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Home and at a Loss: The Experience of a Mission Abroad

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Our team of Worldwide Orphans Foundation staff and supporters has just dispersed after three intense and emotional days in Haiti. For those of you who travel to far off places to do service, this essay will be familiar for you, but for those who dream of service or who just enjoy reading about it, this will be the inside look at the the emotional experience of heading home after such journeys, where deep connections between people have been created.

One of the greatest pleasures in coming home after a long, intense trip is hot shower. But once the laundry is sorted and the groceries are bought, these privileges -- running water, easily procured food -- can make us feel guilty, throwing our experiences in places like Haiti into sharp relief against our everyday realities back home. Suddenly it all seems so hopeless.

But after years of service trips, I can tell you this: I never feel hopeless, because I've seen what can be accomplished. I feel the urgency to do more because I never forget the connection I feel with the children. I want return again; to hug their little bodies close to me, to watch WWO's Haitian youth employees learn and grow. Visits to our field sites make me proud of the way WWO's programs are empowering children and their caregivers all over the world.

I am still here with my sons in Haiti, in the coastal city of Jacmel, for a short family getaway. We arrived late on Friday afternoon after a three-and-a-half-hour harrowing ride out of Port-au-Prince. The poverty and degradation that we saw along the way was bare, raw and striking, even to me, as we wound in and out of the traffic on the road out of town.

Seeing the earthquake devastation even after two and a half years was still hard for me to fathom and accept. The heat of the day made it hard for me to comfortably observe the markets and commerce in the streets. People were wet with sweat and hiding under pieces of canvas and plastic to fight the blazing sun and manage their obvious discomfort. The best way to pass long uncomfortable drives like this is to fall asleep, but I persisted in watching life go by rather than closing my eyes to it all.

We caught a view of the ocean at different points and then we sat in a line-up of vehicles, waiting for workers to clear a landslide of dirt off the road so we could pass. When the beach of Jacmel came into view with the gorgeous Caribbean blue sea beyond, I was enchanted -- until I rode through the city and was reminded again of how life doesn't change from town to town in Haiti. People are poor and life is very hard. There is no getting away from it, I guess.

I talked to my sons about that and made it clear to them that this extreme poverty and lack of dignity would never thwart my conviction to serve the children of Haiti. I am committed until my last breath to make a change for them while they are young and there is still time for the development of their potential. Some people feel that NGO's should back out of Haiti; cut their losses. I say that children should never to be part of that conversation. Children are always about potential and hope. They are not to be considered in any equation about "returns on investment." That's why we keep making this trip.

To people who travel abroad to help others, I say this: Instead of feeling guilty about your comfortable life back home, enjoy it. Savor it. Be grateful. Understand how truly privileged you are. But then, make a commitment to tell others what you've seen. Show your photos and films. Tell your stories and fill them with laughter and joy. Don't expect anyone to really understand what you went through, however. They might just find it too painful and ugly. Be all right with that. Be kind to anyone who rejects your ability to make a difference. Trust that what you saw was real and that you can change the world, even in Haiti.

Dr. Jane Aronson
Founder and CEO, Worldwide Orphans Foundation