JACKSON, Tenn. – Sept. 9, 2013– Three days before her return flight home, Jennifer Bragg knew she could not leave Haiti.
Arriving in Haiti July 4, Bragg – a Union University alumna – had planned to spend only a few weeks interning with the organization myLIFEspeaks with her friend Savannah Hari, a senior at Union.
Bragg had intended to travel back to the U.S. the first week of August. She also had hoped to work several months before going to physical therapy school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
But Bragg said she realized that God has a way of changing her plans to line up with his own.
“Even with my excitement, I did not immediately fall in love with the people or the place when we arrived, but then something changed,” Bragg wrote in a blog that she and Hari kept to record their Haitian experiences. “Ultimately, I couldn’t shake the feeling that God was leading me to stay.”
MyLIFEspeaks is a Christian organization that helps meet the needs of Haiti, particularly by feeding and caring for children. Hari knew Mike and Missy Wilson, the organization’s leaders, and they offered Hari a summer internship while she was in Haiti for a different mission trip in 2012.
Hari jokingly encouraged Bragg to tag along, as Bragg had been on eight mission trips to other countries. But within a week, Bragg was asking if Hari was serious about the offer.
Two plane tickets, a blog and a bumpy van ride later, Hari and Bragg began working as therapists in the village of Neply, a place that Bragg described as having real third-world needs.
The needs Bragg mentioned are more serious than “bucket showers,” faulty generators and shoeless feet. One in five Haitian children is born with special needs, Bragg said, and these children are commonly believed to be possessed or cursed. As a result, they are often shunned by society.
Hari also noted that resources are not readily available to help these children, who live in a village of about 2,500 people where the average worker earns $2 a day.
“After an hour of being here, we were told that both the physical therapist and the occupational therapist are actually former cooks that the staff put in charge of therapy,” Bragg said. “And they don’t speak English. In case this wasn’t clear, we don’t speak Creole, and we aren’t trained therapists either.”
Hari taught children occupational therapy skills such as how to brush their teeth and dress themselves, while Bragg worked with children’s physical therapy needs, helping them learn functions such as walking and crawling.
After working with the children for a few weeks, Hari and Bragg began noticing improvements. For instance, Hari said one boy named Malachi struggled to walk, but the therapists were able to teach him how to crawl for the first time.
“(The children) have shown us and the entire village of Neply, Haiti, that our God is not limited to working through people we would define as ‘normal,’” Hari said.
Not all of Haiti’s problems are so easily solved, as Bragg said unemployment, poverty and pain ravish the country. Facing the reality that some children are abandoned and starving can be difficult to process as well.
“That’s when the only option is to run to the Lord and dig into the Bible,” Bragg said.
Haiti’s needs also are met by volunteer groups, such as the team of 15 students who spent July 5-13 assisting myLIFEspeaks with various projects. The group was led by Union alumna Allison Little, the director of girl’s ministry at Englewood Baptist Church in Jackson.
Little, who attended a Birmingham church with Bragg and joined the same sorority as Hari, led her group in projects such as taking community prayer walks, cleaning homes and washing clothes.
The group also helped with Redemption 72:14, a mentoring program inspired by Psalm 72:14 that helps local children in slavery. Child slavery is legal in Haiti, but Hari said myLIFEspeaks not only provides meals, education and playtime to nurture the children but also teaches community members the value of these children in hopes to end child slavery.
“I relearned the importance of loving someone exactly how they are and where they are at,” Little said. “That’s the gospel: Loving someone who the world says doesn’t deserve love or help.”
Hari returned to Tennessee the first week of August to start her senior year at Union. However, Bragg realized God was calling her to stay in Haiti – at least for a few more months.
Bragg said she intends to serve in Haiti until closer to when she starts graduate school in January. Until then, she is working in a variety of roles for myLIFEspeaks, including teaching classes, providing English tutoring and giving hugs to more than 80 children who receive food and care from the organization.
“I love being in a place where God can refine me and teach me,” Bragg said. “I appreciate Union’s focus on shaping minds to have a Christian worldview. I think that has helped me stay grounded and think biblically while I have been here.”
Despite battling sickness and water shortages, Bragg said the greatest challenge she faces in Haiti is the language barrier between herself and the people for which God has broken her heart.
“I have fallen in love with this place and these people, and I absolutely hate not knowing what they are saying,” Bragg said, as she continues to learn Creole. “I so want to be able to talk to each person I see. I want to know about their lives and hear their hearts. I want to be able to encourage them.”
Hari said she began her internship with the hope of gaining a deeper understanding of what she would like to do after graduation. What she realized, however, was that she enjoyed all aspects of myLIFEspeaks, which combines her love for mission work, nonprofit organizations and occupational therapy.
While she – like Bragg – understands that God can change her plans, Hari said she hopes to return to a place like Neply so she can continue to do what she enjoys the most: serving and nurturing children in need.
“Union encourages us to be people-focused,” Hari said. “It was really cool living that out in Haiti.”
To learn more about Hari and Bragg’s work with myLIFEspeaks, or to financially support Bragg while in Neply, visit alittlepieceofhaiti.blogspot.com.
By Beth Byrd