I’ve traveled to many countries in my short nineteen years, but none have ever been quite like my time in Haiti. First of all, I had never been to a third world country, so the poverty, pollution, and trash was all a shock to me. Second, I didn’t really know what to expect besides what Catherine and Laura had said in emails. I knew that I wouldn’t be living in my normal living conditions, but nothing could have prepared me for my surroundings here. I remember driving to HAC after being picked up at the airport and being stricken by the scenery on the ride home. There was dirty, muddy trash everywhere on the ground. There was black exhaust coming out of most of the cars. There were dogs, goats, sheep, and many more animals picking at the trash hoping to find a sliver of food to satisfy their hunger. I knew I wasn’t going to a resort destination, but I never could have expected to see this kind of a situation.
When I decided to come to Haiti for a public health internship, I didn’t exactly know what that would entail. I was open to anything and just wanted to gain knowledge on the subject matter and a developing country. Because of my interest in global public health, I thought Haiti would be the perfect place to start. Not too far from home, and a perfect way to find out if this is something that would interest me further down my career path. Two of my passions in life are fitness and nutrition (which all of HAC knows by now, what with my “gym” being the hallway). I’ve always been an athletic person and needing a good sweat to de-stress. Healthy eating has been an important part of my fitness journey, and my passion for learning about nutrition has grown over the past year.
After learning about the malnutrition and unhealthy eating patterns of many Haitians, I decided I wanted to try to change that, even if it was on a small scale. I started researching the simple five food groups and the benefits that each one has on our bodies. I made it my mission to educate the students at IMSF on the health benefits of eating a healthy, balanced diet. Before the presentations, I didn’t know if the students would receive the message well or even at all. Communication was a large barrier, since I don’t speak Creole, but Catherine was there to translate for me, thankfully.
In the beginning presentations, I was still adjusting to the translation of words and understanding that most of the students didn’t know what I was saying. After I got used to the fact of having a translator, the lesson plan flowed more smoothly. I knew what I wanted to say, and the exercise that I wanted the students to do. I gained more confidence as time went on, and even had a few conversations with students about nutrition from their questions.
I found that many of the students had learned that there were only three food groups: fruits and vegetables, grains, and meats. Dairy isn’t considered a food group because it isn’t easily accessible to them, and fruits and vegetables are grouped together as one group. I simply expanded their knowledge of the groups because many of them already knew about the different types of foods. However, they didn’t know about the benefits of each food group and how eating from each food group everyday leads to a balanced diet. There were many questions asked about why they needed to do this and what happened if they didn’t. They also didn’t believe me when I said that Chicos was bad for their health. They have grown up eating processed junk foods, and never once questioned the unpronounceable ingredients. No one told them that there are healthier snacks, like a banana or a handful of peanuts.
I wanted to improve the nutrition of the students at IMSF, and I have allowed myself a sliver of hope that maybe, through the education I have provided, that some of them will listen and learn from it. I am also a realist, though, and understand the situation of most of the students. I see that they don’t eat a regular three meals a day, and probably go to bed hungry every night. I see that they can’t afford to spend the extra money on a banana instead of the less expensive Chicos. I realize that education can only go so far, but I also realize that education is the first step to a lot of problems. The students didn’t know that Chicos was bad for their health, but now they do. They didn’t know about the dairy food group, but with the education I provided, now they do. In order to make a larger impact, you must start small. That is what I have learned from my time in Haiti. I believe that we can make a difference, but we have to start small in order to grow. Just look at IMSF. Laura said they slept in tents when they first started out, and now there are two buildings with housing, water, power, and a staff! I want the students to realize that they can make a difference in their own lives just by learning about something as simple as the five food groups. If they have the knowledge, then maybe they will influence their families to become healthier. This may be wishful thinking, but I think it’s a start.
There are so many things in life that we take for granted. Many people don’t realize just how fortunate they are to live in a developed country with things like running water and electricity. All we have to do is turn the faucet and clean, running water flows out or flip the switch to be able to see at night, but so many people in the world don’t have that luxury. I have met families here that don’t have a door to their house or share an outhouse for their bathroom with five other families. There are people here who share a one bedroom concrete shack with nine other people with more than three people to a bed. And I will admit that it’s going to take a lot more than education to fix the problems in Haiti. But one thing we can give them is hope. Hope for a better life. It may seem cliché, but a positive outlook on life can certainly change one’s life. They have taught me about the struggles that they endure everyday, and I know that I can’t help them with those bigger problems, which breaks my heart, but it gives me hope to see HAC working so diligently to make a difference in these people’s lives. So I hope that I have made even the smallest difference by being here. If I can make a difference, then anyone can.