Students spend break lending a hand in Haiti

03/14/2013 5:45 PM |

RORY MACNISH COURTESY PHOTO | The Mattituck Presbyterian Church Haiti volunteers in front of the Nan Sema church, which was built by members of the Mattituck congregation during an earlier trip.

Parishioners from Mattituck Presbyterian Church have been lending a helping hand in Haiti for nearly three decades, but it wasn’t until last week that kids in the church got a chance to join the effort.

Over the winter school break, seven students from the church’s older youth group visited La Gonåve, an island nestled between two spits of land in the bay west of the island nation’s capital, Port-au-Prince, in the way that Shelter Island lies between the East End’s north and south forks.

Life on Shelter Island, the kids found out, is far different from that of the earthquake-stricken heart of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Youth group member Rebecca Guarriello with Cardona, the young girl the group is helping to get hernia surgery.

Church member Rory MacNish of Mattituck, a photographer, has been on several trips to Haiti with the church in the past. He also took trips with the youth group to help out in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and to Reynosa, Mexico to help build homes.

“They’d heard so much about Haiti from the church,” he said. “When the earthquake happened [in 2010], they wanted to go down and help, but the parents were a little cautious. I’d brought both of my sons on trips before, so I was pretty comfortable knowing the kids would be safe.”

The church’s relationship with Haiti dates back to 1984, when parishioners asked Pastor George Gaffga where the money from the North Fork’s annual CROP Walk against hunger was being sent.

Pastor Gaffga’s research on the subject led him to the port town of Anse-å-Galets on La Gonåve, and parishioners from Mattituck have since helped build a church in the nearby village of Nan Sema.

The church’s pastor, Jean-Jaques Agones, was married by Pastor Gaffga in a ceremony in the ruins of Pétion-Ville in March 2010, just after the earthquake. Mr. MacNish was Pastor Agones’ best man.

“We basically wanted the kids to experience everything, meet all our friends over there, and work with kids at Pastor Agones’ church,” said Mr. MacNish. “We started meeting in November to learn Creole, and we showed them photos and videos of our trip. They were definitely prepared to go, but in some ways, you’re never prepared to go. People there are so loving and friendly, but always when you go there you are so introspective about the whole idea of the differences between how we live and how they live.”

Youth group members Joanna Messina, Rachel Blank, Alaina Robins, Jasmine Clasing, Rebecca Guarriello , Hallie Kujawski and Ryan Cavanaugh joined four adults on the trip.

For Riverhead High School senior Rachel Blank, the trip was a way to pay homage to her grandmother, Barbara Kaffke, who had long wanted to join the church on a trip to Haiti, but died two years ago before she had the chance. Rachel went on the trip with her mother, Nancy Blank.

“I was really nervous in the beginning, but the trip was really, really fun,” she said. “Everyone was really nice and open to holding hands with everybody.”

During their trip they met a toddler named Cardona, whose stomach was distended due to an untreated hernia, a condition that could become fatal. The youth group decided to make it their mission to raise $400 to pay for surgery.

They are setting up a “Starfish Foundation” to raise money for the surgery.

“It came from a story Pastor George told about two fishermen, who saw all these starfish washed up on the shore,” said Rachel. “One of the fishermen started throwing them back into the water so they could survive, and the other one asked what difference that would make. He said, ‘it made a difference for that one.’”

“I definitely want to go back,” said Rachel. “I want to see if they’ll have a trip next year while I’m on break from college.”

Joanna Messina, a sophomore at Riverhead High School, said her trip to Haiti was her first trip out of the country, and the first time she’d ever been on an airplane.

“It was really life-changing, realizing how much we have and take for granted,” she said of the trip. “You’d give little kids a tennis ball and their eyes would light up. It would make their week. For us, we might bounce it twice and get tired of it, but they find so many things to do with just a tennis ball.”

The youth group spent much of their week in the church school on La Gonåve, which usually doesn’t serve lunch to its 60 pupils. But the Mattituck contingent had also raised $100 to feed the children all week.

“You’d see 3-year-olds just scarf down a huge plate of pasta,” Joanna said.

“Before we left, people said to be careful because it was dangerous, but I felt safer there than here,” she said.

And coming home, Joanna realized she was still putting what she’d learned in Haiti into practice. During their trip, the students had taken short showers under a dribbling, cold-water shower head.

“I realized I was still conserving water when I got home and took a shower,” she said.

byoung@timesreview.com