49ers.com | 49ers in Haiti

49ers in
H a i t i
By Tyler Emerick

A Haitian boy sits cross-legged on a Port-au-Prince sidewalk sipping water out of a tiny plastic bag. 

His feet are bare, his shirt is tattered and dirt smudges his skin, from his forehead to his ankles.

Stopped at an intersection a few feet away is a van full of NFL players and their wives and girlfriends. The American travelers peer out of the backseat window and make eye contact with the stone-faced boy.

As the passengers begin to wave, the boy lifts his arm to block his eyes from the sunlight. He looks both ways, then back at the van before revealing a soft, warm smile. He gestures back at the visitors for a few more moments before the van accelerates out of view.

The story of the San Francisco 49ers contingent driving along this empty street in this forgotten country began with the word of a pastor, the action of another and – in between – the inspiration of a few football players.

Late in the 2014 season, the 49ers invited Bay Area native and world-renowned preacher Francis Chan to speak to their players at the team’s facility in Santa Clara. Second-year tight end Vance McDonald felt particularly moved by Chan’s charitable work in Africa, so he enlisted two of his best friends, tight ends Garrett Celek and Derek Carrier, to take similar action.

The trio approached team pastor Earl Smith with their offseason objective: Travel to a foreign country and make an impact.

Pastor Earl, an 18-year veteran in the organization, took the reins from there, eliciting support from the team’s front office to make the trip possible.

Haiti was one of the first countries discussed. Nobody knew much about the nation – the poorest in the western hemisphere – but they all knew what occurred in January 2010.

Undeveloped and unprepared, Haiti was hit by a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake just a few miles off of the coast of its capital and most populous city, Port-au-Prince. More than three million people were affected by the earthquake, and although the exact number is not known, an estimated 230,000-to-316,000 people lost their lives.

In a third-world country with many complex sociological and economic problems, the devastation exacerbated Haiti’s existing wounds. Global aid has helped the country in the five years since the earthquake – but only marginally. According to The World Food Programme, two out of every three Haitians live on less than two dollars per day.

When the 49ers chose Haiti, a partnership was formed with Convoy of Hope, a U.S.-based organization that feeds children in 11 countries and responds to disasters around the world.

Convoy of Hope organized a three-day itinerary for the 49ers players to learn about the issues facing Haiti, work on the front lines of the recovery effort and spend time with local children affected by the earthquake.

Arrangements were made for the traveling party – comprising the three tight ends, defensive lineman Tank Carradine, Pastor Earl, staffers from Convoy of Hope, the players’ significant others, a videographer and a reporter – me. We met in Miami in late March and flew to Haiti from there.

What occurred over that spring weekend left those involved not with a sense of guilt, but with a sense of responsibility.

“We went there thinking we were going to be the ones helping them,” McDonald said. “But they helped us way more than they’ll ever understand.”

D a y   1

 
 

Day 1: 'Convoy Moving out'

9 a.m. EDT, Port-au-Prince International Airport: The first step off the American Airlines jet is like stepping through a portal. It’s almost as if there’s an invisible wall leading from the airplane cabin into the main terminal of the airport.

Sure, I can see a striking contrast in infrastructure between Haiti and the neighboring Dominican Republic during our descent, but until my feet hit the concrete, I don’t really know what to expect.

The heat and humidity hits me first. A dusty, ineffective swamp cooler welcomes passengers into a tapered hallway.

Kimarie Paige, the director of special events for Convoy of Hope, tells us that chickens freely roamed the terminal just a few years back.

Paige, a veteran of these trips whose Staten Island accent is simultaneously commanding and comforting, ushers the group through various security checkpoints with three words that become our marching orders over the next few days, “Convoy moving out!”

At baggage claim, Carradine is an instant attraction. The 6-foot-4, 273-pound pass-rusher draws several curious glances before a brave bystander approaches him. The Haitian man cranes his neck up to meet eye-level and begins speaking in Creole French, his country’s official language.

Carradine, who has three half-brothers of Haitian decent, removes his Beats by Dre headphones, flashes an uncomfortable smile and politely tells the man he only speaks English. He then turns to the group and says, “Man, I think I’m some kind of celebrity here.”

Carradine was a late addition to the traveling party. When Pastor Earl first announced the trip to the 30 players in his 49ers chapel, many expressed interest but only Carradine ultimately joined the three tight ends.

He stuck with his commitment even after friend and fellow defensive lineman Quinton Dial withdrew from the trip due to the birth of his first child.

“I texted and called Pastor Earl and let him know that I still really wanted to go,” Carradine said later. “This was something I just needed to do.”

After we collect our luggage, we link up with the rest of the Convoy of Hope staff accompanying us on the journey. The crew includes field teams director Matt Wilkie, vice president of philanthropy Dan Clark, and Rocky Lewis-Martin, a Haiti native and the head of our security detail.

As we near the doors to the parking lot, a Haitian woman in a long floral dress notices the players and speeds up her walk to cut them off at the exit. “What are you guys doing here?” she asks them. “Are you some famous football or basketball players?”

“No, Ma’am,” McDonald replies, “We’re just here to work.”

2:30 p.m., Turpin, Haiti: After lunch and a bumpy drive through the chaotic streets of Port-au-Prince, we arrive at a small community called Turpin tucked away in the Cul-de-Sac Plain mountain range surrounding the country’s capital city.

Here, boys and girls ride donkeys for transportation, carry heavy bags of grain and produce atop their heads and bathe in water runoff caught in small ravines.

The players and their significant others emerge from our vehicle caravan and circle around Wilkie, a former Christian radio station host whose broadcast experience is evident even without a microphone. Wilkie tells us that the small town was one of the first communities to embrace Convoy of Hope’s agriculture initiative, which teaches local farmers techniques that not only increase yields but promote sustainability.

The program has trained more than 3,600 farmers, all of whom are required to give 10 percent of their harvest to Convoy of Hope’s children’s feeding initiative. Since 2013, roughly three million meals have been locally grown and purchased in Haiti.

“Our plan is unique because it includes a built-in exit strategy,” Clark, a Midwestern father who brought along his teenage daughter, Megan, to learn about Haiti’s plight, said later. “We’re happy to be feeding these kids, but we don’t want to be feeding their children’s children.

“In fact, if that happens, we’ve failed. One day, we want Convoy of Hope to work itself out of a job.”

The players follow along as the Convoy of Hope staff details the area’s transformation, pointing to renovations at the church and its adjacent school as examples of progress. Many parents allow their children to be educated here solely because their kids will be fed at least once during the day. Otherwise, they’d stay at home and work.

The tour continues. The group walks on a narrow path surrounded by lush fields of sugarcane. Pastor Earl, a graying 59-year-old whose soulful eyes pierce even the toughest exteriors, helps each person cross a puddle on a steep incline before taking the elongated step himself. The hike stops under the shade of massive mango tree, and we learn about how farmers grow crops without the use of expensive and harmful pesticides.

“Did you know one caterpillar can kill three stocks of corn?” one Haitian guide asks us.

To combat the infestation, Convoy of Hope instructs farmers to cook spicy peppers in water, and then spray the concoction onto the leaves. The alternative, which Carradine seemed to prefer, is crushing the bugs between your fingers.

“What are we waiting for?” Carradine asks the group. “Let’s go squeeze some caterpillars.”

Paige leans over and whispers to me, “I love his heart.”

Back at the church entrance, we meet the local pastor who tells the group that he has brought several orphan children into his home. He thanks Convoy of Hope for its aid work before emphasizing the need for additional support.

“How many more kids are there to help?” Carradine asks.

Eyes widen and lock onto the middle-aged Haitian man as the players wait for an answer. He tells the group that resources are stretched far too thin to reach every child in the area. Ambassadors are needed to champion the cause.

“More than what you do and see,” Wilkie says, “it’s about what you set in motion.”

The group huddles in prayer with the pastor, returns to the vans and drives back into the city to rest for the night.

D a y   2

 

Day 2: 'An Inspiration to Us'

9:00 a.m., Mission of Hope warehouse: It’s a picturesque day in Titanyen (pronounced Ti-ta-yen by the locals). It’s the type of day tourists across the island in the Dominican Republic might spend sunbathing on the beach. No clouds are in sight. The temperature is in the mid-80s. And off on the horizon, it’s difficult to tell where the sky ends and the ocean begins.

Here, we travel in our eight-seater white vans to a compound on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince fortified by cement walls and armed guards. We are just a few miles away from a mass grave site of earthquake victims.

The sprawling grounds, owned by a non-profit partner of Convoy of Hope, houses and educates orphaned children. Our destination, however, is the site’s 35,000-square foot warehouse, which serves as a hub for the imported food that feeds 70,000 Haitian children daily.

As we walk into the building, we again huddle around Wilkie, who tells us that $120 nourishes one child for an entire year. With those funds, truckloads of food leave the facility every morning, destined for five of the 10 provinces in Haiti.

“We keep this warehouse filled,” Wilkie says.

The group (minus me, cameraman Nick Burton and the Convoy of Hope staff) is then instructed to put on hair nets and gloves. The learning portion of the trip is complete. The NFL players have new jobs: to help process a shipment of crops.

The fresh hires are positioned down a makeshift assembly line with workers on each side. At one end, Carradine scoops perfectly-portioned servings of uncooked rice from a plastic container and dumps the grain into a packaging funnel.

Further down the line, McDonald does the same with black beans, filling the plastic bag before passing it to the final station. There, Carrier operates a sealing machine to keep the food fresh.

Celek oversees the operation as floor manager, checking for quality control and stepping in whenever someone needs assistance. This isn’t Celek’s first experience in a warehouse. He studied packaging in college at Michigan State and thought about a career at The Kroger Company if football hadn’t panned out.

One bag doesn’t quite seal properly and splits open, spilling its contents across the floor. The team stops its work and proceeds to pick up every last morsel before returning to the stations.

When the containers are empty, 76 ready-to-ship bags sit at the end of the assembly line. The packaged food represents 300 meals that will eventually reach the mouths of hungry children.

“We should do something like this back at home and get the whole team involved,” Carradine says.

“I can help organize,” Pastor Earl replies. “There’s no reason we can’t do that.”

11:00 a.m., Pastor Samuel’s: Our next stop is at a school and church located in a recently-reconstructed neighborhood off of one of Port-au-Prince’s main arteries. Stray dogs clutter the streets, wet laundry flutters in the wind and homes are not much more than four concrete slabs positioned together.

We’re told that the church, simply referred to as Pastor Samuel’s, has been rebuilt since the earthquake.  It sits just across the street from the partnering school that teaches elementary-aged children.

Inside the antiquated schoolhouse, narrow hallways make for a tight fit as the players move from classroom to classroom. The walls are painted bright blue and green. Small, grated windows provide the only lighting – there is no electricity. And the flooring is not carpet or wood, but concrete.

Students begin swarming the group. They know we are there to serve a hot meal, but for now, the children just want attention – and to be picked up by the larger-than-life Americans.

“Wow, is he really on TV? Can I see a picture of him?” one child asks Lewis-Martin, the head of our security detail, in Haitian.

“Why would they come here and help us?” another asks.

“Because Jesus loves you,” Lewis-Martin replies. “Did you know these football players pray to God just like you do? And they feel your hunger and they know your need. They’re here to help. They’re here to be kids with you and feed you.”

Lunch is cooked inside a wooden shed in the school’s backyard. An elderly woman stirs a large metal cauldron filled with rice, beans and meat. An open fire is the “cafeteria’s” only appliance. The meal is heavy in island spices and smells akin to Jamaican cuisine.

Players take turns filling plastic bins with the food and hauling it back into the school. There, the group serves each child a plate at their desk.

A few of the students hide their initial helpings beneath their seats. Pastor Earl’s wife, Angel, watches one boy walk up from his desk at least four times to ask for more food. Today’s bounty is a rare treat.

When everyone is fed, McDonald steps to the front of a classroom and addresses the students.

“We want to thank you for allowing us to be here,” he says. “You’re an inspiration to us. We will remember you. The love you show to us, we will share with others.”

One young girl, donning a Rastafarian hat and dress, asks Lewis-Martin to translate a message of her own to the players.

“Thank you for all you’re doing for our school,” she says in her native tongue. “You left your country for us. Thank you not only for coming, but for serving.”

12:00 p.m.: In the grass lot behind the church, we hand out 49ers T-shirts. The white tees hang loosely off the children’s lean frames.

“How many of you have ever seen an American football?” Wilkie asks.

Only a few kids raise their hands.

Pastor Earl tries to set up pass, rush and kick drill stations, but after a few minutes of confusion, the football clinic devolves into recess.

Carradine chases after a few kids running with a ball, McDonald and Celek play keep-away with another group and Celek lifts several children onto “monkey bars” – a metal cross post that typically is used as a soccer goal.

Many kids have no shoes, but that doesn’t stop them from kicking the ball around barefoot. One boy attempts to dribble it the length of the field. Frustrated by the foreign shape’s bounce, he picks it up and fires a spiral to McDonald.

Once the children leave for the afternoon, the 49ers swap footballs for shovels and pickaxes. In the same lot behind the church, a construction crew is digging out a basketball court. The players join the Haitian workmen while Burton and I document their lighthearted conversations.

“The goal is to finish this today so I can dunk on Derrek,” Carradine says.

“We all know that’s not possible,” Carrier responds. “You can maybe put a telephone book under Tank’s ups. Maybe.”

Inside the church, we meet up with the players’ better halves, who are teaching conversational English to a youth group. A teenager walks in unannounced and sits off to the side. He raises his hand a few times, knowing more English than most of the other kids in the class.

It’s then that we notice he’s wearing a green 49ers hat.

“You know what kind of hat you’re wearing?” Lewis-Martin asks.

The boy has no idea. Lewis-Martin points to the players sitting in the adjacent pews, and then points to the logo on the kid’s hat.

“Ohhhh,” the teenager says.

The boy says later that he had never heard of the 49ers. He showed up on a whim only after friends told him that American travelers would be hosting an English class. And as he readied to leave home, he simply grabbed his favorite cap.

The players shook the boy’s hand and took turns autographing the bill of the hat.

The twist of fate nearly had Paige, the New York-born special events director, in tears. She never took her eyes off of the boy’s beaming face as he mingled with stars from his new favorite team.

D a y   3

 

Day 3: 'So Much for So Little'

2:00 p.m., Foyer des orphelins d’haiti: The final stop on our trip takes us to the place we know the least about. We arrive at the gates of the Port-au-Prince orphanage, again constructed entirely of concrete, and our vans’ rumbling engines are the only breaks from the silence.

Outside, Wilkie tells us that close to 75 children live here. The building, no bigger than an average Walgreens, looks far too cramped to house that many kids – especially when we learn that the orphanage is also a school.

We meet Madame Jeannette, the owner. A lawyer by trade, she was kidnapped by Port-au-Prince teenagers a few years back. During her captivity, she found out that her abductors were orphans and needed the ransom money to buy food. When she was released, she left her job and started taking in wayward children.

“It brings me great joy to see you,” she tells the group. “Please come in and make yourself at home.”

A corridor divides the orphanage into two parts. On the left are classrooms similar to the ones we saw a day earlier. On the right are the living quarters, where 10-by-10-foot rooms are filled to capacity with bunk beds. The smell of urine-soaked sheets is overwhelming. Many of the beds are shared.

“This is crazy,” Celek whispers to McDonald.

Carradine peaks his head into one of the rooms and sees curious eyes gazing back at him.

“What you see with the kids, it’s hurtful,” Carradine said later. “Seeing them live like that, it hit me hard.”

The players expect the kids to be dejected and distant but are instead welcomed with smiles and raised arms. At one point, McDonald has one kid on his shoulders, one on each arm and one hanging from each leg.

But as the kids lose steam, the commotion from the initial excitement dwindles into comfort.

Pastor Earl takes the reigns of a kite. Nearby children laugh as his string gets tangled with another.

Celek takes out his Apple iPhone 6 and turns on “Guardians of the Galaxy.” At least a dozen kids surround him, huddling close together to get a better view.

Carrier joins a game of keep-away, kicking a basketball around in the courtyard.

McDonald collects Dum-Dum lollipop wrappers, walks up to an overhanging balcony and pelts his teammates with the wadded-up paper.

Carradine approaches a few of the older residents and challenges them to dominoes. The teenagers are much more reserved than the younger kids, but Carradine waits his turn and earns a seat at the table. The third-year pass-rusher talks a big game but loses every time. The children use an interpreter to gloat.

Near the end of our visit, they line up single-file by age. Pastor Earl addresses them.

“Our hearts are blessed to be with you,” he says. “We hope you’ve enjoyed us as we’ve enjoyed you. We care about you, and we will tell everyone about you.”

The players begin handing out presents: crayons, pencils, puzzles, Nerf footballs and more. The parting gifts aren’t much, but the kids clutch them like lottery tickets.

The sun sets, and we load into the vans. Several children hurry to the orphanage’s roof to watch us depart. One lingers a little while longer than the rest, waving until our caravan is finally out of sight.

7:00 p.m., Hotel Montana: We drive up switchbacks to a resort atop a hillside overlooking the capital. During the car ride, I read on our itinerary that we are having a “celebration dinner.” But our last meal in Haiti is actually about reflection.

We eat our food, enjoy conversation and share a laugh as Celek recalls a moment during the trip when a local mistook him for Tim Tebow.

Soon after, we spot a celebrity sitting nearby that we know is no doppelgänger. Wilkie met the bearded man earlier in the evening, and boldly invites him over to our table. It’s Rainn Wilson of “The Office.” And although he’s wearing a Seattle Seahawks hat, the actor turns one player into a star-struck mess.

“I’m in awe,” McDonald says. “I’m you’re biggest fan.”

Wilson turns his head and deadpans, “OK, stalker.”

The players tell Wilson about their first trip to Haiti. This, however, is far from the actor’s first visit. He started an educational initiative called Lidè with his wife in 2013 to empower at-risk adolescent girls through creative arts.

“You can do so much for so little,” Wilson says. “You can change someone’s life for $450. What can you get in the United States? I love the United States, but I’m a world citizen, and I love this country too. So I’m glad you guys could come down. It’s awesome.”

When Wilson returns to his family and our dinner comes to an end, Clark stands up from his chair and addresses the group. He wants every person around the table to talk about what they took away from the trip.

Carradine, the 26-year-old on his first relief trips overseas, catches us off-guard.

“Sometimes you need to see something to know it’s true,” he says. “And what I’ve seen is incredible. But once you’ve seen it, what are you going to do about it? Are you going to talk to your friends? Are you actually going to do something about it? How are you going to make an impact? Ask yourself what you can do to help.”

Tears stream down several faces as the spotlight moves around the table. McDonald talks about the fleeting nature of football careers and their accompanying pedestals. Pastor Earl tells the group that he and his wife have already discussed a monthly donation for the children of Haiti.

“We’re going to have a Convoy of Hope team,” Pastor Earl says. “I think four people, plus four people, plus four people, can have a big impact. The big thing isn’t what you’ve done. It’s what you’re going to do.”

The group sets a goal of raising $120,000 to feed 1,000 Haitian kids. Everyone has an idea to reach that mark, and they usually start with outreach. Next year’s trip will have more than four players, this much is certain. The next chapters, however, are still being written.











For more on the 49ers trip to Haiti, view the video feature and full photo gallery.







Contributors:
Writing & Photography by Tyler Emerick
Designed & Produced by Eric Stark
Video by Nick Burton








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