“I leave here a changed person, for the better”: saying goodbye to three beloved volunteers

A tribute to these special people who have dedicated months of their lives to the children of Haiti
Mitch Albom

Mitch Albom

June 16, 2022

Last week I wrote that the time had come to move, that certain changes at the orphanage had become inevitable. That remains true. But one consistent thing which never seems to change is the small parade of incredibly impressive people who decide to volunteer for a few months or longer.

Over the years, these have included pastors, nurses, graduate students, special education teachers, former soldiers, even rabbis. These folks, from all ages, step away from their often comfortable lives, in places as far away as Australia, travel to Haiti, find our little place, and hunker in on twin mattresses and a heavy diet of rice and beans just to make a difference in our the lives of our children.

Three of those volunteers are leaving us this week, having been there all spring. And before they fly away, I want to pay tribute to them, because, in a word, they have been extraordinary.

Bob and Amy Thibodeau first came to our place in 2021, having read about it on the web. They stood out immediately because 1) they were a retired couple in their 50s, and 2) they were from western Canada — and I mean way western Canada — Fort McMurray, to be exact.

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In the workshop. // Photo by Danielle Cutillo Photography

Bob’s spent 35 years as engineer for petroleum and power plants and with Amy raised three sons — Bobby, Carey and Luke. At first, I wasn’t sure what they would do at our place. But it didn’t take long to figure out. Turns out the two of them can fix pretty much anything that moves, rumbles, runs water or needs electricity.

Over the course of their time with us — on two different stints, six months in 2021 and four months in 2022 — Bob and Amy created an entire workshop complete with power tools, taught our kids to build tables and chairs, to sew their own clothes, to assemble and disassemble a toilet, to create art with woodwork, and to provide hot water by stealing heat off a diesel generator, something I still can’t explain.

I get daily reports from Bob on everything from inverter batteries to tree care. Meanwhile, Amy teaches in the school. Honestly, I don’t know how they find a free minute between them

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Amy teaching a class of youngsters.

Always time for family

And yet they find time for the kids. It’s a nightly thing, before and after devotions, for Bob and Amy to hear knocks on their door, and for kids to gather in their room, or meet them in the kitchen, to sit, to unload, to laugh. They have an incredible calming effect on the kids, the way grandparents often do with their grandchildren. Bob has forged a particularly strong relationship with Appoloste, who at 17 is now inspired to become an engineer, because he’s learned so much at Bob’s side.

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Bob and Appoloste getting rid of bed bugs

I asked Bob and Amy what they will take away from their time in Haiti. Amy said “the gratification of a child asking me to show them something or to teach them something, and me being able to do it, that’s such a great feeling.”

Bob, who takes enormous pride in sharing his knowledge and teaching others work techniques, noted that one of the staff members, just that morning, had thanked Bob for his guidance, saying, “I get more work done with less interruptions and feel way better knowing I am in control.”

That sentence, Bob said, “makes it all worthwhile.”

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Amy in the classroom // Photo by Danielle Cutillo Photography

Changed for good

And then there is Michelle Pipp-Dahm, or as we call her Dr. Michelle. We call her that because she is a doctor. An oncologist, to be exact, and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin. Although actively practicing and in her early 50s, Michelle was somehow inspired to take three months away from her work, her husband, and her seven kids to come live in 90-degree heat, on a single bed, with the barest of supplies, and help us organize our medical care.

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Michelle and her chocolate birthday cake.

I could tell you a ton about Michelle, from her rugged, can-do attitude to her daily training for triathlons, but it would be better to hear it in her own words. This is what she wrote when I asked her to tell me what she’d take away from her time at the orphanage:

When I arrived at the Have Faith Haiti Mission in March, I thought I knew what to expect as I had visited briefly in January.

I thought I would spend 3 months teaching children health class and life skills while getting to know them and their culture.

I expected to help out with medical issues, being a physician. I expected limited resources, such as power/water/Wi-Fi. I expected hot and humid weather.

What I did not expect was the outpouring of love and affection I would receive. I also did not expect how torn I would be to be leaving to go back home to Wisconsin.

Spending this time at HFHM has been invaluable to me. I can’t walk 10 feet without getting a hug. The older kids have brought me mangoes, flowers, notes, rubber band bracelets, keneps and star fruits. I have found that right outside of my room is a favorite place for them to study and visit.

I’ve spent many a sweaty afternoon discussing life and the universe with JU. I watched eager minds soak up everything I had to teach them.

In the process, I did a lot of learning as well. I learned that nightly devotions are a welcome calm to the soul at the end of a long day. I learned that if your heart is open to it, it will be filled up with fierce love from 50+ Haitian children.

I discovered that love is indeed the universal language (especially since my kreyol is not that great).

I will leave here with a deep feeling of gratitude for this experience. I hope to be able to draw upon all of the peace and joy I felt at the mission and share that with my family, friends, patients and even strangers when I return to the states.

I leave here a changed person, for the better. I will miss teaching these kids, having my hair braided, playing guitar with Nahoum and being surrounded by such kindness in the middle of a country so full of chaos and tragedy.

There will be many tears when I leave and I am already looking forward to my return one day.”

So are we, Michelle, Bob and Amy. So are we.

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Michelle plays the guitar

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Amy says goodbye // Photo by Danielle Cutillo Photography

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So does Bob // Photo by Danielle Cutillo Photography

BIG NEWS: WE’VE MOVED!

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