CARREFOUR, Haiti (BP)–Andre Dorlette scans the heap of shattered concrete and twisted rebar that once was his family’s home in Haiti.
The house, perched on a hillside near Port-au-Prince, represented the life savings of the 61-year-old cobbler and father of four — gone, he says, “in the blink of an eye” when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti Jan. 12.
But Dorlette isn’t focused on the rubble; his eyes are on the team of college students helping him clean up and start over.
Chunks of concrete fly as Billy Chanaberry, one of 11 guys from Middle Georgia College, pounds a sledgehammer into the remains of Dorlette’s roof, a six-inch-thick slab of reinforced concrete that flattened the single-story home when its supports crumbled.
Chanaberry and the others sacrificed their spring break to clear debris from damaged homes like Dorlette’s.
“If Jesus sacrificed His life for us, then we should sacrifice our lives,” says Chanaberry, a 22-year-old math major who, until now, had never been on a mission trip, left the country or flown on an airplane.
The work is brutal. To rebuild, Dorlette’s home must be demolished down to its foundation. There are no power tools; all the work is done using sledgehammers, mallets and pickaxes. And that’s only half the battle.
With each swing of a sledgehammer, the students chant, “Ahhh-OO! Ahhh-OO!” to cheer each other on.
After painstakingly crushing the concrete into football-sized pieces, the team must move the rubble, using only five-gallon buckets and a few wheelbarrows, more than 100 yards down a steep, narrow path to the street below. There, it’s loaded on a dump truck.
Haitian volunteers from First Baptist Church of Carrefour, where Dorlette serves as a deacon, work alongside the Georgia students under the blistering Haitian sun as temperatures reach more than 95 degrees.
It’s no small irony that the hillside where they’re working overlooks the blue waters of the Caribbean. The view represents what spring break might have been like, but Kevin Oni hardly gives it a thought.
“Ten million people can go to the beach, but how many can say they went to Haiti and worked? I feel like I’m not giving enough,” says 19-year-old Oni, a mechanical engineering major.
Joseph West understands what Dorlette is going through. His Cobb County, Ga., home was left uninhabitable after days of heavy rain flooded parts of Atlanta last fall.
“One afternoon I got a call from my sister who said that our house had been flooded and that my family had to be evacuated by a boat,” the 23-year-old criminal justice major said.
Sweat drips from West’s face, soaking his shirt as he passes buckets of broken concrete along the human conveyor belt to the bottom of the hill. But the students’ sweat is exactly what team leader Tracey Deavers is after.
“It’s a sweet smelling aroma to God’s nostrils,” says Deavers, the Baptist collegiate minister at the Middle Georgia College campus in Cochran. “These people don’t need a tract in their hand right now. They need to see the love of God.”
But Deavers adds that Haitians aren’t the only lives being impacted by the students’ labor.
“When we go out to be the hands and feet of Christ, we really begin to deepen our own personal relationship with Him,” Deavers says. “I hope these students get a bigger worldview, that they understand that there’s a world out there that’s so much larger than Cochran or Atlanta or wherever they’re from, and they realize that they can actually make a difference…. I hope these guys will leave [Haiti] and forever be lifelong missionaries.”
Covered with sunscreen, sweat and dust, the students head “home” to First Baptist Church of Carrefour, which is hosting the team. After a grueling day’s work, there’s no hot shower or soft bed.
They bathe using a bucket of cold water. They sleep in tents on the church’s concrete roof. But no one complains. After seeing the poverty and disaster around them, they’re grateful for a simple Haitian meal of rice and beans and a little time to unwind.
Some find the energy to play soccer with the neighborhood kids in the alley next to the church. Even on the job site, many of them use their breaks to play with the children who watch. Matthew Middleton, a 23-year-old airport management and logistics double major, admits the language barrier is frustrating, but everyone “understands a smile.”
“I’ve never experienced poverty of the magnitude that I’ve seen here, and you don’t really escape it. It’s everywhere. You’re totally immersed in it,” Middleton says. “… [A]s bad as things may be, they still laugh, they still smile, they still have hope — they still live. It’s inspiring and it’s something that I hope I take back with me to the States.”
On their last day together, the Georgia students and Haitian volunteers huddle in a giant circle where Dorlette’s home once stood. Dorlette stands in the center with tears in his eyes as the teams pray for him and his family.
It took them four days to accomplish what a bulldozer and front-end loader could have done in four hours. Working together with the Haitians, the students moved a whopping 35 tons of reinforced concrete — by hand.
“I feel like I am alive again,” Dorlette says. “As the Apostle Paul said in the Bible, whether Jew or Greek, we are all one in Christ…. God sent my brothers from America to come to help in Haiti.
“God is a great God. Even though the wealth that I had is gone, I have life. And hope again…. When you serve God, everything is possible.”
First Baptist’s associate pastor thanks the team for their hard work by taking them to the beach.
The students pass their final hours in Haiti playing in the cool, blue water of the Caribbean.
“The things that we’ve seen and experienced here, none of us will ever forget,” Deavers says. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been as proud of a group of guys.”
Don Graham is a writer for the International Mission Board.