty is always overwhelming to see, my eyes weren’t glued to the windows on the drive to the orphanage this time.
I knew what to expect and I was so happy to be back.
Arriving at the orphanage, our group of Britsionaries (the name given to the volunteers at Be Like Brit), were welcomed by the 66 kids singing “Hallelujah.” After they finished, they ran to us with hugs. Right away, I could tell how much the kids have grown up and how their English is improving immensely. Many asked in English, “What is your name?” and “How are you?”
I was impressed! It was great to see so many familiar, smiling faces.
When the group dispersed, I looked for Isselande, one of the Be Like Brit girls, who I connected with during my trip last year. I found her sitting on a bench with one of the caregivers. I walked up to her and said, “Isselande?” She looked up at me confused, but smiled.
I showed her my favorite picture of us from last year on my phone. “Do you remember me?” I asked. “My name is Danielle.” She gave me the biggest hug. Since she is only 8 years old, I am not sure if she fully remembered me, but from that moment, until the moment I had to leave at the end of the week, we were inseparable. It was the best reunion I could have asked for.
The week was filled with amazing moments, with many ups and downs, which I believe is normal whenever one travels; especially to a Third World country and the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
Each morning, our group would take a short drive to the worksite to work on building a home for a local Haitian family. In the afternoons, our group would go on excursions with some of the kids. We went hiking, swimming at the beach, and visited the fishing village; the location Britney was supposed to visit the day after the earthquake.
There is now a memorial there for her and the other Americans who lost their lives.
Many days at the orphanage ended in dance parties or English lessons with the children. Every day was filled with fun and so much love.
The family we were building the home for was a mother and her two sons. The neighborhood was filled with kids of all ages, so I made many new friends for the week. We connected by playing clap games, taking photos together, and trying to learn each other’s language. Some of the older kids even helped out our group with building.
One of the young girls I met at the worksite was Faga. The first day, she held my hand on our walk to the site, and tried to speak to me in English. Each day after that, she was the first to greet me. She would sit nearby with the other kids and watch us work on the house.
One day while I was on a hike with the other volunteers, Faga ran up to me and started talking to me in Creole. Someone was able to translate for me since I did not understand. She explained how her father had died and she needed money for school.
This was heartbreaking for many reasons. First, I wasn’t able to help her, but also that this is the harsh reality of the poverty in Haiti. People are so desperate for food, clothing and money, that they are willing to ask strangers for help. There are no words to explain how sad it is to see people living in these awful conditions.
I wish I was able to help everyone.
Friday morning was the House Blessing day. The Britsionaries and the family gathered in front of the house, and Peterson, a Be Like Brit staff member, translated for us. I listened to the mother speak on behalf of her family and thank us countless times.
“I have gone several places to try to find a home, but unfortunately it never worked for us. Even though I worked so hard, I could not receive enough money or find the opportunity to build a house. My life is now changed that we have a better place to live,” the mother said.
It was an amazing feeling, seeing this family receive their first home. I love the picture I took of the mother walking inside for the first time. The process can be very emotional, but I was surprised I did not cry — until the mother and her two sons hugged each of us.
During each long hug I received, I could feel the love and how thankful they were. I didn’t want to let go.
That day was Day One of their life being changed forever. They would now have a roof over their heads and a safe place to sleep, with a mattress to sleep on. Building the bed is always my favorite part of the week. Most people in Haiti sleep on the ground or on cinder blocks, so a mattress is a true gift.
At the end of each day, our group had a reflection time on the roof of the orphanage, which has the best views of Grand-Goave. We shared our highs and lows of the day, moments that stuck out to us, what made us smile, and what made us cry.
One comment from a volunteer really stuck with me: “Sometimes I don’t feel bad for these people, I feel bad for myself. I only wish they had clean water, food and shelter. Besides that, they have a great life.”
I couldn’t agree more. The people of Haiti are so rich in faith, hope and love. They know what is truly important in life. They know how to take care of one another.
Americans, along with the rest of the world, could learn so much from them.
Leaving on Saturday morning was extremely difficult. Much more difficult than last year. This year I made so many more connections with people, especially Isselande. She greeted me with a coloring book page she colored for me and held my hand until I had to leave. We took one last group photo, and I said “mwen pral manke ou,” which means “I will miss you” in Creole. She smiled and said it back. The second I walked out the doors of the orphanage, I started to cry.
You really don’t understand the impact these kids and this country have on you until the week is over. I knew my life had been changed once again. I am so fortunate that I was able to spend another week in Haiti, experience this beautiful culture, and make new memories I will never forget. I left leaving so inspired and ready to spread the word about Be Like Brit.
I already can’t wait to go back!
To learn more, or to become a Britsionary for a week, visit www.BeLikeBrit.org.
Danielle Cutillo, 23, is a graduate of Holy Name and a lifelong Worcester resident. She earned a degree in fashion communication and promotion from Lasell College in Newton, where she was co-president of Hope for Humanity, a campus social service group.