Life-altering servicePublished 11:59am Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Haiti mission trip shapes family’s perspective of life
This story is a sneak peek of what appears in Progress 2012, publishing Sunday, Feb. 26.
Nobody in Heidi and Jeff Anderson’s family will ever take life for granted.
The Austin family that regularly attends Faith Evangelical Church has witnessed some of the worst poverty and most widespread homelessness that exists on Earth. They’ve witnessed it because they’ve sought it, as they’re literally on a mission to do something about it.
Jeff, Heidi, and their four kids — Ethan, Evan, Eliza and Erin — have all served with Jesus in Haiti Ministries. From the first time they served, it had a lasting impact.
In January, Heidi returned from her third trip to Haiti, but for her family, helping that country dates back six decades, as her parents and grandparents made a lifestyle of helping Haitians beginning in the 1950s. Then, at the end of last year, her parents, Dave and Cheri Van Wingerden, made Haiti their permanent residence.
But ever since Heidi went on her first trip, the whole family has been doing more.
“It wasn’t necessarily a plan to go back,” Heidi said of the first time. “But now we do intend to keep going back.”
Heidi’s first trip was after the earthquake that rocked Port-au-Prince in January 2010. The quake killed hundreds of thousands and worsened the living conditions for millions already in a severely impoverished region. However, she knew of the region’s problems long before that. Coincidentally, the Anderson family was discussing a possible trip to Haiti the day of the earthquake.
“That’s what made us strive even further toward going,” said Ethan, who, from June 16 to Aug. 3, will be going on his third trip.
The Andersons were shocked when they saw Haiti for the first time — they saw children without food, clothing or homes — and because of the Andersons’ first-hand experiences, they won’t be taking the easy route. They could send money and call it good, but they’ve noticed the problems in Haiti require more. The problems in Haiti weigh heavily on the minds of people who have witnessed what’s happening. Like Eliza put it, “You had to be there.”
Never the same
The Andersons will inevitably keep going.
“We really feel as a family that we need to be concerned about those things,” Heidi said. “It changes the way you live life here. I think it changes your mindset toward life.”
Heidi mentioned that much of Haiti’s problems didn’t come to the world’s attention until after the earthquake.
Now the island country is noticeably improving. Still, Heidi vividly remembers the mass grave sites containing many of the bodies of the roughly 300,000 Haitians who perished during the earthquake.
“You could smell death,” Jeff recalled of seeing a grave site for the first time.
But where the sights and smells of tragedy once lingered, there are now signs of life. The Andersons travel past the site and see new vegetation growing and covering the scars on the hillsides.
“It’s exciting,” Heidi said. “Life is happening.”
The slew of tent cities is only one-third the size it once was, and Jeff, an Austin High School history instructor, can show his students the visible, positive changes in Haiti’s landscape via Google Earth.
Furthermore, the Andersons are building relationships, understanding Haitians’ needs and showing they care.
“It was like a second home almost,” Eliza said about volunteering in Haiti and meeting new people.
That face-to-face aspect had a major impact on her. While volunteering itself is a big commitment, leaving Haiti after doing so can be even more difficult. Eliza felt that when she boarded the return flight.
“There are tears,” she said.
A lasting impact
What started as a way to instill positive values within the family hasn’t become an obligation, Heidi said: It has become a desire.
By continuously returning, the Andersons have a better sense of how to help Haitians and get along with them. They realize some people are simply looking for handouts, but many are working hard toward rebuilding their country.
“They are some of the hardest-working, most creative people I have ever seen,” Jeff said.
Yet the simple things count, too. To be noticed by volunteers like the Andersons pleases many Haitians.
“Most of them just want to talk to you or get a hug or be touched,” Ethan said.
But Heidi understands the simple things often go unnoticed. That’s what she fears.
“My biggest fear is that people will just forget,” she said.
Because the country is already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, the Andersons know positive change will be an ongoing process of volunteerism for years to come. As Heidi repeatedly said, that means getting outside of one’s comfort zone. Jeff suspects it may take a generation to see positive changes really take hold. Eliza suspects it may take more than a lifetime.
“I’m guessing I might not see it in my lifetime,” she said.
Regardless, the Andersons will volunteer with their hands more than their pocketbooks. Money is simple to give. Helping people build something from the ground up, helping them re-establish a sense of ownership, that demands more — something outside one’s comfort zone.