Chrystal Houston, May 5th, 2010
Caved-in houses, business buildings reduced to rubble, piles of refuse lining the streets, and thousands upon thousands of tents where the dispossessed now live. That’s the reality two months after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. “It’s worse than what you see on the news,” said Cristine Mayer ’10 of the landscape of Port-au-Prince. “I went thinking that they showed the worst parts on the news and that it really wouldn’t be that bad. But everywhere we would go, everything we would seeâ€”everything was destroyed.”
Mayer traveled to Haiti in March with a church group during spring break, working with the organization Haiti Joy House. Their mission was breaking down and hauling away the rock walls of a church building in Gressier, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, leaving the congregation a new foundation to build on.
“The people that I talked to were so grateful. They were fearful and scared, but they were grateful that they had this opportunity to live and to have a second chanceâ€¦They felt that it was by God’s grace that they were still alive.”
—Cristine Mayer ’10
A firm foundation
Armed with sledgehammers, shovels, and work gloves, the team broke down the collapsed walls and stacked the rubble for removal. “We demolished [the] church rock by rockâ€¦no bulldozers,” said Mayer. Each day began with prayer before sun-up, followed by backbreaking labor from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. On the last day, the final debris was swept from the concrete slabâ€”a symbol of all that had been lost, as well as the hope of rebuilding.
Management major Cristine Mayer ’10 was recently recognized with a Buck Weirus Spirit Award from the Association of Former Students. This award honors students “who demonstrate high involvement, create positive experiences throughout the Aggie community, impact student life at Texas A&M and enhance the Aggie spirit.”
One person Mayer will never forget was Chezloh, a nine-year-old Haitian boy who lost his father in the earthquake. In open-toed sandals and wielding a shovel taller than himself, he worked alongside Mayer’s team every day.
The assembly line they formed to move much of the rock was a picture of true teamwork. If one person took a break, it hurt the whole team. Breaks were few. “I would get so tiredâ€¦but I’d look around me and see that everyone else was picking up a rock, and so it was back to picking up rocksâ€”all day,” she said.
Like Chezloh, many Haitians want to help with the recovery. Yet while they lack basic resources of food, water, and shelter, they cannot focus on reconstruction. With no money and no tools to rebuild, they are dependent on volunteers and donations. It is overwhelming, says Mayer.
“The children of Haiti are my heart”
Afternoon and evening hours were spent visiting with locals. Mayer was surrounded daily by children clamoring for her attention, holding her hands, hugging her legs, rubbing her arms and repeating the word “blanc” (white) as they marveled at her pale skin. “The children of Haiti are my heart,” she says. When she wasn’t moving rocks, “I was holding a child at all times.” Mayer was touched by their joy, playfulness, and willingness to love in the midst of their extreme hardship.
Many of the children were orphans, but many more were living in orphanages because their parents could not provide adequate food, shelter, and protection. “It was heartbreaking,” she said. It’s the children that are calling Mayer back to Haiti. She will be returning in June to work with Haiti Joy House to put on a Vacation Bible School program.*
Though the bulk of the volunteer effort has been focused on Port-au-Prince, the need is far greater. Gressier has seen few volunteers compared to the level of need. She encourages others to give to organizations that are providing food and services, such as Haiti Joy House. For those that are more adventurous: “I think the best way to help, if you can and have the ability, is to go. Just go. They can use anyone.”
Mayer’s parents were worried when she told them she was going to Haiti, where desperate people are abundant and rioting, theft, and kidnapping are a real threat. She admits being initially nervous, too, about the potential dangers. The team was mobbed shortly after their arrival; however, there was no malicious intent and no one was hurt. The locals were simply excited about people coming to help and bringing supplies. After that experience, Mayer never felt in danger.
Searching for purpose
When Mayer saw the hurt and devastation of the Haitians, she was plagued with one thought: Why? Why must these things happen in the world?
“Every person you talk to has lost someone,” she says. “It’s not just a friend of a friend of a sister. It’s my brother, or my husband, or my mom.”
Despite her personal struggle with grief over the enormity of the tragedy, she strove to be joyful every day for the sake of those she was serving. “We were there to give these people hope and to help them to realize that rebuilding and reconstructing is a possibilityâ€¦and that people want to help.”
Mayer sat under a crude 4’x6′ structure with three walls and a palm branch roof, visiting with a woman who had lost everything. Her “home” was furnished with a stool and a cinder block. The woman insisted that Mayer sit on the stool and allow her to sit on the block, reflecting the Haitian cultural value of hospitality. “The people that I talked to were so grateful. They were fearful and scared, but they were grateful that they had this opportunity to live and to have a second chanceâ€¦They felt that it was by God’s grace that they were still alive.”
Working among those with so littleâ€”and have even that destroyedâ€”drastically changed Mayer’s perspective. As a senior, she has been preoccupied for months with landing a great job, dreaming of the exciting and lucrative opportunities that await her after graduation. Now that ambition has been replaced with a desire to have a job with a different meaningâ€”a job where she is helping others reach for hope.
Mayer was recently recognized with a Buck Weirus Spirit Award from the Association of Former Students. This award honors students “who demonstrate high involvement, create positive experiences throughout the Aggie community, impact student life at Texas A&M and enhance the Aggie spirit.”
Mayer is currently collecting supplies to distribute when she returns to Haiti in June. To donate items or money for her trip, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.