Leap of faith: From a chance meeting in Haiti to a home in Urbana

Leap of faith: From a chance meeting in Haiti to a home in Urbana

It was a connection made out of the rubble of Haiti's devastating 2010 earthquake, and Chris Roegge still can't quite explain why he and Stevenson Jean Baptiste were drawn to each other.

Maybe it was Jean Baptiste's persistence and willingness to help, so much so that he latched on with a group of Americans who were in his hometown of Jacmel building houses for just over a week in 2011. Maybe it was his friendly but quiet personality. Or maybe it was his compassion, which drove him to visit the hospital multiple times a week to pray with sick and injured people at their bedsides in the years after the earthquake.

"He has always seemed so mature for his age," Roegge said.

It was Roegge's first trip out of the country to a place Jean Baptiste had never left. And seven years later, they're like father and son.

Technically, Jean Baptiste wasn't supposed to intertwine himself with Roegge's group.

Roegge and the missionaries from Trinity Lutheran Church in Urbana, working with Lutheran Church Charities, were accompanied by members of a local Haitian church, with whom they've developed a close relationship in the intervening years. The locals told the Americans not to engage with the kids who came by their worksite in Jacmel, the cultural hub of the country, because they couldn't offer them any pay.

One 17-year-old, though, stood out from the crowd. And although he was quiet, he was more mature and persistent than the rest.

Jean Baptiste, who lived at a nearby tent city at the time, was determined to help. It's that motive that had always driven him in his life and has since.

"I did not even expect money, I just wanted to help," said Jean Baptiste, who was on a holiday break from school at the time. "I overcame that situation and I just started working with them. I introduced myself to the whole group, and I came back the next day."

During the two weeks Roegge's group was there, he kept showing up, day after day, and he worked his way into the crew. Eventually, he learned enough to begin giving instructions to the workers, although his English was only "minimally conversational," according to Roegge.

"I remember them asking me, 'Is that right?'" Jean Baptiste said as he sat in Roegge's living room while he and Roegge laughed. "I knew, 'Oh that's not right, and I fixed it.' It was fun though."

Seven years later, Jean Baptiste lives with Roegge and his wife, Judy, and is a student at Parkland College, with the Roegges paying for his tuition.

It's a relationship that Roegge struggles to explain.

"I almost hesitate to say this, because it's going to sound trite and I don't mean it to be," Roegge said, "but I've always felt that God put he and I together for a reason. There's a reason that he attached himself to our group, and there's a reason we became so close. I've never really been able to explain it very well. It's just there. It's always been there."

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A year before Roegge's first visit, Stevenson lay on his bed after coming home sick from school when he noticed the television in his room shaking. Then, he noticed his bed convulsing.

When the shaking stopped, he bolted out of the house. Dust filled the air as buildings crumbled.

Soon, he was off to a tent city where he lived with his mother. Community was strong in the makeshift town, at least early on.

"We had different kinds of people, people from all over, people who lost their family and things like that," Jean Baptiste said.

Life was forever changed.

"In the days after, months after, even the years after, life was miserable," he said. "No food, no water, no power, nothing. Phone didn't work, things like that. Thousands of people were killed. ... Even right now, there are some people, nobody knows where they are: If they were killed, if they disappeared."

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Shortly after the earthquake, the pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church told his congregation he'd be organizing trips to Haiti. Roegge didn't plan on making the trip until his daughter, Megan, expressed her desire to go.

So Roegge left the country for the first time ever. Upon landing, they were met with the chaos of Port au Prince: The debris from the earthquake, the streets bustling with motorcycles and bicycles, the constant smell of garbage stinging the nose. They then wove south through the mountains for two hours before arriving in Jacmel, which is known for its French colonial architecture.

"It was so different from anything we'd experienced before," Roegge said.

They were taken in and housed by a local church. Haitian workers were in charge of the project, in which 20 simple houses and duplexes were built.

After Jean Baptiste attached himself to the group, Roegge found out about a program in which he could sponsor local students. He and his wife, Judy, decided to pay for Jean Baptiste's schooling for $300 a year, something others on the trip did for students as well. In Haiti, advancing to the next grade level depends on the ability to pay the required fee.

Roegge went back yearly, usually with some combination of his two daughters and his wife. Much of the work needed in Haiti became too complicated for the Roegges, but their relationships in the country, including with Jean Baptiste, grew from year to year. He finished his schooling while living with Sam Felix, a Haitian-American pastor who took in six men around Jean Baptiste's age with support from his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., church.

While amenities are in short supply in the country, cellphone service is highly accessible, so Jean Baptiste communicated with the Roegges through WhatsApp.

A few years ago, Roegge asked Stevenson if he'd consider coming to the United States for schooling, and after he received his high school diploma, they began the process of securing his admission to Parkland College and a passport to enter the U.S., a complicated ordeal but one they finished in March of last year.

Last summer, he embarked on his first international flight with Felix by his side.

The difference in every facet of life was massive. Everything from the cooler weather to the buildings to the peace and quiet made it seem like a world away. Sometimes, it was the little things that surprised him the most, like the automatic garage doors.

"For the first few weeks, I said, 'Everything is automatic,'" he said with a laugh. "People don't use their hands."

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As he sits in the library at Parkland College, a classmate from the Congo approaches Jean Baptiste and asks him for help on the homework due that day. He gladly obliges, pulling out his meticulously completed worksheets on English verb tenses.

Stevenson's life in the United States revolves almost completely around school, although the Roegges are trying to break the quiet 25-year-old out of his shell. He takes the city bus to Parkland in the morning every day and rides it back to the Roegges' house in Urbana in the late afternoon. Then, he holes himself up in his bedroom and studies.

When he was younger, Jean Baptiste wanted to become a doctor because he witnessed a doctor mistreat his patient. He dreamed of running a hospital or even the nation's health system. It was simply his way of wanting to help people.

His goals have shifted. Now, he sees himself as a future businessman who can benefit families back home by providing jobs.

He does find himself at Illinois football tailgates with his new American family and watching Illinois basketball, a game he's grown to love.

And after going from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the wealthiest, Jean Baptiste's desire to serve still burns. Over his winter and spring breaks, he volunteered at the Salt & Light Ministries Food Pantry where he worked accepting donations.

"Even though I didn't have a chance to receive homeless or poor people and to serve them, I had a chance to receive the donations from other people and it was great to thank them for their donations," he said. "I enjoy it. It's because it's a Christian activity, it's a Christian company."

Jean Baptiste will have to attend Parkland for an extra year, a curveball that he and the Roegges didn't know they'd have to deal with, because as a non-native English speaker, he's required to take English as a Second Language class for a year before partaking in business studies.

His English isn't perfect — every once in a while he stumbles over a word or tense — but it's vastly improved from the time he arrived.

When he finishes studying business in the United States, Jean Baptiste plans on returning to Haiti. He's already sketching business ideas in a journal with the goal of helping people by employing them. He'll go back for the summer in June when he can begin laying the foundation for his future plans.

"I think that it'll be good for him to see what his thoughts are and how they can materialize into something and talk to people down there and keep that in mind when he comes back and really starts his business classes," Roegge said.

The Roegges don't visit Haiti regularly anymore. Instead, they've decided that investing in Stevenson Jean Baptiste is the way they can benefit people in Haiti.

If and when he turns his intentions into actions, their investment will pay off.

"My heart," he said, "is for people."

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