‘Appreciation celebrations’ make a different kind of Thanksgiving in Haiti

It's not the words of gratitude the children express that impress me. It’s the actions they take.
Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom

November 25, 2021

Today, being Thanksgiving week, I want to talk about gratitude. They don’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Haiti, and Lord knows there are enough reasons to feel more forsaken than embraced in this hot and impoverished country.

But I remember one of my early visits to the orphanage, being struck by a song the kids would sing in the darkness of the evening before they went to bed, a slow, swaying melody behind these words:

There’s a roof up above me

I’ve a good place to sleep

There’s food on my table

And shoes on my feet

You gave me your love, Lord

And a fine family

Thank You, Lord

For your blessings on me

To hear those high-pitched young voices, tired from the day, yet pushing such gratitude out into the heavens, well, it was beautiful.

It remains so.

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Why does it seem that those who have the least often seem the most grateful? Our kids are taught to say “thank you” after food servings, cups of water, birthday gifts, even compliments. But it’s not the words that impress me. It’s the actions they take.

When I leave the orphanage, it’s not unusual for a child to slip me a folded-up letter. Sometimes it’s in the shape of an envelope or a heart. Almost always it contains a brief handwritten message, like:

“Dear Mister Mitch – Thank you for taking care of me. Whenever I have a problem I know I can come to you. I thank God that he sent you to us and that he will protect you.”

There is nothing special that prompts these notes. Nor are they always from the same kids. It appears to be a surge of gratitude that bubbles over from time to time, and child to child.

Our kids seem to take a certain delight in saying thank you. In the U.S., we often express thanks out of obligation — a thank you card after a wedding, birthday or particularly generous gift. Kids, especially, often need to be reminded to show their appreciation. It’s what makes the sentence “What do you saaaay?” so common in parenting.

But the kids at Have Faith Haiti get almost giddy when given a chance to express their appreciation. When a batch of Christmas gifts arrives from a church group, we have the kids sit down and draw thank you notes. They never roll their eyes. On the contrary, they attack the task, using multiple crayons, markers, pens. They write extra sentences beyond what they have to.

When a staff member is leaving or a volunteer’s time is up, the kids orchestrate productions that include speeches, songs, handmade gifts and heartfelt tributes. Honestly, I keep hearing Mickey Rooney squealing, “Let’s put on a show!” every time someone says goodbye at our place.

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Photo credit: Danielle Cutillo

This past weekend, a couple of our American volunteers were going home. The kids could have waved goodbye and gone about their business.

Instead, they organized an “appreciation celebration” akin to a variety show. It had an emcee (Babu) and musical performances (by a group of our young girls who sang “I just wanna thank you, for being you, you, you”) and a speech by J.U., our 16-year-old wanna-be lawyer, who opened by saying to the two young women:

“You are very, very wonderful and beautiful and smart and we are happy we got to know you…and we want you to know that there are no mountains that are too high to keep us from seeing you again…”

He went on to thank them for coming to his country “during its darkest hours” and being brave enough to stay and teach the kids. He added that they weren’t totally leaving because “Haiti is now your home, too.”

This, by the way, for volunteers who had only been with us a matter of months.

But that’s what gratitude is in our cozy little run-down orphanage. It’s not an obligation, it’s a celebration.

It occurs to me that too often, we don’t find the joy that comes in saying thank you. It is bigger than all our turkeys, and in its own way, even more delicious. What a privilege to get to see something so huge in such little bodies. As that song says, a fine family. What more can we be thankful for?

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