Equestrians Make an Impact in Haiti
Serving the community is nothing new for South Carolina student-athletes, but a group of Gamecock equestrians took it to another level with a mission trip to Haiti over the holiday break from January 3 – 8. Seniors Sarah Isgett, Lizzie van der Walde, Bridgett White, and Madison Thiel, and junior Madelynne Herlocker traveled with Filter of Hope, a Christian-based organization, to distribute water filters to impoverished areas where clean drinking water is scarce.
“It was only a week out of our lives but seeing the impact we made there in short time is what made me want to go back,” said van der Walde, a marketing management major who had also made the trip last year. “I thought a lot about how many lives we impacted last year and how much more had to be done. I felt like I had to go back. Once you go, you’re hooked.”
The water filter kits provided to the Haitians allow the residents to dump dirty water into a bucket that has the filter on it, and the water that comes out is clean and safe to drink. The filters normally last for as long as ten years.
“The water is as clean or cleaner than what we drink in America,” said Isgett, a public health major. “We set up the filters and show them how it works. Then we drink it to show them it’s very clean. We had to walk through a river to get to a village, and one of the guides told us it’s filled with cholera because it’s their only source of water. They bathe in it. They wash clothes in it. You’d see dead dogs floating in it. That’s really eye-opening, so there is definitely a need for the filters.
“We do the water filters, and we ask them to supply a five-gallon bucket so that they feel like they are contributing something and it’s not just a handout. So, they appreciate it and want to take care of it. We tell them how the filter works and then we offer to tell them about the bible. Witchcraft or voodoo is kind of big there, so if they don’t want to hear it, it’s fine. We’re there for the filters as the main thing.”
For each of the Gamecocks, it was a life-changing experience.
“The Haitians appreciate everything they have, which to us seemed like so little, but to them was so much,” said Herlocker, who is studying sport and entertainment management. “There are so many things in life that I take for granted. Being lucky enough to be a student-athlete and live in the United States and becoming accustomed to this life I live and realizing there are people who live with significantly less and are a lot happier than many people I know; it was cool to see how much they appreciate the little things they do have.”
“The hardest part is knowing there is still so much more that needs to be done there.”
– Lizzie van der Walde
Isgett was making her third trip to Haiti, and second with Filter of Hope. For her, the experience never gets old.
“It’s one of those things you can’t stop thinking about,” Isgett said. “As soon as the girl that leads the trip said she was going to do another one, it never crossed my mind not to go.
“We went back to one of the same villages I had gone to last year, and this little girl just latched on to me. Every house we went to, she was right by my side. She kept talking to me, and I got one of our translators to tell me what she was saying. It turns out she remembered me. I had come to her school last year, and I felt horrible because I didn’t remember her. That really hit home. It made me realize I am making a lasting impact on some of these people. I made an impact on her just by being there and playing with her.”
“I wanted to go back again because I loved it a lot when I went last year,” said White, a mass communications major who had also gone last year. “It was a life-changing experience. I grew in my faith a lot the first time, and this year I was more comfortable. As soon we got there, Sarah and I looked at each other and said, ‘it feels like we’re home again.’ There is so much love there. You build these relationships, so you really do feel like it’s a second home.”
“This year, I got closer to the people we gave filters,” van der Walde added. “I was a little nervous last year, but this year I was more comfortable in talking to them and getting to know their stories.”
The student-athletes were taken aback by the living conditions that might seem primitive by American standards with many of the local residents living in small mud houses with dirt floors. Seeing that gave the Gamecocks a deeper appreciation for what they have in the United States.
“They were happy about getting the filters, but they were so happy just to see us and talk to us,” Thiel said. “Kids and families would be sitting down and eating, and when they’d see our truck pull up, they’d all run out and wave to us like we’re celebrities. They were excited to see us because they knew we were there to help.”
“They were all so nice and so happy to see us,” Herlocker said. “There was a language barrier, so we had to speak through translators. They’re all so happy. We came across a guy the second day, and he had a big gash on his leg. He said he had it for seven months after a motorcycle accident. He was just smiling like there was nothing wrong.”
“The overall kindness was what stood out,” Isgett said. “I think in America, we get a little closed off. We were at a house with a woman who had a daughter with cerebral palsy. It was crazy to think about the health care differences. She doesn’t have anyone to help with therapy or anything else. She was making food and offering it to us, even though she had so little. It’s eye-opening to see how kind and generous they all were to newcomers.”
Clean drinking water is essential to overall health, and the Gamecocks know they made a difference.
“Clean water is such a basic and fundamental need and right, in my eyes,” Isgett said. “It’s had a big impact on me, personally, and spiritually. It’s a big reality check each year. They’re making just as big of an impact on us. The week that we were there, we did around 100 filters.”
“In a sense, I feel like we get more out of it than they do,” Herlocker said. “It’s such a great learning experience and eye-opening experience for us. I know they appreciate it, and they get the clean water.”
“I really feel like we’ve made an impact,” White said. “The water filters are a huge part of that, but the relationships that we’ve made go so far beyond that. They’re excited for us to be there, not only because we’re providing them with something that will give them clean and fresh water source, but also because we spend time with them. They’re so appreciative. It means a lot to them, and to me.”
With that being said, the Gamecocks wished they could have done more.
“The hardest part was knowing we had a very limited number of water filters to bring to people,” Thiel said. “It’s hard knowing that there so many people living without clean water, and we only had so many to give.”
“The hardest part is knowing there is still so much more that needs to be done there,” van der Walde said. “It makes you appreciate everything you have here.”
After seeing the good work they were able to do, coming back to the United States was bittersweet.
“There was a guy taking pictures with his phone and he had something where he could print out the pictures, and an older lady didn’t want to keep the photo because she said she didn’t think she was pretty enough,” White said. “Our group leader reminded her that she is God’s creation. It was just sad to think there were people there who didn’t think they were worthy of getting anything we gave them. We had to tell them that they’re just as worthy as we are for anything.”
“The hardest part every day was leaving the little children,” Herlocker said. “The kids get so excited to see us because we spend time with them and play with them. When you leave, they run after the truck and it just breaks your heart. It was so hard. I didn’t want to leave.”
“I had no idea what to expect, and I can’t even describe how amazing it was,” Thiel said. “I would recommend it to anybody and everybody. Seeing what we have here as student-athletes and as Americans, we have so much, and we take it for granted. It really changes your perspective on things. The love those people give to you is indescribable. They have nothing, but they are the happiest people I have ever seen.
“It really taught me that even when you are uncomfortable about an experience, it’s going to make you grow as a person.”