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“Blessed to be a blessing”

Solon-area family gains much by giving
Solon resident Ali Treloar has lived and served as a volunteer in a Haitian orphanage since 2013. Teaching sustainable practices and skills– such as growing vegetables despite adverse soil and weather conditions– are key to helping Haitians lift themselves out of poverty. (submitted photo)

SOLON– It started as an alternative to the traditional beach-destined spring break trip.
It turned into a life of service to God and humanity.
In 2012, when the Treloar family of rural Solon was in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a spring break, they met a girl there who inspired them to make their next year’s vacation a mission trip to Haiti instead. Though the island experienced a devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake three years before, the impoverished and destroyed country had not been sufficiently restored.
“They were already one of the poorest countries in the world,” said Ali Treloar. “They weren’t in a great state even before the earthquake.”
So four of the Treloars– Roger and Suzie and daughters Ali and Laura– in 2013 accompanied other church members to Haiti via the Cedar Rapids-based, Christ-centered organization Mission of Hope.
“We saw what poverty and hopelessness looked like,” said Roger. The mission group was able to visit villages and meet the people there, many living in makeshift housing without indoor plumbing or electricity.
They also met a family originally from Rock Rapids, who were there on a mission as well. Dell and Renae Grooters founded their own faith-based organization, Touch of Hope, in 2011 as a nonprofit organization with the goal of making a long-term commitment to serving Haitians in need. The Grooters moved to the Haitian village of Simonette and raised funds to build a school.
Even as the Treloars were touring the villages in Haiti, Ali had already made up her mind to return.
“Ali kept saying, ‘I’m coming back,’ and in my heart, I was saying, ‘No, Lord, she’s not coming back here,’” said Suzie. Ali had just graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in communications and was working at Iowa Gym Nest at the time. “She was 24 years old, and Haiti is a hard place to be. It’s dangerous, there’s poverty and disease, and in my heart she was still our little girl. Even though she was a grown woman, the mother in me did not want her to go back alone.”
Nevertheless, Ali applied for an internship to volunteer in Haiti and was soon assigned to work in the Tytoo Orphanage, which is supported by a partnership between Touch of Hope and a Canada-based church. She arrived in Port Au Prince on June 29, with the idea of staying in the village of Simonette through the end of the year. Arriving at the Port Au Prince airport, she was bombarded by native Haitians claiming to be her escort and offering her rides. She did not speak the Creole language at the time, and had no idea who was supposed to meet her.
“It was just chaos,” said Ali. “But then I finally saw these people waving at me from outside, and I figured they must know me, so I went with them. It was Frank King and his family.”
Canadian nurses Frank and Esther King were in charge of running the seaside Tytoo orphanage where 40-some children were living. About half of them came from another Haitian orphanage that closed in 2013. There, the children had endured extremely dire living conditions. Many of the transplanted children arrived at Tytoo sick and underfed, without knowledge of their backgrounds or whether their family members were still alive.
At Tytoo, the team room– a common sleeping area for volunteers in the orphanage–became Ali’s new home. Tytoo is a compound surrounded by razor wire and guards to keep its inhabitants safe. Like many facilities in Haiti, the building experiences frequent water outages and sketchy power. Resources are scarce and services in the village are minimal.
Ali had no specific job description, but jumped into her position by interacting with the children and finding ways to create organization amid the commotion of the lively, needful assembly.
“We had malnourished babies who needed ‘manba,’” she said. Nourimanba is a high-protein paste made from peanut butter and milk powder, often the difference between living and dying for Haiti’s estimated 300,000 children facing malnutrition. “We didn’t have very much staff at the time, so we just had to make sure the kids ate lunch and had interaction and got what they needed.”
The lack of consistent communication systems left Ali with only occasional opportunities to touch base with her parents back in Iowa.
In June, Ali had booked a one-way ticket with the idea that if she didn’t like living in Haiti, she could return home, even before December if necessary.
But that November, Frank and Esther King experienced family obligations requiring them to return to Canada. Instead of coming back in six months as planned, Ali decided to stay and help manage the orphanage, still on a volunteer basis. She took on the bookkeeping, banking and payroll duties. Making trips to the bank in Port Au Prince was a dicey endeavor, as thieves often target people exiting banks, hoping to steal their cash. Ali had to go to a local Internet café in order to upload the financial records to the orphanage’s funding organization in Canada.
But none of the inconveniences, risks or hard work ever made Ali feel as if she were struggling, she said.
“I loved it,” said Ali. “I loved the kids. I knew that’s where God wanted me, and I just trusted that.”
Roger, Suzie and Laura– this time, joined by Laura’s new husband Steven– returned to Haiti that Thanksgiving. They came with the goal of creating lasting changes for the children and staff at Tytoo. For example, they built raised garden beds so the staff would be able to grow fresh vegetables. The island country’s soil is very poor and lacks vegetation, so the Treloars introduced composting with food scraps and employed a local man to haul manure from a nearby cattle farm to enrich the garden soil.
Ali remained in Haiti until February 2014 before making her first visit home, but she went back right away. Since then, Suzie, Roger and Laura have made subsequent trips, even leading teams of other volunteers. They have gone to Haiti seven times now, Roger estimated, and he and Suzie will go again this spring.
“We are hoping to build a hydroponic system for their gardens,” said Roger. A nearby mountain spring provides water to Simonette’s village reservoir, but it’s not a constant supply. Haiti’s dry season, combined with extremely hot temperatures, wreak havoc on the plants, so a hydroponic system could be a viable alternative until the garden soil gets built up enough to grow produce.
“You can’t just go down there with a handful of money and hand it out and think you are going to solve everything,” Roger said.
Suzie agreed.
“We’ve had the advantage of going there and staying, rather than just the short term mission trips,” she said, noting they once stayed for three months. “The whole idea is to help the Haitians become self-sustainable.”
In rural Haiti, there is one physician for every 10,000 patients. Haiti has an unemployment rate of 75 percent, while its high school graduation rate is less than five percent. Though Haitians are hard workers eager to get jobs, there are simply too few jobs to be found. The Haitian government is known for its deep corruption. National elections, believed by most to be rigged, are cause for riots. The government manipulates the price of goods, such as gasoline, in order to attempt to control the populace. Bribing officials is routine and crime is a means of survival for many.
“They manifest, which means the people take to the streets,” Roger said. “They will burn tires and flip cars and throw rocks, and essentially shut down the main road to protest the government. It can be very dangerous to go out if you don’t honor the protest and stay home.”
But Ali sees a slow and steady recovery in the island nation she serves and has grown to love. Getting an education and developing trade skills are crucial for Haitians wishing to escape ruinous poverty. Ali helped re-establish a program that assists women to find jobs, receive health care for their children, and keep their kids in school.
“Women would come to the gate begging us to take their children,” said Ali. “Lots of times it’s because something bad has happened in their lives, or they are sick and their children are starving. Sometimes giving their kids to the orphanage is the best chance for them to survive.”
Their grave situations prompted Ali to find a way to effect real change. She and a Haitian friend, Mommy Sarah, revived the Starfish program to help the women find jobs, arrange better living situations and figure out ways to pay their children’s expensive tuition, books and uniform fees. Public schools are either over-crowded or nonexistent in rural areas, and private schooling gets increasingly expensive as students advance in grades. Ali does home visits to assess the women’s living situations and works with them to develop plans for taking control of their lives. Ali and other volunteers created a food depot as part of the Starfish program, where the women can buy grain in bulk on credit and sell it for a small profit– some of which Ali holds onto, building each woman a savings account to be used in emergencies. Starfish volunteers teach skills such as knitting, sewing, writing and budgeting, in addition to offering spiritual lessons and support.
“It’s a short-term program to create long-term independence,” said Ali. “They graduate once they have a stable income for three to four months and can sustain on their own.”
Those successes keep her going, Ali said. Last year, 32 women graduated from the Starfish program. “Those are women who now independently care for their children, when they were once standing outside our gate begging us to take them.”
She related the anecdote of Bernadette, perhaps one of Ali’s favorite success stories. When Ali met her, Bernadette was sleeping under tarps propped up by sticks, while her seven children slept at various neighbors’ homes on different nights. Bernadette barely interacted, had no job and was unable to pay tuition for her children. Ali gave Bernadette a job caring for a stroke victim, an elderly woman staying in Tytoo’s medical clinic.
“She walked between the orphanage and her village, about four miles away. She would get up at 4 a.m. in order to get her children ready for school and get to work by 6 a.m.,” said Ali.
Today, Bernadette works as a nanny in the orphanage, and regularly sings and dances and laughs with joy, in addition to keeping a roof over her head and keeping her children in school.
“I’ll forever be changed,” Ali said. “Definitely. It’s a completely different world and different life. There are people truly suffering in the world, and the extent of it is hard to convey. Simple conversations are hard to have now, but you have to let that go.”
Suzie agreed.
“You can’t compare our lives here to there,” said Suzie. “When we came back from that first trip, it was hard not to feel so guilty about all we have and all we take for granted. Yes, we do have a lot here, but pointing fingers is not the answer. So you grow, and learn how to accept what you have and hopefully use it to give back.”
Ali said the first step is just gaining awareness of what’s going on in other parts of the world.
“I encourage people to sacrifice something, even small things like your morning cup of coffee,” she said. “Donate. Whatever is your focus– if you like medical causes or the elderly or kids– learn about that cause, and you’re going to want to help.”
And not just in Haiti, Roger added.
“There is suffering in Africa and Cambodia and Central America and everywhere. (You make a difference) when you just gain the awareness that we are blessed in this country, and you use that blessing to try to help other people,” he said.
Even as poor as Haitian people are, Ali said, they always share what little they have with those who have even less. Bernadette, with her seven children, took in her sister’s children and a cousin’s family. “There are 13 people living in her house, and it’s one room with one bed,” Ali said. “They share their food; they help each other survive and they always will. That’s the cool part.”
Suzie thinks Ali’s desire to return to Haiti after being home for only three months demonstrates Ali’s deep commitment to her faith.
“There’s a Bible verse that says ‘Blessed to be a blessing,’” Suzie said. “She’s getting her own blessings just be being one, and that’s what it’s all about.”