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Helping out in Haitian orphanage was empowering, humbling and so much more
By Karyl Wackerlin
Twelve adventurous women took off on a Soul Journey last week, trading the comforts of our Midwestern homes for the sights and sounds of Haiti. The trip was a by-product of last October’s She Said program at Krannert Center, aimed at empowering women by the sharing of personal stories of strength and hope.
And share we did — with Haitian nannies and nurses who take care of orphans in one of the poorest countries in the world. Our team spent a week at God’s Littlest Angels (GLA) Orphanage in the mountains above Port-au-Prince (run by Monticello natives Dixie and John Bickel) — rocking babies, playing with toddlers and building relationships with the Haitian women who work at the orphanage. According to GLA, many groups volunteer at the orphanage each year, yet ours was the first whose main mission was to encourage the Haitian women who work as cooks, nurses and nannies for the ministry. As part of this mission, the team set up a scholarship fund to aid the Haitian staff in covering education costs for their own families.
The idea for the trip started in June 2014, when Kerry Rossow and I were sharing about mission trips we had recently taken — hers to Haiti, mine to Africa — and the opportunities those trips provided to exchange stories with women of other cultures, encourage team members and those they had gone to serve, and empower women to get out of their comfort zones. 
As part of a project called "Women of Strength and Hope," the She Said team interviewed women staff members, asking questions like "What do you want the world to know about life for women in Haiti?" and "What are your hopes for your children?" (After asking these questions in Haiti, as well as on previous trips to the Philippines, Africa and Peru, I have discovered that women around the world share many of the same hopes and dreams for their families — health, education for their children and concern about aging parents.) Overwhelmingly, the thing Haitian women wanted us to know is that life in Haiti is difficult, with extreme poverty making it difficult to feed and educate their families. One by one, team members shared parts of their own stories, showing photographs of home and family and voicing a desire to learn from the Haitian women who sat across the table from us.
The group toured GLA’s new state-of-the-art facility, under construction on a mountaintop overlooking the Haitian countryside. The impressive orphanage will feature colorful toddler cottages, a hurricane-proof school complete with a computer lab, and outdoor playground with astroturf. According to the staff, GLA is determined to provide the best home possible until the children move to what they call their "forever homes" with adoptive families. Until it’s completed, the orphanage will continue to operate out of three separate buildings, located within walking distance of each other. 
The team returned home last Monday, but plans are already underway for a return trip to Haiti in 2015, and a large-scale diaper drive. Our schedules here may have returned to normal, but our hearts have been changed forever.
Karyl Wackerlin is a Champaign-based humanitarian photographer who has taken part in more than 15 mission trips.