LEWISTON — For two days after he returned from Haiti, Peter Geiger had trouble talking about his experience.
It was too emotional. Too intense. Simply too difficult to put into words.
“It was overwhelming,” he said.
Geiger had spent days as part of a rubble brigade, passing one bucket of debris after another down a line of volunteers working in 100-degree heat to clear a collapsed building that once housed a church and school. He had walked through the streets of a neighborhood built on trash, its water tainted brown. He had handed out soccer balls to children whose last play area was a sewer.
“Until you’re physically down there and you see it, smell it, hear it, it’s hard to describe,” Geiger said. “I knew it would be an emotional experience, but I didn’t realize, particularly until I came back, how emotionally I was affected by it. I’ve always been passionate about helping people, but this is a whole other level of need.”
Geiger was one of 20 volunteers who went to Haiti this spring as part of a mission trip by the South Lewiston Baptist Church. The church had adopted a sister church in Haiti five years ago and volunteers made annual trips to the impoverished country to work on the church building and add two stories for a 500-student school.
In January, a massive earthquake destroyed parts of Haiti, including the building South Lewiston Baptist had been working on for five years. Volunteers had hoped to begin rebuilding the church and school during this latest 12-day trip.
Instead, they spent most of their time clearing the site of rubble and giving away what little money and supplies they had. And, sometimes, praying.
“There was just garbage all over the sides of the roads and so on,” Lewiston Mayor Larry Gilbert said. “There was dust because most of the roads weren’t paved; only a couple of the roads were paved. There was a lot of dust, a lot of vehicles that were overloaded. They’re old and they throw off a lot of exhaust, so you have the fumes from that. And the dust. And you had the odor. But the people were wonderful. They’re just lovable. They’d wave to us with big smiles. You wonder how they can smile.”
Of the 20 volunteers, nine had never been to Haiti, including Geiger and Gilbert. This was also a first trip for David Chick, a Lewiston police sergeant. His teenage daughter had gone on a mission trip a couple of years ago, he gave money to help Haiti and he’s sponsored a girl there for more than two years, but he wanted to do something hands-on to help. He raided his savings to pay the $1,200 required of all South Lewiston Baptist mission trip volunteers for airfare, food, translators and other necessities.
He knew about Haiti. He was ready for it.
Still, Chick said, “You’re never really ready for it.”
He was astonished by the corruption that plagued the country, including the police force, making it harder to get food, money and supplies to the people who need them. He was shocked by the trash that covered the ground and the smog that filled the air. He was taken aback by Haiti’s sheer poverty.
While there, he met the 12-year-old girl that he had been sponsoring. He learned the girl’s family had lost their house in the earthquake and couldn’t rebuild. The family’s four girls had been sent two hours away to live while their parents stayed in a small, rented space under the stairs of someone’s porch.
Paralyzed on one side from a stroke suffered a couple of years ago, the father is unable to work. The mother was once a dressmaker, but the family no longer has money for fabric. They live off the little she earns mending other people’s clothes.
“We say in the Lord’s Prayer ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ — ‘Take care of us day by day.’ They literally mean that. And they literally live that,” said Chick, who emptied both his wallet and his suitcase and gave everything to the family. He also plans to send a suitcase full of fabric to the mother of his sponsored child in the hope that she can earn money by making clothes again.
Eleven of the volunteers had been to Haiti before and knew what they would encounter there. For Andrew Letourneau, a church elder at South Lewiston Baptist, this was Haiti trip No. 7 and his second since the earthquake. Still, he was dismayed by how little progress had been made. Homes remained in rubble. People still slept in the streets, partly because they felt safer and partly because they had nowhere else to go.
“Nothing has changed,” he said. “All that money that has gone there, and it doesn’t seem like it’s being used anywhere.”
But as distressing as the economic situation was, volunteers said the Haitians they met still had faith, were still resilient.
“If I had one word to describe them, I would say ‘hopeful,'” Geiger said.
The South Lewiston Baptist volunteers cleared the rubble and, on their last day, started pouring the building’s concrete base. Letourneau is raising money so he can return with another group of volunteers in September. In the meantime, the church is paying Haitian workers to continue construction.
Geiger, Gilbert and Chick all want to return.
“While I was there, I didn’t think I’d ever go back,” Gilbert said. “But once you’re back (home), you say, ‘I’ve got to go back.’ I think it’s the fact they were left behind. Left behind to cope.”
David Chick’s 12-year-old sponsored child gives the sign for “I love you.” It is a sign Chick taught many of the Haitian children while he was there.
South Lewiston Baptist Church volunteers work in Haiti on the building that had housed a church and Baptiste English, a school that had 500 students before January’s devastating earthquake.
South Lewiston Baptist Church volunteer David Chick holds an 8-month-old Haitian girl. Beside him is church elder Andrew Letourneau.
Cite Soleil is full of dilapidated houses and trash.