We all remember going off to college. Loading the car. Making the trip with our parents. Watching nervously as the campus came into view, marveling at the other kids who already looked settled in and were throwing a frisbee on a stretch of green lawn.
If you recall the crazy mix of curiosity, apprehension, and departure from everything you had known in your life until that point — take that and multiply it by 100, and you’ll land on what was going through the minds of four young men who boarded an airplane with me Sunday afternoon, heading to a land they had never seen before.
One was Edney, who I wrote about a few weeks ago. Illiterate until age seven when he came to our place, he’s now an academic wiz who blew our TOEFL score record out of the water.
He was accompanied by Jhonas, who spent much of his life in a ragged, makeshift tent with a blue tarp as a roof and dirt as a floor. There was no electricity. He did his homework on his knee.
The two of them will now be roommates at Madonna University this fall, thanks to a scholarship program we have set up for the Have Faith Haiti orphanage. I brought them with me a few weeks early to get a look at America — along with two of our upcoming seniors, J.J. and Kiki, who will be attending college a year from now.
The looks on their faces as the airplane lifted off were priceless, the kind of smiles that you can’t hold back. They stared out in silent wonder, seeing, for the first time, the top of the mountains that gave their island home its name — Ay-ti — or Haiti, the land of mountains.
Now disappearing through an airplane window.
Kiki, Jhonas, Mitch, Edney, and J.J. at the Detroit River
The scene at the orphanage a few hours earlier was emotional. There were tight hugs from the staff members and exaggerated laughter from the other teens, unsure of how to take the moment. Leaving? Some of them were leaving? A few of our younger boys began crying uncontrollably. One of them, named Manes, couldn’t even speak when I asked what was wrong.
“Is it because Edney is going?”
Tears streamed down his face as he shook his head yes.
Remember, there are often goodbyes at the orphanage, but never for the kids. Adults come and go. Teachers leave for the summer. Volunteers finish their time. But the children? They are a unit. A pack. A tightly knit family that sees one another every single day, eats together, goes to school together, prays together. Our facility is just over a third of an acre — for more than 50 children. You are always in each other’s orbit. You can’t help it.
Now, as if sending a rocket to the moon, a new orbit was about to be explored. It was cause for celebration and sadness. Jhonas’s mother, whom I hadn’t seen in years, came to say goodbye to her son. She wore a Sunday best red dress.
Jhonas and Esterline with their mother / Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti
“I asked God to watch over you and to thank you for what you are doing for Jhonas,” she said in Creole. “It is only because of you that he is getting this chance.”
I told her we would make sure he was safe, which seemed to be her only worry. Jhonas removed his glasses periodically to wipe his eyes. Despite the August heat, he wore a blue suit that a friend had sewn for him. He is rail thin, and the clothing drapes on him as if hanging in a closet. He hugged his mother tightly, hugged his sister, Esterline, who is also at our orphanage, and got into the car.
Edney was next. The night before he had choked up during devotion saying “I’m really gonna miss you guys.” Everyone stood and said one thing they were going to miss about him as well. Now, as Edney closed the door, one of our teenaged girls blurted out “This is really happening,” as if, to that point, it was all just a fantasy, something I spoke to them about like a fairy tale, leaving the orphanage, going to college, saying goodbye.
One last family photo of the summer before our teenagers depart for school in the US / Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti
When the plane touched down in Florida, I told them “Congratulations. You’ve now set foot in a second country.” They smiled but didn’t speak. In fact, for much of the process — deplaning, customs, getting a passport stamp — they gaped in silent curiosity. When Edney asked if it were possible to read a book on the next part of the flight, I took out my iPad and downloaded something. It took about ten seconds. The young men blinked in astonishment. Our internet at the orphanage, when it works, if it works, is like watching a mule pull a plow. You wait. You wait. You wait some more.
Here, suddenly, was the speed of America, in the simple press of a button. It was the first of hundreds of impressions like that. The car on the highway heading to our house. A highway? What’s a highway? The hot and cold water faucets. The indoor showers. The parking lots filled with cars at a dealership. The food that you can order online and pick up briskly. A myriad of everyday things that we take for granted.
When we first entered our house, we came through the garage, and the young men’s eyes widened.
“Bicycles,” they marveled.
And the next morning, they were on them. They had never navigated an adult bike before. (We have a couple kiddie ones that get shared at the orphanage.) They rolled cautiously into the street by our house, and, wobbling with the newness of the pedals, they began to ride.
Kiki, Jhonas, and J.J. take to cycling / Courtesy of Have Faith Haiti
I watched this with a welling in my chest. What must they be thinking of a world where, in less than a day, you can go from abject poverty to a bicycle ride in a leafy suburb? Are they thinking why didn’t I have this earlier in my life? Or are they thinking I wish I could bring this back to my brothers and sisters at the orphanage?
The summer wind blew as they navigated ahead, thin rubber tires rolling them through a strange new world, their eyes saying hello to everything.
The scholarship program for students like Edney is hosting a fundraiser on August 19 at Madonna University. Info and tickets are available here. Please spread the word!