Going Back to Haiti

I have only been to Haiti three times. My last visit, was in April 2012. I have made a pledge to myself, to visit at least once a year from here on out. The Earthquake on January 12, 2010 was in my eyes is this generation’s most tragic story of human loss. Was I there? No. But to watch the news and hear reports of thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands dead or missing was staggering. Like so many others, I was compelled to get involved by using my gifts, blessings, talents and opportunities to reach out to the people back home. But even before the Earthquake, Haiti had endured a decade of deadly storms, mudslides, floods and political unrest that seemed to have no cause or an end.

My first visit to Haiti as an adult in 2004 changed had a great impact on my life. I noticed that the people (my family to be specific) did not have much in the way of material wealth, but their resourcefulness, resilience, courage, strength and laughter were something that truly inspired me. They welcomed me into their humble abodes with open arms, hugs, kisses and smiles. They shared everything. No running water was available, like many families. Thus, someone would fetch water from a nearby stream and warm it up each morning so that I could have a warm bath (outside). We all bathed outside. This is the way they lived. No running water and no electricity (with the exception of a gas powered generator which they used at night).

We were considered fortunate, as the only house on the entire block with electricity. And that was their reality, 24/7. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Port-au-Prince. We went to soccer matches played on gravel roads, listened to live Haitian hip hop rap battles on rooftops. We walked through the streets of Carfour and met my cousin’s friends and neighbors. He even took me to the neighborhood gym, with weights made of pales of cement and used make-shift weight benches. This was their Haiti and now my experience of it.

I left Port-au-Prince with a totally different view of the world. While I complained about the things I did not have, in the way of material riches, I should have been praying to God to give me the strength of my brothers and sisters in Haiti. My experience was so profound, that I actually stopped going to church; I didn’t know what to pray for. After visiting my family abroad, I realized I had everything I needed. People at my church back home would cry on the altar, while pastors laid hands on them, to bless them with the ability to pay their water and light bills? Really? How could I return to Miami, get in line at the altar and pray to God for luxury?

Obviously, not everyone who visits their relatives back home come away with the same experience. Some people get on the plane and never return. Some people get caught up in the rat race and forget about the struggle of others. Living in middle-class America is not easy. We have bills and obligations to meet. We have our own lives and struggles too. I’m not here to be the judge of what is more important. However, if you have family back in Haiti, their should be some since of duty to at least stay connected.

I tried my best to stay in touch. I said that I would go back each summer, but I would not return to  Haiti for seven years.

A boy throws stones into the ocean during sunset in Petit Goave, Haiti.
A boy throws stones into the ocean during sunset in Petit Goave, Haiti.
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Giving Back

I was out celebrating with good friends the night before. We decided to meet up in the city for drinks and good music. I had a great time.

We joked around , partied and recited old rap lyrics, as the DJ spent hip-hop classics like Tribe Called Quest and Leader’s of the New School’s “Scenario” and “Slam” by Onyx. I felt like I had traveled back in time, to 1993.

As the night wound down, I realized that I had to get up in the morning to supervise three middle school basketball games.  It was a struggle to say the least. An hour subway commute from Harlem to  Brooklyn on a crisp Saturday morning is not exactly what one might call fantastic voyage.

I was running a little late because of typical weekend service in Brooklyn. No trains were available for several stops, so I had to take a shuttle to my final destination. Once I arrived at the school, I immediately began to set up. The gym was already stating to fill up with families and athletes from the other schools. The neighborhoods of Bushwick, East New York and Williamsburg had all converged on our gym in Crown Heights.

As the games played on, I finally relaxed and enjoyed the scene. A peace came over me that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I was home. Very few things bring me happiness like serving my people and my community. Mothers and fathers got an opportunity to watch their sons and daughters play basketball on a Saturday morning. The countless smiles, cheers and happy faces made me feel good. I guess this is important to me because even though I played high school and college athletics, I always wanted my family see me compete, but they never did. To look up in the crowd and see your mother cheering you on must feel awesome; I can only imagine.

African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison.
African American youth have higher rates of juvenile incarceration and are more likely to be sentenced to adult prison.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Saturday mornings, children in Crown Heights can be out getting into who knows what. But not these kids, they are with us, being kids, they are safe, working in tandem with their peers and learning to be part of a team.

It was tough, just functioning on a few hours of sleep, but it is always worth it. The next Lebron James, Kobe Bryant or Lisa Leslie could be playing at our gym and I was responsible for giving them the safe space to realize their talents. Someone did it for me. So how could I not give back? Personally, I suck at basketball. Football and track were my sports, but I understand the importance of giving children the opportunity to discover their abilities. I get to do that. All it takes is a key,  a light switch and a cup of coffee.

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‘Tis the Season?

tis the season

“‘Tis the season to be jolly,” yet politically correct. Do you remember a time, long, long ago, circa 1989, when you could actually say “Merry Christmas” in school? Do you remember when classrooms were decorated with Menorahs and images of St. Nicholas? If you went to school in the South, some campuses even displayed nativity scenes.

I chuckle to myself. I was even in the school chorus and we sang “Silent Night” to close out the annual holiday show. I was a mean soprano back then. Fast forward 20 some odd years later and there is hardly a trace of holiday spirit in schools. It’s a touchy subject. The First Amendment has risen from the ashes.

In my household, we didn’t celebrate Christmas like most of my friends or neighbors. We didn’t have a tree. Santa showed up maybe once or twice (I think my dad got a promotion one of those years). Each year, we celebrated the holiday by going to midnight mass as a family. Not a whole lot of fun for a 9 year old.

If my school didn’t take the time to provide gifts, most years I wouldn’t have received any material gifts. I am thankful for my health, family and friends. Though when I was 9 years old, I wish my parents could afford that Tyco electronic train set, along with every He-Man, Thunder Cat and G.I. Joe action figure ever created. Like most children in America, I didn’t ask for much.

When Santa didn’t deliver, I assumed he discriminated against Haitian people. That was how I coped with his unexplainable absence in my life.

Today, when I think about the holidays, I think about the people, the memories, the laughter and fellowship. Those gifts are priceless. But when you are in middle school and even many adults think that’s a crock of you know what. “You’re just being cheap!” So maybe I will spoil my kids with presents and expensive toys during the holidays, or maybe I’ll take them to midnight mass.