My first trip to Haiti was a pretty clear sign of God working in my life. I knew I couldn’t go home and just forget what I’d seen.
By Rebecca Costa Smith ’08
A random act brought me to travel to Haiti in 2007. While visiting a new church one Sunday in Valencia, Calif., I responded to an announcement: everyone who was going to Haiti needed to pay in full by 10 a.m. It was 9:45, and I wasn’t sure where Haiti was or what the conditions were like there. I really knew nothing. But for some reason I had this feeling and felt this calling that I was supposed to go on this trip. So I wrote the check.
The beginning of the trip was really hard, and I wanted to go home… until our visit to the Mother Teresa Orphanage. Not just any orphanage but an orphanage overflowing with very sick infants.
That brief visit changed my heart and my life.
It was the silence that got to me. There were 90 kids 2 years old and younger all under one roof, but hardly any sound. The kids were weak and undernourished. Some were HIV positive. Some had been abandoned and left to die by parents who had no hope for them.
I was overcome with sadness for what I saw, and at that point, I knew I could not go home and just forget about it.
My life did not change right away. I went home, finished my last semester at CLU, and then took a job as a personal assistant with a wealthy family. That job showed me what I didn’t want in life.
After I quit the job, my best friend, Lindsey Connolly, and I got together to plan our next move. Even though she had never been to Haiti, she’d read a lot about it and wanted to help me to start a school there. Alarmingly high numbers of children in Haiti are not enrolled in school.
Lindsey and I, who’d grown up together in Santa Barbara, had college degrees but no experience whatsoever in business or teaching. To raise funds for our new nonprofit, we held rummage sales at home. When we saw how much stuff we could gather and sell, we decided to have rummage sales every day by opening a thrift store. The idea was to save money to start a school in the city of Mirebalais, about 40 miles northeast of Port-au-Prince.
The Ecole Destined for Grace opened its doors in October 2011, three years after we opened our first thrift shop. The school provides instruction and a hot meal every day for 150 boys and girls from kindergarten through fourth grade. Each child is sponsored by a U.S. family, and money from the stores makes up the difference in the cost of their education.
My husband, Tyron Smith, Lindsey and I all work full time for the nonprofit. We’ve developed a strong community within our little school, which has a staff of 15 Haitian educators, cooks and groundskeepers. The kids – who come running for our van when we return every four months – are genuinely grateful, and that helps us keep doing what we’re doing.
On the first few trips, it was still hard for Lindsey and me to get images of Haiti’s burdens and afflictions out of our heads. But since then, we’ve both gradually understood that we do not feel sorry for the people there. They really have so much more than we have: not things, but family and support systems. You walk by these little huts in the mud and see a family of eight all hanging out together. They’re not looking at Facebook on their phones or otherwise failing to communicate.
In spite of the language barrier and our different backgrounds, the Haitian staff, students and families have become a great support system for us. We work together, trust one another and have fruitful relationships.
I think that my first trip to Haiti was a pretty clear sign of God working in my life. Going to a Third World country was not something I would have typically done. It did not fit into my lifestyle then, but has now become my life. In the end it made me realize there was a lot more to life than meeting my own needs and doing things for myself.
Rebecca Costa Smith and her partners at Destined for Grace take 15-20 volunteers to the school in Mirebalais, Haiti, three times a year. The next trip is in March. For more about the school and Santa Barbara–area thrift stores, visit www.destinedforgrace.org.
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