When 17 members of the Ole Miss football family, including 10 players, arrived at the village of Camp Marie, Haiti, their world was turned upside down.
Gone were the accustomed luxuries that most Americans take for granted: paved roads, restaurants, over-the-counter medicine, plenty of clothes and shoes, even clean water.
What they encountered in Haiti was completely different. Dirt and gravel everywhere. Trash piled up on the walkways. Children without shoes, some without clothes altogether. Dogs and cattle that look like skeletal versions of themselves.
“I probably saw 300 children in the village and only two toys,” said John Powell, the Ole Miss football team chaplain who for the second straight year took a group of Rebels on a spring break mission trip. “One toy was a broken monster truck with only two wheels. The other was a wheel off a baby stroller that they rolled on the ground with a stick.
“You would find yourself taking pictures of young people and show them the picture of themselves on your phone, and it was the first time they ever saw what they looked like. It was a very humbling experience.”
The Ole Miss group lived in Camp Marie just shy of a week. Their primary task was to widen a narrow gravel road enough to allow trucks to pass through so the community could improve the transport of its primary financial resource, the papaya fruit.
“Every day we got up at 7 o’clock, ate breakfast and worked on the road,” said rising junior offensive lineman Justin Bell, who also went on a mission trip to Panama last spring break. “They needed help widening the road. When we first got there, it was wide enough for maybe two or three people to walk side by side, but by the time we left it was enough for a truck to go down.”
“Now they’ll have a greater opportunity to increase income for their village,” said Powell. “We were only there for a short time, but it’s good to know that we left them with hope that there are people out there that do care.”
In addition to Powell and Bell, the Ole Miss group consisted of graduated defensive back Ontario Berry, senior linebacker Serderius Bryant, redshirt-freshman quarterback Ryan Buchanan, sophomore long snapper Will Few, senior cornerback LaKedrick King, redshirt-freshman kicker Andy Pappanastos, redshirt-freshman linebacker Tayler Polk, graduate student linebacker Deterrian Shackelford, sophomore defensive end John Youngblood, team manager Lee Plaxico, and linebackers coach Tom Allen, his wife Tracy, and children Hannah, Thomas and Brittney.
Powell and Allen also orchestrated leadership training sessions for village leaders, and the whole group spent time with children, shared about their faith, and prayed for the sick and needy.
“We prayed for a few families,” said Bell. “One lady couldn’t even walk because she had high blood pressure. That shows you what kind of medical attention we get here in America. When someone has high blood pressure, they take a pill and they’re fine.”
Powell said roughly 15 percent of the Haitian youth in the village are able to attend school.
“It was eye-opening,” said Bryant, an All-SEC linebacker from Sanford, Fla. “It changed your mind about a lot of things. Sometimes I think, ‘Why do we have to go to school? Why do we have to go to football practice?’ Over there, all of them want to go to school, but they can’t afford it. And that’s crazy. We are upset about going to school when it’s free, and they actually want to go to school but they can’t even afford to.”
The level of poverty was new to all the members of the mission team. But as they walked through the village set in the mountains with breathtaking views in the distance, they were amazed by how the Haitians responded to their presence.
“Even our homeless in America have more than what the people had in that village, but I can honestly say they were some of the happiest people I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Bell. “Because they value family and meeting people. Some of the older guys have been waiting to see Americans come and help their community since they were in their 20s. It brought tears to their eyes when they saw us. When we left, they shed a tear again because they were going to miss us. They wished we could stay forever.”
“They don’t know anything different,” said Powell. “They’re happy. They admit they have issues and problems, but they have a happiness about them.
“This was a great experience for our guys to come back and know how grateful they should be. And I hope it will also lead them to look for opportunities to help those in need even in Oxford.”
–Joey Jones, Associate Director, Athletics Media Relations