‘It was an Adventure’: UF Coach and Alumni Head to Haiti for Mission Work
Although physically challenging, it wasn’t the hiking through the hot, humid, and trash-strewn countryside that had the largest impact on Trey Smith and Ricardo Smith (no relation). Nor was it necessarily the abject poverty they saw when they visited Haiti on a recent mission trip, although that will also leave a lasting impact. Instead, it was the affection and optimism the University of Findlay alumni witnessed from the residents of the isolated island nation that irrevocably changed them for the better.
“I’m more inclined to hug people now. I show affection more,” said Ricardo.
Ricardo is an operations center analyst for Marathon Petroleum Company. He graduated from UF in 2017 with a Bachelor of Science in marketing, and is now enrolled in UF’s Master of Arts in Professional Communication program. Trey recently earned a Bachelor of Science in strength and conditioning. The two were tapped by UF basketball coach Charlie Ernst to travel to Haiti in May.
The service trip was organized and sponsored by Mission Possible, a Christian-based nonprofit that focuses on education and sustainable living, and that operates seven schools throughout the island country.
On the agenda were visits to all seven Mission Possible schools in Haiti, which serve children in Pre-K through grade 13. Trey was charged with presenting a program about healthy food choices. But right away, he encountered a problem – “There is no such thing in Haiti. There’s just food or no food,” he said. Haitian children are lucky to consume one meal each day, let alone three, he pointed out, and having access to clean water is often limited or nonexistent. Trey therefore had to modify his presentation by adapting it to accommodate the dietary circumstances of Haitian children.
Ricardo taught lessons about friendship, which embodied universal humanitarian truths, and exposed cultural differences. His pedagogical dilemma was presentation-related – as with many youth the world over, Haitian children were not interested in sitting quietly for a lecture. So, Ricardo devised hands-on activities that involved concepts such as how to be a good friend, and how to show respect, love, and empathy. He said his goal was to get students to “dig deeper on their thoughts” and have meaningful discussions, particularly regarding their ideas about popularity and community.
The two alums, former basketball players, also made sure they played their favorite sport with the Haitian students they visited, devising makeshift hoops and a court using materials at hand.
“I think just being there and showing love was impactful in itself,” said Trey.
The children at each school rushed to meet them, with smiles on their faces, said Ricardo. “They were happy to see us there. They know how tough it is to get people there.”
Volatile political and physical conditions in Haiti, which has been ravaged for years by government leadership turnover, violent weather, and earthquakes, often prompt the U.S. to issue travel restrictions to the island. Ricardo said he “never felt unsafe” during the trip, but there were other challenges. Amidst the unceasing humidity was the “physical and mental drain” that came with interacting with people who live with little to no income, and lack basic necessities. Compared with life within the United States, the deprivation in Haiti was stark, the two said.
“It took a toll on you,” said Trey of the trip.
When they returned home, Trey and Ricardo took with them other memories, such as the beautiful ocean views and taste of fresh mangos, while also realizing how much they’d taken for granted prior to the trip. “If you want light, you just flip a switch. If you want water, you just turn a tap on,” Trey noted. “It’s eye opening. Back in the U.S. you see how things slow down. You can understand so much more. Your appreciation is there, your gratitude,” said Ricardo.
There are other rewards, too.
“Being there, I realize now that you can’t judge (Haiti) from the outside,” said Ricardo. “When you’re there, you see how loving the people are, the joy that people have” while having very little of anything else, he explained. “They take what they have and make the best of it for the moment. They truly want to thrive. They will use everything they have to make it work.”
Coach Ernst said he selected Trey and Ricardo to accompany him on the mission trip based on essays they wrote about why they wanted to participate. Ernst mentioned this was his first trip to Haiti too; he said his wife, Belinda, has been involved in Mission Possible endeavors for years, which inspired him to make his own journey. Ernst fundraised for this trip, which he described as “an adventure.”
The schools, Ernst said, are “simple buildings” mostly made from bamboo and banana leaves. They were located in remote areas of the country, where many residents suffer from poverty-related health issues such as preventable skin infections and breathing problems caused by airborne toxins; Haitians burn all refuse.
Many of the children they interacted with “had never shot a basketball in their life,” said Ernst. “You’re overwhelmed with what their needs are,” he said, which is why he and his wife also sponsor Haitian children. One of the children asked Trey to see a group photo he’d taken with his phone at the school because the student had never seen an image of himself, Ernst explained.
Ernst said he hopes to return to Haiti one day to provide more help in whatever ways he can.
“You fall in love with the people. They’re very generous, very happy, very loving people,” he said.