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Education major spends interterm serving and learning in Haiti

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The chance to travel, meet new people and experience a different culture, while offering a needed service, was an interterm opportunity Bethel College student Chris Smith couldn’t pass up.

Smith, of Hesston, is a junior majoring in elementary education. He spent two weeks in Haiti, Jan. 9-24 (during Bethel’s January interterm), installing reading software at four schools in Hinche, Haiti.

The software was a donation from Lexia, which specializes in teaching reading, by way of Don Fast of Newton, who does educational consulting through his business, HUDDLE Learning Inc. (HUDDLE stands for Helping Undo Digital Divide Learning).

Fast and Cliff Dick, North Newton, president of HOPE International Development Agency-USA and director of operations overall for the Canada-based charity, came up with a plan for a pilot project with the software, working with Wildy Mulatre, a health-care administrator in Hinche.

All three are Bethel graduates, so they turned to the college’s education faculty for suggestions of a student who might be able to take the time to go to Haiti, install the software and show the teachers how to use it.

“I was in Lisa Janzen Scott’s Media/Computers for Educators class [last fall], and she thought I’d be good for this,” says Smith. “Doug Siemens is my advisor, and he asked me, and I couldn’t turn it down.

“I had to check with my job – I’m a ward clerk at McPherson Hospital – to see if I could get the time off. They said ‘Absolutely’ – they were more than supportive.”

As a teenager, Smith lived for several years in Minsk, Belarus, where his parents were Christian missionaries. The closest he had been to Haiti, however, was a Caribbean cruise. He had never visited a country so “Third World,” he says, with conditions of severe and widespread poverty and human need.

Smith spent most of the two weeks in Hinche, in Haiti's central highlands several hours from the capital, Port-au-Prince. He stayed with Wildy, his wife Jesula and their four children, ranging in age from a little over a year to the oldest, who turned 13 while Smith was there.

Wildy met Smith at the airport in Port-au-Prince wearing his Bethel College hat, “a welcome sight,” Smith says. “And I brought him one of the new Bethel hats.

“They were great hosts,” he continues. “They gave me my own room, which I didn’t expect. They kept buying me Coke, because I had said I liked it.”

Smith was also introduced to Haitian coffee, which is served very strong and sweet, and says he would drink “nearly the whole pot” every morning.

Haitian students are required to study English beginning in grade 7, with the focus on reading. Smith worked with the English teachers at the four schools to show them how to use the Lexia reading software and get some of their students started with it.

Although he spent much of his time on the project, Smith also had some other experiences. Jesula’s church was having a revival while he was there, with services outdoors each evening. “I was amused by the ushers,” he says. “They had long sticks they used to keep people awake during the preaching.”

Wildy took him to see a waterfall near Hinche, a favorite recreation spot. And he did get to see some of the Port-au-Prince sights, though the city still bears massive evidence of the earthquake that did widespread damage two years ago.

“I wanted to see the Neg Mawon,” says Smith, speaking of the famous statue of a slave with a machete and a broken chain, blowing a conch shell, a symbol of the struggle that resulted in St. Domingue becoming Haiti, the first free black republic in the Western Hemisphere, in 1804.

“We were driving to it, and Wildy said, ‘Uh, oh, you won’t be able to get a picture,’ because it was surrounded by a tent city. The tent city is people who are still displaced by the earthquake.”

Smith took a photo – all that can be seen of the statue is the raised conch shell above the tarps and shack roofs.

The Neg Mawon stands in downtown Port-au-Prince directly across from the National Palace, which partially collapsed and has remained virtually untouched, fenced off and deserted, since the earthquake.

“The streets are narrow anyway,” Smith says, “but now they’re even narrower because of the rubble. They’re still bringing it out in wheelbarrows.”

Smith was in Haiti on the second anniversary, Jan. 12. Jesula and the three older children were living in Port-au-Prince at the time, he says (Wildy would work in Hinche during the week and come to the capital on weekends). They now live in Hinche full-time.

“People don’t talk much about the earthquake,” Smith says. “It’s like an open wound.”

Overall, Smith’s interterm experience was both eye-opening and enjoyable. Although he speaks no French or Haitian Kréyol and not many people he met, besides the Mulatres and the school English teachers, spoke English, he still felt nothing but kindness and friendly interest from people he met, he says.

“It was a great experience, and I’m glad I had the opportunity,” he says. “I realized that we have American privilege – a step up, a step ahead that many people in the world don’t have.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2011-12 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2011-12. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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