You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
– Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese-American artist, poet, and writer
Throughout her young life, Sofia DeMay, 17, has always been involved in community service. Guided by her desire to give back to the community, through her years as a Girl Scout, Sofia has packed and delivered groceries for the elderly, cooked for the Harrison House at Children’s Hospital in Oakland, and gone Christmas caroling, among other activities. I’ve known Sofia since David and I became good friends with her parents, Raissa and Mike, about five years ago. Sofia babysat our kids when they were younger, and I’ve watched her grow up to be an articulate, conscientious, intelligent, and beautiful person inside and out. When Raissa told me about her impending trip to Haiti back in February, I knew I wanted to hear about her experiences when she got back.
Opening hearts, opening doors
As a senior this past year at St. Mary’s College High School in Berkeley, Sofia was drawn to a program affiliated with her school and founded by parent alumna Margaret Trost. In January 2000, Trost went to Haiti on a service trip, volunteering at an orphanage and hospice founded by Mother Teresa. She met Father Gerard Jean-Juste, a Haitian priest who wanted to establish a food program to serve the children of Port-au-Prince. Inspired, Trost returned to the U.S. and began raising money for his cause. As the fundraising took off, she founded the What If Foundation (616 The Alameda, Berkeley, CA 94707, 510.528.1100), which helps support Father Jean-Juste’s food, after-school, and summer education programs. As one of St. Mary’s students who helped put together care packages for Haitian kids under the What If Foundation, Sofia was curious about Haiti. “I had heard about it, but I had never actually learned about it,” she said.
Every year, a group of St. Mary’s students raise funds to go to Haiti for a week and work in Father Jean-Juste’s programs. Sofia knew that Haiti had staged a successful slave rebellion, but her perception of the small island nation was largely informed by negative media coverage – poverty, diseases such as AIDS, political unrest, and violence. On the list of countries that the U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning, Haiti was a place Sofia never considered a destination. “I didn’t know it [visiting the country] was something you could do, but I was interested in traveling to a place like that to figure things out for myself,” she said. More importantly, she added, “I was really into building a relationship with kids in another country; that’s what really drew me to it.”
As part of their orientation on cultural awareness, Sofia and nine of her fellow classmates read numerous articles and two books – former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Eyes of the Heart: Seeking a Path for the Poor in the Age of Globalization and Trost’s On That Day, Everybody Ate: One Woman’s Story of Hope and Possibility in Haiti. After four months of preparation, Sofia and her classmates arrived in Haiti in early March. The philosophy and world religion teachers who chaperone the student groups were accompanied by a translator and a driver. Armed guards watched over them at the places in which they stayed.
On the second day of their trip, Sofia and her classmates met with a local historian who presented the history of her country to them, which included its one-sided relationships within the international community. Sofia was “shocked” upon learning about, for instance, the U.S. embargo and intervention in Haiti. “I realized that what everyone said about Haiti was really wrong and so skewed by the media,” she said. History, she came to see, was written by people in power. “It didn’t hit home until that moment,” she added.
Later in the week, Sofia and her classmates participated in a Q&A with a group of Haitian students and their translator, which exposed the differences between the two countries’ school systems. In the U.S., especially for seniors applying for college – which Sofia and her classmates were in the midst of at the time – students are very competitive and always trying to get head. Haitian students, however, consider education a great privilege because the majority of kids don’t have the financial means to go to school. Students interact within a “brotherhood” or “sisterhood,” helping one another to ensure success for all.
“It was such a moving moment because I would never have thought of that or would have imagined kids back home doing that,” Sofia said. “It was as if they were bound together somehow; they owed it to one another to share the little that they had.” Sofia also noted that the students understood that the enemy isn’t each other; it’s the system and the exam itself. In addition to the prohibitive expense of going to school, the university examination is so difficult that only 1 percent of the population goes on to higher education. With the current government favoring the elite and the gap widening between rich and poor, school, not surprisingly, is not encouraged for the masses.
After participating in the after-school program, Sofia and her classmates helped serve meals for the food program, which is run in a huge tent. As the children congregated, the tent filled with their laughter. When it was time to serve, however, Sofia noted that the entire atmosphere changed. The kids ate just as quickly as the food was being served, with many returning to the line, still hungry. The older kids were making sure their younger siblings had enough to eat. Despite the program’s best efforts, there is never enough food to feed all of the kids. “Four of us broke down crying,” Sofia related. “We’ve never experienced that kind of desperation before. At home I can walk into my house and get as much food as I want, whereas these little kids here can’t even get one meal. It put my life into perspective.”
Toward the end of their week, Sofia and her classmates visited another after-school program, Sakala, located in Cité Soleil, an impoverished and crowded commune located in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area. The school, which is walled in, was a different world altogether and a safe haven for the kids, who were happily playing basketball, soccer, and ping-pong in the courtyard. After helping set up a water filter for the school, Sofia and her classmates joined in the sports activities. At the end of the day, despite the language barrier, they banded together and created a mural with handprints. When they ran out of paint, the kids pressed their palms together with the other kids and, smiling, said to one another: “Now you have color! Now you have color!”
“It was such a moving moment because I would never have thought of that or would have imagined kids back home doing that,” Sofia said. “I wrote in my journal that night that I finally felt a purpose in my life. I felt like I was actually making a difference.” Daniel Tileas, who runs Sakala, explained to Sofia and her classmates that the kids don’t care about money; rather, they value knowing that people care about them. “That moment just made me realize that there’s actually something you can do with your life that will fulfill you and that you can truly make a difference,” she said.
A Changing world view
Her experience in Haiti made Sofia question her life and wonder how we as a global society can allow hunger in fourth-world countries to exist. “Coming home, I was so much more aware of things,” she said. Sofia made “little changes” to her lifestyle: She scaled back going out to eat and driving a car, and instead of spending money she had earned, she donated it to the What If Foundation. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, she talked about her trip, with the goal of enlightening her classmates and friends about “cultural consciousness.” At her grandfather’s birthday party in late March, she told one of her grandmother’s friends about Haiti. This friend, who had recently inherited a large sum of money, was so moved by Sofia’s experiences that she donated the entire inheritance to the What If Foundation to help build a school in Haiti.
The moment Sofia came home, she knew she would return to Haiti, where she felt she could create more of an impact there than she thought she could at home. She made good on her vow to herself, going back with another group of students – including four returning classmates from her March trip – the last week in July, and further enriching her Haitian experience.
Sofia always knew that her career path would involve being able to give back. “I never realized that I could do it on a global scale,” she said, with wonder in her voice, until her trip to Haiti. Sofia, now a freshman at the University of California, Los Angeles, is majoring in Global Studies. “After going to Haiti, I realized there’s so much I don’t know and that we’re either not taught or dictated by the people who write the history books,” she said. As a result, she plans on traveling to other parts of the world and conducting her own research. When I asked what she might do with her career, she brought up a program that builds sanitation systems in the poor areas of Haiti, which combines her love for Haiti, giving back, and biology and ecology, her favorite school subjects. She imagines spearheading a similar type of program after graduation.
Telling Haiti’s story
Sofia talks about Haiti with emotions and descriptions at once vivid and immediate, as if she has just come back. At the end of her first trip, Tileas told Sofia and her classmates that if there is one thing they could do to give back it would be to “tell Haiti’s story.” For Sofia, it has become second nature because, as she said, “Haiti has become such a big part of me.”