Posted by: universallearningcentreblog | September 20, 2011

Haiti Smiles by Chris Barnicle

ULC is fortunate to have passionate volunteers we consider part of our extended family.  Among those volunteers is long time friend, Chris Barnicle, who has been with ULC since its inception.  Chris travelled with the ULC team to Haiti in October, 2010 to set up the Pilate library after the organization received its first major grant of 25,000 books from the Parliament Foundation of Quebec.  Featured in the blog today, Chris was kind enough to share his experience in Haiti and offers a unique perspective. 

I’ve travelled to 3rd world countries and have lived in one of the poorest of all, Guatemala.  I always have the same feelings of inadequacy when I am in these countries, which maybe is a strange reaction, but upon reflecting in order to write this blog, it made sense.  This inadequacy becomes the source for inspiration to help the brave people with so little.

Prior to my recent trip to Haiti, it had been a few years since I had been to the “developing world.”  Landing at the airport without knowing a word of the local language, not having a clue as to where I needed to go, and with only a dusty cement seat to wait for my friend Jacques (ULC founder) to arrive in the sweltering heat, all the memories of my Peace Corps experience came flooding back.

Toussaint Louverture Airport, Port-au-Prince

I found myself surrounded by Haitians speaking a completely foreign language to me, and as the only “blan” (white guy) around, with a huge wad of cash in my pocket,I began to feel a bit uneasy.   I remembered the time a lady on the bus in Guatemala cut a hole in my bag and began siphoning out cash from the bag on my lap.   I started pulling my bags in closely and hunkering down for several hours of waiting and defending.

And as happened many times on the trip, Haiti smiled at me.  After hours of sweating and Jonesing for a little water and maybe some English, I made a few friends.  Friends that, albeit, had ulterior motives for some compensation, but friends that looked me in the eye and thanked the “blan” that came from a land of comforts to a land of devastation just to lend a helping hand.

ULC Volunteer & Featured Blog Writer, Chris Barnicle and ULC Founder, Jacques Jean (backs to camera) with ULC Volunteer, Saskia Van Vactor, assessing construction in Pilate

The second time Haiti smiled at me was when a strange older man came up to me and asked my name.  “Oh no,” I thought,  “Someone else trying to befriend the ‘blan’ on the bench.”  As it turned out, it was Jacques’ uncle, Henry, a man with a large smile, who was there to rescue me from the heat and maybe help me get some much-needed water.  That was also the time I would meet my new friend, Rubens, who was my connection to the Quixotic Creole language.

Chris (left), obviously not "Jonesing" for American food but thoroughly enjoying traditional Haitian dishes. Also pictured, left to right: ULC Volunteer, Michelle Lemenager; ULC Volunteer/Port-au-Prince Liaison, Rubens Jean-Baptiste; Saskia Van Vactor (back to camera)

Left to right: Jacques' uncle, Henry Jean with Jacques & Saskia. Notice Chris giving a "thumbs up" on the left side of the frame.

During my trip, I cannot count the number of times that I felt Haiti smiling.  The large joyful lady who cooked for us everyday; the priest who offered his residence up for the “blans” to stay while we worked to open the first library in the 200 year history of Pilate; Rubens, the college student trying to move beyond poverty and make a difference; or our young, courageous librarian who was using her small pittance to help her mother overcome devastating thyroid problems that would take her life months later.

Left to right: Chris; ULC-Pilate Librarian, Yvanne Jean-Baptiste; ULC Volunteer/Port-au-Prince Liaison, Rubens Jean-Baptiste

Ah, the smiles of the beautiful Haitian people. Thanks to Dana Jean for tasking me to write this blog.  I am warmed as I am reminded of Haiti’s smile.

Smiling group of boys outside ULC-Pilate

For all the John and Jane Q. Publics who may read this, know that somewhere in Haiti, there’s a smile for you too.

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