Back from Haiti

Lana hanging out with the kids!

How can I accurately summarize travelling to Haiti and back again over 11 days, with 14 people by caravan, plane and hiking long trails without combing through each moment of every day?

It seems impossible, so I’ll highlight a few thoughts that seem top of mind;

  • Just go with it! ‘IT’ being new food, new places, new people and the unfamiliar.
  • Rain on a tin roof sounds romantic in novels but not when you know you’ll be sliding down a hillside the following morning on your way to breakfast or slipping and sliding when climbing to and from work etc. (mud, mud and more mud meant we had a few wipeouts!)
  • Kids are kids wherever you go & a smile needs no translation!
  • Let people surprise you, you’ll learn things about yourself and others you could never have imagined.
  • Our perception of “need” is incredibly skewed by circumstance. The short and simple truth is this: we have too much stuff and are not any happier for it all.

Group photo of our Centra Cares team in Haiti.

For the record, while I could have done without the tarantulas – I enjoyed every incline hike, muddy slide down a hillside and sounds of animals late and night and early in the morning. I slept better at our nights in the mountains then I ever do at home, even with all of our crew who competed for the title of ‘most unique snoring’.

The excitement that the children in the surrounding area of Marbial have for learning is beautiful and inspiring. The reality is that students walk upwards of 3 hours for the opportunity to get an education and it seems unreal in contrast to how school can feel like an obligation for many here at home. Fun fact: Since the students have to cross over the river several times on the way to school, they have ‘rain days’ similar to our snow days here at home. When there is heavy rainfall, the river runs too rapidly and becomes too high to cross and get to school.

If I haven’t lost you yet on my Haiti recap, I’d be happy to ramble for hours on anything you care to ask and tell you all about the most refreshing week of my life and how it happened while I was in Haiti with our new Haitian friends and the amazing people at Centra I get to work with everyday.

While we may have helped build two schoolrooms and a few other things, what we really built was a stronger team and new friendships. In some ways, for me personally at least, it seems I gained more than I gave back.

I’m incredibly grateful for the hardworking and compassionate people I travelled with and sincerely want to say “Thank You” to our hosts at FLCM for a memorable experience.

View in Haiti.

This update by Lana Gordin.

Haiti and the Vandermeers

Ed & Lisa Vandermeer with a young Haitian man.

You don’t know exactly what to expect when travelling to a very remote part of Haiti, but one thing is certain; there is comfort in travelling as a group.  The first new reality was hopping in the back of the big blue cage truck and getting transported through Port au Prince over the mountains to Jacmel, several hours away. Immediately we noticed that the uncontrolled traffic had a definite pattern; and that pattern was chaos. As we drove through the city we realized that life in Haiti is more about making it through today than planning for the future. After a couple of hours of steep hills and tight curves on one of the few paved roads, we arrived at Jacmel to be treated to good food, a swim and a comfortable bed. The next day was Sunday and in stark contrast to the dirty streets lined with garbage, there were hundreds of people dressed  meticulously in clean pressed colourful clothing making their way to Church.

All smiles!

After a few more hours in the back of the truck on a barely perceptible river rock road and multiple river crossings through water up to 3 feet deep, we could go no further except on foot. The next 1.5 hours of mountain hiking with packs weighing up to 50 lbs. took us to our destination. If that sounds easy, it wasn’t, but the setting was beautiful, and we found out that Lisa can out-hike Ed, and I will gladly let her.

Lisa hanging out with the Haitian kids.

We were shown to our newly built  bunkrooms with fresh sheets and pillows, block partition walls to an open ceiling, so we could all enjoy the loud snorers. We soon realized that it would be impossible to maintain good houskeeping because nothing in Haiti ever dries out unless it’s in direct sunlight, and we were there near the end of a rainy season.

One of the first things for John, Doug and I (over 100 years combined Centra experience) to do, was install some solar lighting; first in the bunkhouse, then in the building below that housed teachers, staff, kitchen and dining room.

Ed hanging out with the Haitian kids.

The following days were filled with hard work building desks, block walls, trusses, carrying mortar and bricks, playing with kids, swimming in the river and eating great food. For Lisa and I the absolute best part of the trip was to see how happy the kids are at the school. Many of them walk 2-3 hours each way, some even longer, and they arrive clean and smiling in their school uniforms, curious as to what the white people are doing there. Aside from the most fun thing of handing out Skittles everyday, some of Lisa’s favorite things were spending time with the kids, handing out lunch to the kindergarten classes, sneaking food to the dog under the table, and she even enjoyed helping the guys with brick work by stuffing paper in the gaps where the concrete leaked out. My favorite things about Haiti are the beautiful people, their ability to enjoy life with bare minimums, the way they care for each other, and the crazy way they drive in the city. It was also a really neat experience to watch as the hillsides came alive with local activities in the mornings.  We were all amazed that over 400 students attend the Marbial school because there is no town and we could never see more than a few houses at one time.

Ed hanging out with the Haitian kids.

We both greatly appreciated the hospitality we were shown at the base in Marbial, and the opportunity to help our new friend Milo continue his education. We value the relationships that grew and became more meaningful with our team members, and we pray for God’s blessing on the people of Haiti, that they will receive government that cares for them and leads them with hope for a better future.


This update by Ed Vandermeer.

Haiti Day 8: Blessed, Fortunate or Lucky?

Andrew Creighton working with the locals loading a wheelbarrow.

I first want to start by saying how appreciative and fortunate I am to have been invited to join this team! What an amazing experience! Thank you to my entire team for holding down the fort while I was away.

On this day we started a little bit late as we had arrived from Marbial the evening before after a long hike and drive down from the mountains. At the hotel we are treated well – a good breakfast and some café au lait to start the day.

We then headed over to the orphanage for our first day of work there. I found the home quite pleasant and clean. All the kids sleep dormitory style and I wonder if this helps create a sense of camaraderie and family – I am sure it does as they boys call each other brother and you can see how much they love each other. While we did work some, the highlight was a fun soccer game between the Canadian’s and the Haitian workers and boys – TRUE FUN!

Andrew Creighton hanging out in a classroom.

Then the school kids came home, looking sharp and dapper in their school uniforms. It was extremely charming when the girls welcomed us with a respectful kiss on the cheek to greet us hello. I also managed to sneak in some drumming with some of the boys where we had an impromptu jam session and Dan Holmes played the trombone. You really get to know someone and all their layers of personality and expertise on a trip like this. Dano (that’s what I and the boys call him) is quite the Renaissance man!

After all this, it was off to the city. The boardwalk was very nice – Jacmel is actually a nice city on the ocean. John and I had a pleasant stroll through the nearby neighbourhood and everyone was active and pleasant.

We then walked some of the older harbor front buildings. Some nice, old, restored colonial buildings mixed with some very dilapidated old buildings. Presumably some of this is still left from the 2010 earthquake. Certainly a different vibe from the rainforest in the mountains and much warmer, but not unpleasant.

As a group we walked through the ‘downtown’ area. There are lots of little shops; barber shops and beauty shops are common as appearance is very important as we’ve seen on our visit. Hike any city of this type and the streets are busy and full of bikes and cars whizzing by as there are no sidewalks and the streets are more than full! All in all I felt relatively safe and it was certainly interesting. Though 3rd world and seemingly a land of chaos there is an inherent structure to life once you start to get immersed into their world.

Then back to the hotel, where we had another lovely group dinner as was customary for all our nights, this evening, we were joined by our ‘sons’ who included Franck – who Dano, Lana and I have agreed to sponsor for his last 3 years of university. Franck is a wonderful charming boy who is studying Agronomics. Despite losing his mother when he was 8, and father when he was 9, Franck has an amazing sense of strength and courage and is committed to his education which will hopefully allow him to gain his place in the world. He’s now my Haitian son!

Franck was also a great sport, allowing me to practice my French and him to practice his English. Franck is also a great worker which is why I think we hit it off so well. He is very appreciative of the gifts he has been given by Marline and Daniel rather than focusing on his hardships. I feel grateful to have met this wonderful young man.

Andrew Creighton from BC Building Science.

So in all this has been a great trip and a great day. Tomorrow we go to the plage (beach en francaise)! Blessed, fortunate or lucky – whatever the word, I am grateful to FLCM and the Centra Cares team for a great trip!


This update by Andrew Creighton.
Principal, BC Building Science.

For those who do not know, I am not a Centra employee. I was invited on this trip because of the generosity of Jeff Foster and John Tilstra and the team. What started as a random conversation around a campfire on a cold February day, turned into a trip that is a chance of a lifetime, though I hope this does not end here.
Andrew Creighton is now an honourary Centra Cares member.

Haiti Day 6: Working on the classrooms in Marbial

Today marks our fourth day up in the beautiful mountains of Marbial. Coming into this trip I can honestly admit I wasn’t sure what to expect, but am incredibly happy that I followed through with it. The experiences to get to this point have been incredibly humbling and have put into perspective the things that can be taken for granted back at home. Every morning the teachers and children of Marbial will traverse through the mountainsides just to get to school and they look as clean and well put together as if they were airlifted in. Meanwhile I had difficulty not starting my day without mud covered legs and dripping with sweat.

As of this morning the walls of the classroom are mostly completed and are nearing being ready for the trusses and roofing. As last night there was a heavy rain and class was not in session today we began assembling the trusses in an empty classroom. Dan and Doug began by pre-cutting all the materials and marking out a jig on the concrete floor. As we started nailing them together a group of students who had been watching from a distance began to get interested and with happy faces wanted to help.

Even with my botched French we were able to get things moving and began to look like a true assembly line from Dan, Doug, the boys and myself. Damien (in the green) ended up proving he had great hand eye coordination and was a true contractor at heart by sending every nail through effortlessly. All in all we built as many trusses as the materials allowed and we were able to get everyone involved as well. This trip has been an experience like no other with an amazing group of people, I am ecstatic I was given the opportunity to volunteer on this trip and would do it again without question.

Until next time Haiti!

This Update by Kyle Herd.

Haiti Day 5: Rain, Swimming Holes and Work Crews

Location: Marbial, Haiti

Population: Local; 5,000, Area; 15,000

Weather: Rainy, Cloudy, Humid with little sun

Region: Mountainous

Access: Hiking, Walking and to carry heavier goods like building materials, medicine and farming equipment – Donkeys.

Our day today started with rain pounding on our steel roofs. It rained all night so we felt like we were back in BC. I awoke at 6am and we had breakfast as a group at 7:15am. We had a great breakfast that included quiche and porridge. This was all homemade and very good. Everyone was moving slower as some were sore and all of us were tired of the tropical warm rain that made our mountainous hikes for dinner and to the school treacherous and dirty as this mud would stick to you like clay.

Our school project was going well and we were pouring our breams and posts around the block walls. We had a steel Rebar crew led by ‘Smokey’ Jeff Foster, a concrete block crew led by “Viking’ Kristian and a truss crew led by Dan and Kyle.  Our social crew was finishing school benches and giving candy to our helpers.

For lunch we had leftover goat, quiche, and macaroni – the food was all amazing and fresh. By this point, Jeramy was starting to feel better so at around 3 pm I went up the mountain to bring him down to the river so he could bathe, cool off and enjoy a good swim.  The hike from our bunkhouse accommodations to the river and back was long even with full energy. Jeramy is so tough and I am so glad he was feeling better at this point from Heat Stroke. He was awesome to have along and many thanks to all the care the ladies gave him.

We finished the workday with a great swim in the bathing hole at the river as a group. The river was swift-moving and 12” higher than the day before from all the rain, but it was warm and it felt like a luxury to us all at the end of each day.

The river is the lifeline of the Haitian people in the mountains. In the morning a few of us would get up and climb to the top of our mountain and look around in the valley to watch the activity of the people throughout the hills. Farmers were all over the hillside, kids dressed up going to school, women going to the river to wash clothes and get water. This was an amazing view and from here you can see the world stayed the same in the hills since man came to Haiti in the 1500’s.

That evening was filled with Q & A’s with our host Daniel, a wonderful God loving man who loves his people and giving back to others. Their ministry is very real and filled with love and selflessness. I would like to thank our entire team for being wonderful, caring individuals.

May God bless all of you.

This update by John Tilstra.

Haiti Day 4: Waking up in the Mountains of Marbial

Well, I just woke up from our first night in the mountains of Marbial and aside from some pretty intense snoring, I slept better than I thought. One would think after a 3-hour journey from Jacmel that included a 90-minute mountain hike, sleep would be the easiest part but this was different… Bunkhouse in tropical mountains, surrounded by a mosquito net, wildlife calls you’ve never heard. Needless to say, I was happy to be on the top bunk with Dano guarding me below. What I knew for sure was that I was just a few hours into the most amazing adventure in my life.

After breakfast, we made the short but steep hike to the school to not only see out Haitian friends were already hard at work (Love you Toto!) but the sight of hundreds of beautiful Haitian children of all ages sitting in classrooms learning. I couldn’t help but ask myself how they look so great each day living in this terrain, as we struggle to roll out of bed each day living in the blessed and prosperous conditions we have been fortunate to know all our lives. They were simply so grateful for the opportunity that Marline and Daniel have provided them with.

The work started and to be expected after a few minutes of laying concrete block it became apparent that my job would be to carry block and mortar as my skills didn’t match those of guys like Kristian & Kyle and the Haitians were too polite to tell me to get out of the way. 🙂

The workday came and went with us successfully building two-thirds of the first classroom. Exhausted and soaked in sweat, Jonas & Kenault led us to the local swimming hole which was nothing short of amazing. Marlaine and her kitchen staff cooked us a wonderful meal before J.T. lead us into a group conversation to learn more about one another, our life story and why we chose to take this opportunity to help the Haitian people. There were some tears and lots of amazing stories that made me realize I was part of a wonderful team. At 8 pm, which became the norm, it was back under the mosquito net for another deep sleep.

Thank you to J.T and the entire Centra team, but most importantly to Marlaine, Daniel, Kenault, Jonas, Toto and all my new Haitian friends who have made this an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life.

This update by Steve Bartlett.

My harrowing experience in Haiti

I was looking forward to our trip to Haiti.  Maybe a little nervous as I personally had never traveled to any other countries outside of Canada other than the United States and Mexico.  The closest I had come to experiencing a country similar to Haiti would be when I left the resort compound while staying between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, in Mexico.  A far stretch I know.  But nonetheless, I had confidence in Jeff and Lisa Bontkes, our leaders who had been to Haiti more than a few times combined, and in John Tilstra and Jeff Foster, the two within our Centra group who had both traveled to Nicaragua for similar trips in the past.  Not to mention the remainder of the Centra family members who were also participating in this trip to Haiti.  We had a great group of people, before we even started the adventure.

The first day (Saturday) in Haiti and exiting the airport, we were all gung-ho to get in the trucks and experience Haiti.  A whole new sight and experience for most of us.  I found the heat and humidity to be hot for sure, but not to the point where I felt it was slowing me down.  I felt good and was proud to be at our destination.  One more step closer to helping out where help was needed.  That afternoon, after lunch, we all went down the hill, across the river, and up the other side, to the location of the Marbial school.  A bit of a trek on its own to get to, but all part of the adventure.  Work began, in the hot sun – or at least I thought it was hot, not wasting any time we had to ensure we completed our tasks and contributed as much as we could.  We were a team and working well as one.  Everybody had a job.  From keeping the block layers loaded up with concrete blocks and mortar to laying the blocks themselves, or assembling benches for the classrooms.  It was all getting done and we were making progress.

The next morning (Monday), we all meet for a delicious breakfast, then head over to the school for more of the same.  Continuing on where we left off.  One difference was Andrew Creighton and I both living in the moment and carrying buckets of rocks on our heads, just like the local ladies were doing.  Or at least we thought we were doing it just like them.  They weren’t using any hands, and made it look easy, by doing it all day.  I managed 2 trips, Andrew did 3.  That was tough, but an experience I’ll never forget.  Including all of the chuckling while they watched us struggle up the hill.  By the day, I was ready for a break.  I had taken several breaks throughout the day and was drinking lots of water, but I was hot.  A dip in the river was in order, to clean up and cool off before dinner.  I must add that the food we had throughout the trip was awesome, especially while staying in Marbial.

That night, I couldn’t sleep.  I was hot, and unable to cool down.  And there was way too much snoring happening in our bunkhouse.  I decided to get up and get some fresh air.  While climbing down off the top bunk, I blacked out and hit the floor.  Woke up thinking, “man does this cold concrete floor ever feel good”.  Wait a minute, “why am I on the floor, it’s dirty and I have a bed”.  I sit up and right away my bunk mates (Stevie B., Kristian, Kyle, and Dan) were awake to see if I was ok.  All but Doug, he snored through the whole ordeal.  Haha.  Kristian got up out of bed to make sure I didn’t fall over again, Dan immediately gave me a container of water with electrolytes in it, and made sure I kept flexing my hands as they were cramping up and I was unable to move them.

Tuesday morning I couldn’t eat.  Every one of our team members had heard what happened the night before and was asking how I was feeling.  It was very nice to know they were concerned and cared.  After all, they were my family for the week. Turns out I had heat stroke, and I was down for the count for the next two days.  Unable to help or contribute in any way.  I was very disappointed.  I had come all this way to work with our team, be part of our team, and help those that we came to help.  But couldn’t.  All I could do was rest and get better.

While the rest of our team was working, I stayed at the main house with Marlaine and Daniel, our hosts.  Using one of their beds to lay motionless in the 40 degree celsius hot and humid air, trying to stay cool as much as possible.  Marlaine would come in and check on me every half hour or so to refill my water bottle and rewet the cold cloth Lisa V. had left me to use.  Making sure I was ok and feeling better.  This was of great comfort knowing I had someone watching over me.  Isaac, the school principal, even came down to see how I was doing.

By Wednesday afternoon, after another low key day, I was starting to feel better.  Which was good, considering Thursday morning was our hike back towards Jacmel.  After all, I did not want to have to hike while sick with heat stroke.  With John T’s help, I was able to make it down to the swimming hole with the rest of the team at the end of their work day and cool off.  Something I didn’t have the energy to do the day before, but probably would have helped tremendously.  That evening we were served a delicious spaghetti dinner, and I’m sure that helped in my recovery.  It’s one of my favourite meals.

From Thursday on I was almost back to normal.  Making the hike back, at a slower pace of course.  Helping with mortar and blocks again, at the orphanage, and playing soccer with the kids.

A pretty quick recovery considering the circumstances.  But, I am convinced, I wouldn’t have gotten through it nearly as quick, without knowing that our team was behind me, and genuinely cared about how I was feeling and if I was getting better.  Each and every one of our team members asked me both days I was sick if I needed anything.  They were very supportive, such good people.  I am proud and thankful that we were there together.  I will never forget that.

In no particular order, Jeff and Lisa B., John T., Jeff F., Ed and Lisa V., Doug M., Kyle H., Steve B., Dan H., Lana G., Andrew C., Marlaine, Daniel, Isaac and of course Kristian D.  Thank you very much, I appreciate the level of care and concern you showed for me.

Given the chance, I’d go again in an instant.

This update by Jeramy Smith.


Haiti Day 2: Journey to Marbial

Well, where to begin?

I started Sunday morning waking up to waves crashing against the shore and my roomy Kyle in a slight snore. The sun rises early in Haiti, so it’s hard to tell the time but I think it was a little after six am. So I decided to take in the morning view and go to the patio deck to find a cup of coffee, but what I found was Jeff, John and Doug already up enjoying the morning scenery and solitude, so I joined them.

The following next few hours were spent in conversation, excitement and nervous anticipation for the adventure to come, as everyone woke and joined the group. We all had breakfast and packed for our trip to Marbial. As we stood out front of the Hotel waiting for our Big Blue caged truck to show up there was nothing but smiles to be seen. Finally, our truck arrived and we packed it up with the help of three young men, Kenault, Jonas and Milo and we were off.

We now had a two and half hour drive to the market and from there we would need to hike for one and a half to two hours up the mountain to Marbial. In the back of the truck, we had the three young men, John, Andrew, Jeff, Jeramy, Lana, Doug, Ed, Lisa and Steve and following behind us was a little black truck with the rest of the crew in it. As we drove through Jacmel and up into the mountains following the river all the way, you could hear numerous conversations about the beauty of the scenery, and in the same breath the shock of the pollution, garbage everywhere!

We followed the windy river through the mountains running out of road and making our own, crossing the river many times in our big blue cage caravan. At every corner, there were little clusters of homes, children, animals, and women doing laundry and then we made it to the market. By now it was about 12:30 pm and it was starting to get hot and really humid as I jumped out of the big blue cage, I was immediately met with a huge smile and handshake by a local named Toto shouting Bonjour to our whole crew. He was truly happy to see us and made me feel very welcome and charged with energy.

I thought “I’m going to crush this hike and day”. So we all put on our packs and lead by Jeff and Lisa Bontkes, we started our hike. I noticed as we started up the river that we had more than just our group, we had women, children, young men and girls with us carrying all our tools, extra luggage, vitamins, and clothing. It was amazing to witness and I was in awe at that moment.  Our hike began and up, and up we went and with each step I had a little boy or girl pass me, carrying luggage. The girls carried luggage on their head and the amazing thing about this was they were dressed in their Sunday best for church and weren’t even breaking a sweat.

Dan Holmes

I began to get a little discouraged towards the end of the hike when the little old ladies started passing me and asking if they could carry my pack. Soooo… I did say no but I can’t lie that I didn’t think about, it was very hot and humid, LOL. We made it to Marbial by 1:30 pm and it was one heck of a hike but our journey was only half over. We still had to hike to the other side of the valley and start the forms on the school addition before it got dark and Jeff said we were behind schedule and had to pick up the pace. So we all quickly dropped our gear at our new home for the next five days and raced down the mountain to get to work on the school for the first time……. To be continued


This update by Dan Holmes.

Haiti Day 1: Travelling to Port au Prince & Jacmel

Our Centra Cares team at the Port au Prince aiport.


Our Trip Started at 2:30 PM Friday Nov 3. It actually started many months prior and all the planning has finally come together. The group of 14: John Tilstra, Ed and Lisa Vandermeer, Kristian DiGuistini, Steve Bartlett, Jeramy Smith, Lana Gordin, Kyle Herd, Doug Morelli, Dan Holmes, Jeff Foster, all from Centra, and from BC Building Science, special guest Andrew Creighton along with our 2 hosts Lisa and Jeff Bontkes, are all very excited to get going. We all know each other a little bit and there is nervous anticipation as to what we will experience.

We crossed the border without delay and made our way to Seattle for a 10 pm flight to Miami, landing at 2:30 am. A bite to eat and a 3 hour layover then off to Port au Prince. Once landed we collected all our baggage and then waited 45 min or so for our transport. The local transportation operators were not too excited about losing these possible fares to our Haitian hosts vehicles and there was much yelling and gesticulating of arms etc. But the police got involved and then we were ushered outside to load and off we went.

View from within a transport vehicle.

Exiting Port au prince was a huge eye opener. Most of the crew rode in a large 6 wheeled truck resembling a Prison Vehicle. Very uncomfortable wood seats with no bars to hold on to. It was however somewhat open aired so at least they had ventilation. Some rode in the back of a pickup and a lucky few rode inside with air-conditioning. The sights and sounds as we traveled through the town was like nothing I have ever experienced.

All traveling vehicles fight for space and constantly cut each other off. A small toot on the horn is the equivalent of a signal light indicating a horn. So horns are constantly being honked, cars and trucks are moving all over the place and this is nothing compared to the motorcycles that weave in and out at twice the car speed…barely missing each other, or almost getting squished between passing vehicles. It is utter confusion and very slow moving.

It took 2.5 hours to get beyond town, (15 KM) and then we moved into the mountains and less traffic. The part of Port au Prince that we traveled through is not very pretty. All garbage is tossed to the ground and left there. Plastic bottles seem to float to the surface and they are everywhere. Imagine all the bottles and cans that your household uses in a month being left in your yard, lying beside the road etc. Now imagine jamming all the people in say the Langley area, into the Walnut grove area. Any yard space from current homes would then be filled with tents. All boulevards and open spaces filled with vendors, kids and tent cities. And all that garbage is left lying about. No city workers to pick it up. You get the idea.

But once over the mountains and into Jacmel it’s a very beautiful area. Jacmel feels clean and safe in comparison to P.A.P. Our Hotel is small and quaint, but safe. It has its own compound and feels very safe. We arrived to the hotel at around 2 PM Saturday with little or no overnight sleep. All were tired and hungry. Dinner, a little planning for tomorrow discussions, and off to bed. Tomorrow will be another long day!

This Update by Jeff Foster.