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Reaching out to people of Haiti,
students find own lives enriched
(March 22, 1999)

hen a group of UConn students traveled to Haiti during winter break, they were prepared to lend a helping hand. What they could not prepare for, however, was the profound impact their experience would have on them.

Six of the nine students, who spent nine days in the developing country, recounted their trip and showed slides of their experiences March 8 to an audience of members of St. Thomas Aquinas Church and members of the community, including a number of Haitian Americans.

Led by the Rev. Richard Gross, the group stayed in Port-au-Prince, and visited hospitals, orphanages, and nutrition centers.

Samit Chhabra said he was first struck by the "obvious differences" between Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the Americas, and the United States: dirt roads, animals by the side of the road, street vendors, and the layout of Port-au-Prince, with rich and poor living side by side.

But the most moving experience for him was his encounter with a two-year-old child in a children's hospital. "She was sitting on the ground crying," said Chhabra. "I tried to make her smile but she stared in my eyes. It seemed she was saying to me, I got this draw and she got the draw she has - an orphan with a medical problem. I felt we were exactly the same, we just got dealt different hands. It makes you think. You realize a lot about yourself and about the world."

Ann Mastroianni recalled seeing a little girl weighing just two or three pounds, hooked up to feeding tubes in the hospital. "That's something you just never forget," she said. "I look at a lot of situations differently now."

At an orphanage for boys, the group made benches and desks for the school house; they also helped out with some painting at an orphanage for girls.

Megan Shortall said she remembered "the joy that you find in some of the children's faces" at the girls' orphanage. "They value what they have," she said. "It made me much more thankful for the things I have and made me somehow want to give to other people."

Several of the students noted that many Haitians do not have electricity or running water, and said their visit helped them to appreciate their own standard of living in the United States. Yet they were also concerned about the negative impressions many Americans have of Haiti. "People tend to mention a lot of negative things, the poverty, the social problems," said Chhabra, "but there is a lot of hope in Haiti."

Before their trip, the group, who were selected after responding to an ad in the Daily Campus, also learned about the history, economy and politics of Haiti, which was the first former slave colony to gain independence but which has been subjected to a series of political dictators this century. "That sheds some light on why Haiti is in the situation it is today," said Randy Mueller.

"I felt we were exactly the same, we just got dealt different hands."

Samit Chhabra
UConn Student

During their stay, he said, the students stopped at a waterfront from which large numbers of Haitians have tried to leave by boat. "We wanted to pay tribute to the many, many Haitians who've lost their lives trying to leave to live a better life."

The group also met with former President Aristide, Haiti's first popularly elected president. "He's like the voice of the people. It was probably one of the most exciting moments of my life," said Mueller, adding that "This is going to stay with us for the rest of our life."

The slide presentation was followed by a talk Marie-Thérèse Guilloteau, consul general of Haiti, who gave a review of the country's recent history and struggle for democracy. She encouraged others to learn more about Haiti and to visit the country.

Gross plans to organize a similar trip during next winter break. "We're thankful we were able to touch some Haitian people's lives," he said, "but much more so, we were touched by them."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu