Your Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat are flooded with pictures of you and your family. There’s that moment when you conquered a stand-up paddle board, your triumphant grin just a little brighter than the sunlight reflected off the crystal clear ocean waves. The expression of exhilaration as you explored a mountain bike trail that wound up the side of a real mountain, a foreign concept when your only previous point of reference was Mount Trashmore. Pictures that capture a trip full of laughter, adventure, hanging with your family and late-night conversations about life. Pictures from your recent trip to . . .Haiti?
Yes, if Mark Stuart, co-founder of the Hands & Feet Project and former lead singer for the Christian band Audio Adrenaline, has his way. “You tell someone you are headed to Haiti next week and their response is ‘Bless your heart.’ They assume it’s a mission trip. Tell them you’re headed to the DR (Dominican Republic) and they know it’s a vacation, but the two countries share an island.”
Mark describes the goals of Ikondo, a mission guest village in Grand Goave, Haiti, “We want youth groups and families to come and see Haiti’s beauty. We want your Instagram to blow up not with pictures of the bad conditions but a celebration of Haiti. Haiti desperately wants to reignite tourism here.”
Mark is no stranger to the reality of life in Haiti. His parents have served as missionaries on and off here since 1986. Since 2004, the Hands & Feet Project has operated children’s villages for Haiti’s children in crisis. “For thirteen years, we’ve operated Children’s Villages and we’ve watched as the orphan crisis just kept growing. Now we are adding a new initiative to fight for family preservation. We’re swimming upstream. Parents need jobs so they don’t feel forced to give up their children. We looked at the low hanging fruit to help produce jobs…and it’s tourism.”
“We’ll continue to do child care and orphan care for kids in crisis – respite care until reunification. If reunification isn’t possible, then we focus on healthy attachments with our house parents. We’re establishing a new standard of how to engage; we’re moving the needle towards family preservation.” Mark goes on to explain how the ministry provides three hundred jobs for Haitians that allow them to retain their dignity and provide for their children. “You don’t have to paint a wall or lay block to contribute to rebuilding Haiti.”
If you’re struggling to reconcile your mental images of Haiti with the resort-like setting of Ikondo, Mark gets that. “We could fly people up (to Ikondo) or put them on a boat, but we want people to experience the reality of Haiti. Haiti is broken. The infrastructure is broken, and we don’t want to hide people from that. We drive through the Port au Prince and the reaction is often ‘This place has no hope. We need to move everyone out of here.’ Then we arrive at Ikondo and people begin to feel hopeful, but they’re still dealing with the desire to fix things…to be heroic. The deeper tension comes at Ikondo: the first time a Haitian buses your table, you’re going to want to say, ‘No! No! Let me do that. In fact, let me help you. Can I clean your yard after work?’ But you feeling better about yourself for that instant doesn’t help Haiti long term. What does help…is giving people the dignity of a job.”
Mark talks about the tension between what guests have as Americans and the conditions in Haiti as the intersection where something beautiful can happen. It’s a tension that is as much a part of Ikondo as the gorgeous setting or amazing food. Each youth group trip, family vacation or corporate retreat is specifically curated to remind guests that they are coming to Ikondo not just to serve but to be served.
Serve, Retreat, Explore
Every day’s schedule is intentionally laid out to fulfill the Ikondo motto – Serve, Retreat, Explore. Mornings might find you participating in a service project as you tour the children’s village before engaging in an impromptu soccer game. Painting or light construction projects are a chance to work alongside a great Haitian crew.
Afternoons are for tourism as you head to the beach to snorkel or paddle-board, go to the mountains to enjoy the breathtaking scenery, or explore the Art District.
At night, there’s worship and a chance to unpack the day. Mark explains, “We want people to be exposed to a bachelor’s level education in social justice, orphan care and social entrepreneurship while they’re here. Even evangelism is predicated on how we treat people with justice. Our staff is ready to lead those conversations.”
Mark acknowledges that getting people to consider Haiti a legitimate vacation destination is an uphill battle. “It’s easier to ‘sell’ traditional mission trips. We could announce them and we’d be full in no time. But we’re willing to take the risk, to experience the pushback and to have less people. We are convinced that for Haiti to move forward, it has to have sustainable jobs.”
“The people are brilliant, hard-working and skilled. My passion is for Haiti to thrive.”
For more information on upcoming trips including artist-hosted trips with Zach Williams, Citizen Way, and Mercy Me, e-mail Trips@HandsandFeetProject.org
Anitra Parmele is a free-lance writer in South Florida and regular contributor to the Good News. She can be reached at AnitraParmele@gmail.com.