Haiti is home to the largest slum in the Western hemisphere, Cite Soliel. This poverty stricken country can be reached by a short 90 minute flight from Miami; however, while Americans lay out on the sandy beaches in Miami, beaches located on the same body of water are avoided by Haitians due to the excessive pollution. These are two separate worlds entirely, and yet they are separated by a mere 90 minutes. I wonder how is there a country in such proximity to the United States with unimaginable unemployment rates, an extremely low life expectancy, an unstable government, and undreamed of living conditions. Large amounts of the population of Haiti are without running water, something almost unheard of in most parts of the United States.
My interest in service and in others brought me to Haiti for Spring Break where I worked with a team of volunteers to assist with the delivery of fresh water, to give love and attention to children and to spread God’s word. On my second evening in Haiti on a visit to a tent city, I met a boy who had a great deal to teach me.
Passing through the gates of the tent city, I was hit by the stench of urine and crowdedness. I wanted to look away and yet I could not turn my eyes from the display of uneven rows of crowded homes made of tarps and sheets strung together over sticks. Timidly, I began walking, leaving the comfort of the gate, edging closer in a trance-like state. Weaving my way between rows of makeshift homes, I struggled to avoid the stream of unknown fluid cutting a path inches from my feet. Walking past the open tents, I was greeted with an astounding amount of joyfulness, never less than a smile. I continued to walk through the tents saying hello, and then I saw him.
A few tents from where I stood a boy sat in his wheelchair. His twisted legs dangled from the well-worn chair while he ate a tiny portion of rice. He shyly glanced up and our eyes met as an enormous smile spread across his face, and in that moment I became so dispirited. I dropped my gaze and turned my back as my face flushed and tears began to stream down my cheeks. What, I wondered, did this crippled, poverty-stricken boy have to smile about? His family’s home was half the size of my bedroom back home. Where I had lush carpet he had cracked earth, where I had air conditioning he had sweltering heat, and yet where he wore his smile I wore nothing. I could not remember the last time I smiled with such a full body smile as he had just given me. Slowly, I dried my tears and walked towards him. Once I reached him, I bent down to look him in the eye, and with an unsteady voice, I asked, “Ki jan ou rele? “ In the gentlest voice, as if sensing my uneasiness, he responded, “Ronaldo.” Though we could not communicate with words, I felt completely at ease just sitting by his side in the dirt, enjoying his company.
After nearly 15 minutes of communicating through simple gestures, and a brief introduction to his family, it was time for me to leave. As I got up, I turned to the boy and with increased confidence said, “Ke Bondye Beni’ou “(May God bless you). His smile, which had been so painful minutes before, now filled me up. I returned the smile from a deep place in my soul and reluctantly returned to my night’s lodgings.
Once more I passed through the gates of the tent city and ventured onto the uneven road. As I walked home my mind was a whirlpool of thoughts. Sleep did not come easily that night. I despaired about how incredibly materialistic our society had become, how incredibly materialistic I had become. Ronaldo, with his bright smile amid squalor, reminded me, in an intense way, that living fully has little to do with having the biggest house or the latest gadget. Initially, I was torn apart by the boy’s smile because of how guilty it had made me feel, but over our time together, I came to see that we could share a beautiful human connection. I was more open in all of my interactions with others after meeting Ronaldo. I realized that I had a gift for making others feel comfortable. Furthermore, upon returning people praise me for spending time in Haiti. This praise, which is something I would have gladly taken before my encounter with Ronaldo, embarrasses me as it is undeserved. I have learned that each of us should be expected to do what we can to enhance the lives of others and to learn about ourselves and one another. Haiti is a place that has had an incredible inspiration to me, it is a place I have come to love, and it is a place that has shaped who I am.