Haiti would not rank as a Top Ten choice for summer vacation, but that’s where 12 high school students from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts found themselves in May.
They were there to share their artistic talents and skills with children in the Zanmi Beni orphanage near Port au Prince. As so often happens on missions like these, the students gained as much or more than they gave. After returning to Winston-Salem one student reflected:
“The first couple of days, I was really struggling with Haiti. I was so consumed with thoughts about myself: What am I learning? Am I impressing my teachers? How can I show my group that I deserve to be here? Needless to say, it was hard to enjoy the trip. But soon I felt so much better, and I realized why when I reread my journal; it was because I had let go of my own concerns and had started to put the interests of the children in front of my own.”
Jonathan Milner, who arranged the trip as a followup to his civics classes at UNCSA, said it was only after the students switched their focus from “me” to the children that they could truly benefit from the experience.
For Milner, the relationship with the people of Haiti can be traced to his parents’ interest in Partners in Health, an NGO that has worked for compassion and justice for 26 years in one of the Western world’s most impoverished countries.
“A year ago we were able to become involved again in Partners in Health,” Milner said. “My wife, Cary, and son, Owen, went to Haiti to visit the orphanage in December. It was while there that we hatched the idea to take the students back this spring.”
Milner assigned the students to read Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” during the spring period. It’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of the work in Haiti by Partners in Health. He said the book has helped the students grapple with important issues in his curriculum like justice, inequality, democracy and liberty.
Milner created Global Arts as the organization to execute the idea for the visit. Students helped pay for the trip with their own funds and by staging a benefit concert, and generous donors at the School of the Arts also stepped forward.
It was a learning experience of multiple dimensions. For some of the students it was the first time away from the U.S., the first time to be immersed in a non-English speaking culture, the first time confronted with dire poverty, the first time as a racial minority and the first exposure to so many disabled children.
One student said she thought she would teach them all she knew about her art and perhaps learn a little about the music of Haiti. “I had never been more wrong in my life,” she said. “We attempted to start our measured, methodical drum circle class, but a (Haitian) woman immediately became immersed in her drumming and started singing one of her favorite fold songs. Taken by surprise, we began to accompany her on our own drums. Soon, most of the compound had joined in, and we Global Artists were suddenly learning songs, rhythms and a great deal of Kreyol (the Haitian language). In that moment, I realized just how little I had to teach Zanmi Beni, and how much it could teach me.”
The students learned that the distance between Winston-Salem and Port au Prince is best measured not in miles but from one heart to another.
(You can learn more about Global Arts at http://milnerj.wix.com/globalarts)
Justice is compassion raised to an institutional level.