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Students, faculty spread Laker Effect in Haiti through service projects

  • GVSU student Skyler Wickert working with students in Haiti during an art workshop.
  • Students distributed 150 water filter systems to local residents in Haiti.
  • GVSU student Kayleigh Thomas teaching students during a fine motor skills workshop in Haiti.
  • GVSU student Tyler Martin helping students build and launch water rockets in Haiti.
  • GVSU student Megan DeKeyser teaching students about the human body at a school near Pignon, Haiti.
  • The 2018 Haiti study abroad group at a fort overlooking the Artibonite River near Petite Rivière de l'Artibonite, Haiti.
  • The 2018 Haiti study abroad group explored the ruins of the San-Souci Palace.

Posted on July 18, 2018

pye bwa ki wo di wè lwen, gren pwomennen di li wè pase l'

This Haitian proverb, which roughly translates to “The tall tree sees far, but the wandering seed sees more,” served as the theme for a recent service-learning study abroad trip taken by a group of Lakers to Haiti this summer. 

Peter Wampler, professor of geology and Faculty in Residence in the Frederik Meijer Honors College, and Kelly McDonell, honors academic and enrichment advisor, led the four-week expedition for 11 students from varying academic programs.

Wampler has been taking students to Haiti since 2008 to conduct research and lead service projects in the local communities.

“I had the good fortune of traveling a lot as a kid and through high school, and it changed how I saw the world,” said Wampler. “I think that alone is worth the trip for the students; to make their world bigger.”

Wampler explained that the “wandering seed” proverb captures the essence of why he originally began these trips to Haiti — to help change the negative narratives that are commonly connected to the health, environmental issues and security of Haiti.

“My hope is that the students will be able to see the Haitian people, not a Haitian project,” said Wampler. “I think in most people’s minds, Haiti is a project that you’ve got to fix, and there are certainly things wrong there that could be better, but there’s a lot of good things there, like strong people with amazing ethics about how they treat their family and even how they take care of their environment.”

This particular trip to Haiti was designed as what Wampler calls the “Haiti sandwich,” with service projects taking place in-between cultural immersion and tourism.

The top of the sandwich was the first week spent in Port-au-Prince and the surrounding area. During that week, the students learned about the history and culture of Haiti while staying in what most would consider comfortable lodging with air conditioning and unlimited hot water.

For the following two weeks, the group members moved to a more rural area where they worked with staff at a local hospital and library and stayed in lodging that Wampler said provided a more authentic Haitian experience.

“We were in a house where they had water for only three hours a day and they had to bucket flush the toilets. Plus, there was no air conditioning,” Wampler explained. “The middle of the sandwich is intentionally made more difficult for the students to get them out of their comfort zones and into the shoes of a Haitian.”

The primary service project the group worked on together was distributing 150 water filter systems to local residents, which the group had to raise money for prior to the trip. Each filter has the potential to provide a family of up to five people with clean water for 20-30 years if they are properly cared for. Educating recipients on maintenance was also a part of the project.

In addition to the group water filter project, many of the students led their own service projects while in Haiti.

Lukila Witthoeft, a sophomore majoring in behavioral neuroscience, taught an art lesson to about 180 children inspired by Haitian metal artwork. For the lesson, the children wrapped aluminum foil around a piece of cardboard and were asked to sketch whatever their creativity inspired using a small wooden stick. Witthoeft said this proved more challenging than expected for the children.

“The kids taught me a lot because they struggled with creativity and looked to me for explanations on what to design,” explained Witthoeft, from Charlevoix, Michigan. “The kids have little opportunity to express their creativity due to limited class time and funding for art materials, however, some kids took the idea and ran with it by creating flowers, planes and trucks. Each kid was proud of what they made and I learned to take pride in what I achieve as well.”

Kayleigh Thomas, a junior majoring in exercise science, said she also had to help students overcome creativity challenges during the fine motor skills activities she organized for groups of students ages 4-6 at two different sites.

“I think that far too often we, as people living in the U.S., take simple things such as colored pencils and paper for granted when the children we interacted with shared one pencil between groups while practicing their writing,” said Thomas, from Rochester Hills, Michigan. “Running that workshop was a very humbling and fulfilling experience.”

Kelly Schultz, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, and Tyler Martin, a product design and manufacturing engineering major, led a bottle rocket workshop during which they provided about 100 local children with water bottles covered in paper they could decorate and then launch into the sky.

“I hope that this experience inspired the children to think about how they could apply what they are learning in school to everyday life,” said Schultz, from Troy, Michigan. “It would be incredible if this activity planted the seeds of curiosity in some of the children and encouraged them to pursue a STEM field.”

Other service projects included a human body and health lesson taught to more than 100 third and fourth graders at a school in Pignon and a water resources project that tested water samples for bacteria at a local hospital.

Skyler Wickert, a sophomore majoring in behavioral neuroscience and nonprofit administration, said the trip to Haiti helped her recognize that she wants to become a human rights lawyer.

While working with a nonprofit in Haiti, the students discovered an inconsistency on the organization’s website which listed an inaccurate number of meals it provides to local children each week.

“For some reason, I couldn’t get that out of my head for days. One night, while I was talking with another girl on the trip, a lightbulb went off — I want to defend Haitians, or anyone else for that matter, who aren’t receiving basic human rights,” explained Wickert, from Gaylord, Michigan. “This study abroad trip made me realize my genuinely deep passion for people, and I want to live my life serving others, ensuring they have an opportunity for a great life.”

During the tourism and cultural immersion portions of the trip, the general group consensus was that a favorite excursion was visiting Citadelle Laferrière, a fortress located on the top of the mountain Bonnet a L’Eveque in Milot. The massive stone structure was built from 1805-1820 in the aftermath of the slave revolution of Haiti and declaration of its independence from France. It is the largest fortress in the Americas.

“It was a beautiful and amazing part of Haitian history that really represents the spirit and power of Haiti during their fight for independence,” said Megan DeKeyser, an allied health sciences major.

Another favorite adventure was to Basin Bleu, a waterfall that spills into a pool of crystal clear blue water that is tucked away on the outskirts of a small town near Jacmel.

Reflecting back on the trip, the students now share Wampler’s passion for changing the narrative around Haiti.

“Haiti taught me that there is so much more to people, places and situations than meets the eye,” said Thomas. “Even though Haiti is seen as such a struggling nation, her people have a pride and dedication toward working to better the country for future generations, which was inspiring to witness.”

The trip taught Witthoeft the importance of building communities through love.

“Everyone looks out for one another and communities are self-regulated,” said Witthoeft. “No one is left alone. The Haitians love each other and I know the rest of the world could use this kind of love.”

More so than the epiphany Wickert experienced on the trip about her career path, she said her biggest takeaway is a deeper appreciation for the education she’s receiving at Grand Valley.

“I can’t even explain the number of times we talked with highly intelligent Haitians who would have loved to continue their education, but were not able to due to a lack of funds,” she said. “I’ve been provided a newfound love for attending classes and learning about anything and everything. As cliché as it sounds, this trip was life changing.”

For more information about studying abroad, visit gvsu.edu/studyabroad.