I never anticipated that a mission trip to Haiti in March of 2011 would be the catalyst of God using my passions, education, and faith to lead to develop The Sustainable Hope Project. Now here I am, almost two years later, finding myself responsible for raising over $25,000 for recycling center that will hopefully be placed at Mission of Hope, serving their ministry as well as the community of Titanyen. If you’re currently thinking, “Haiti needs a lot of things before it needs a recycling center,” just keep reading. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, with 80 percent of the population living below the poverty line, and 40 percent unemployed. Governmental corruption, overpopulation, natural disasters, and land degradation have all contributed to the country’s current state. Honestly, my heart was not broken for these people until I witnessed their disparity first hand. God used my trip to Haiti to open my eyes to the daily suffering these people endured. God used that trip to show me that with His help, that I could make those people’s lives a little bit better.
Here at SMU I am involved with ONE28, a non-denominational Christian ministry. As a freshman, I received the opportunity to go on a discipleship trip to Mission of Hope in Titanyen, Haiti for Spring Break. After being accepted onto the team of 30 college students, there were several concerns that arose before our departure. The trip would take place only one year after the earth quake. Four months before we were scheduled to go, violence and rioting escalated in Port au Prince, putting a halt to all air transportation in and out of Haiti for an entire week. Cholera had spread throughout the county, taking thousands of lives due to the poor sanitation. The international news focused on the political turmoil caused by the Presidential elections that would be taking place the exact week we planned to be in Haiti. So let’s just say my parents were not thrilled that their eldest daughter wanted to spend her spring break in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Despite my family’s fears and frightening pictures the international news painted, the ONE28 staff kept us informed and continually encouraged the team. I knew going to Haiti was a leap of faith, but I wanted to go and see what God had in store.
Spending Spring Break in Haiti turned out to be the best week of my life. Every morning we awoke to the roosters at Mission of Hope crowing outside our cabin door. Our days were packed with serving the Titanyen community, hosting Vacation Bible School in the villages, and sharing the gospel. I had never experienced Christ-centered community like I did that week. Every single student on the disciplship team was focused on serving one another, Mission of Hope, and the Haitian people. The Lord opened up my eyes to the joy and faith experienced by people who relied on Him for lieterally every life sustaining provision. This was also the first time in my life that I witnessed extreme poverty, and people’s struggle to meet their basic needs of food, clean water, and health care.
After arriving in Port au Prince, we chaotically located our luggage and boarded an old yellow school bus that would take us out of the city to Mission of Hope. Eagerly watching out the bus window as we drove out of the city was the first time I witnessed extreme poverty. To say that the experience was surreal would not even capture it. Thousands of blue plastic tents lined fields and hillsides. Families had lived in these emergency relief shelters since the earthquake had happened over a year before. And then there was the trash… trash was EVERYWHERE. Ravines larger than football stadiums overflowed with garbage, plastic waste filled canals and cluttered the perimeters of communities. As the bus continued navigating the rough dirt road, I wondered how I had been so oblivious to this world of extreme poverty.
On an afternoon later in the week, the ONE28 team was asked to walk around Mission of Hope’s campus, picking up whatevertrash we found. We collected mostly plastic bottles and wrappers, stuffing them into large garbage bags as we walked. By the end of the afternoon we had made our way to the front of Mission of Hope’s property, next to their school. A few Haitian Mission of Hope workers collected our garbage bags from us, but then did something that absolutely shocked me. The maintenance workers tore open the tens of bags we had just collected, dumping all of the garbage into large heaps on the ground, and lit them on fire. Only hundreds of feet away from the classrooms and schoolyard occupied by hundreds of children, giant piles of garbage were being burned. Health hazards and environmental facts began racing through my mind. What in the world were they doing?! Didn’t they know that they were releasing cancerous particulates into the air, which would not only be inhaled by the school children, but travel for miles, contaminating local livestock and even the ground? I knew the men were simply doing their job, but this method of waste management could be significantly improved to protect the health of Mission of Hope.
As we walked up the winding gravel road towards the dining porch, I continued analyzine how Mission of Hope could treat their waste differently. I wondered if there were any recycling centers in Haiti. If only Mission of Hope and the surrounding community of Titanyen had a recycling center, not only would they have a healthy means of disposing of their trash, but they could even get paid for it! Being a petroleum-based product, plastic had monetary value and could easily be recycled into new products. I fantasized about how a recycling industry in Haiti could improve their health, create jobs, stimulate the economy, and clean their communities. If only there was an American organization that would come invest in recycling centers… If only I was an environmental engineer, or a wealthy business owner, maybe then I would be able to help.
It was not until 7 months later that I investigated the idea of recycling in Haiti. As I sat in class my Environmental Public Policy professor explained to the class that we would have to research and write our own environmental public policy, Haiti immediately came to my mind. I laughed to myself, knowing that this was the Lord’s way of spurring me on to investigate the waste management issues I witnessed so many months before. Completing that research assignment showed me how much bigger the waste management problem was in Haiti than I realized. Because there is no government-run trash collection service, Haitians are left with three options: live in their trash, burn their trash, or dump their trash into canals, rivers, and the ocean. Unfortunately, none of these are safe, healthy, or environmentally-beneficial options. The accumulation of plastic waste in canals and rivers has led to stagnant bodies of water that provide ideal breeding grounds for waterborne illnesses. The gridlocks of plastic also cause flooding to occur more quickly when storms hit the island, spreading the disease-infested waters, and further degrading their dirt roadways.
Through this research process I also made the amazing discovery that there were non profit organizations with recycling programs in Haiti! The best established and most successful recycling program I came across was Ramase Lajan. Ramase Lajan, which means “picking up money” in French Creole, partners with a larger recycling center in Port au Prince, and at the time had over 10 recycling centers already in place. Each Ramase Lajan Center provided over 100 jobs that allow individuals to make enough to be considered a middle class income Haitian Haitian standards. I could not believe it! This is exactly what Titanyen needed! Only one problem… a center costed over $25,000 to install. Once again I thought to myself: If only I were a wealthy business woman…
My initial excitement and passion slowly faded, dampened by the high cost of building a center as well as the unenthusiastic responses I received from peers I shared my ideas with. What reignited my hope for bringing a recycling center to Mission of Hope was an email I received early in the Spring 2012 semester. There was a new leadershhip opportunity on campus awarding selected students with grants for their research and service projects. The James E. Caswell Leadership Fellows Program was an endowment fund created in memory of Dr. Caswell, a beloved SMU administrator and professor whose life was dedicated to loving the Lord, mentoring students, and making a positive impact on the world. As I read the short biography on Dr. Caswell, I wished that I could have met him, I wished that he was still at SMU to encourage me and point me in the right direction. While I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I knew I had to at least apply for the Caswell Fellowship and see if the Lord provided a way for me to help his suffering people in Titanyen, Haiti.
After months of emailing and meeting with professors, racking their brains for any ideas or advice they had to offer, I finally had a rough idea of the project I would propose to the Caswell Leadership Program. I knew I wanted to help place a recycling center at Mission of Hope, but I still lacked a solid plan to raise the money needed to start a Ramase Lajan center. My project proposal was far from perfect, but I prayed that if it was the Lord’s will for me to coordinate this project, that He would continue to provide me with mentors & opportunities to make the project happen. God made His answer clear in May, when I was chosen to be one of the two Caswell Leadership Fellows! I could not believe that the Lord was choosing me of all people to complete this project.
While I have felt insufficient throughout every step of this process, the Lord continues to provide me with opportunities for growth and remind me that it is His strength and provision that are glorified in my weaknesses. The Lord has also blessed me with wise mentors to guide me through this process. I may not be an environmental engineer, a business professional, or a lawyer, but God can still accomplish His plans through me. God does not call the equipped, He equips the called. While people tend to praise my initiative and work for this project, I must quickly clarify that this was not my plan! I have simply pursued opportunities the Lord has laid before me with the resources, education, and network of people He has blessed me with.
If you have any questions, ideas, or words of encouragement, I would love to hear from you! Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.