All photos courtesy Rachel DeKuiper
When a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Rachel DeKuiper couldn’t pull herself away from the tragic images on the news. A voice inside told her she had to do something.
“I’ve never felt like God has spoken to me before: ‘You have to go,’” said DeKuiper, a fifth-grade teacher at Lakes Elementary.
Go she did, with other teachers from Cannonsburg Elementary, where she taught at the time, to help Haitians recover from the disaster. She’s been going ever since, recently returning from her ninth mission trip to the impoverished country with other area teachers and students.
DeKuiper leads the annual treks to provide help for women’s health, train teachers, care for orphaned infants and children, and conduct Bible studies. Working alongside the Haiti Foundation Against Poverty, the group aims to help struggling mothers keep their babies and enable children to attend school in a dangerous area of Port-au-Prince.
DeKuiper said her motivation for the work is simple.
“It’s because I’m a mom and a teacher,” said DeKuiper, who’s taught in Rockford for 20 years. “I think if I was a mom here and I was struggling, my friends and family would take care of me. That’s how we feel about the women and children in Haiti.”
“I just think it’s where I’m supposed to be when I’m not here teaching and being a mom.”
Community Support Vital
The team’s trips are supported by Hoops for Haiti, an annual basketball-game fundraiser by Rockford Public Schools, while sales from Espwa Boutique, a Rockford shop featuring handmade items from Haiti, go to the Haiti Foundation Against Poverty.
After the 2010 earthquake, DeKuiper connected with the foundation’s founder, Mallery Neptune, a Cornerstone University graduate from Midland. Married to a Haitian man, she established Hope House, an orphanage for malnourished or wounded infants and toddlers, and Les Bours School, a primary school for children from a slum plagued by gangs and poverty. DeKuiper met with Mallery Neptune’s sister, who said her teacher team could help at the school.
They have done that and more, including sponsoring children to attend the school. This year’s team of 15 spent a week in mid-June helping at another orphanage; remodeling rooms and training teachers for a church Sunday school; leading Bible studies for children and for women in a business skills program; and delivering three beds to women who had completed a health education program. Each team member also brought two suitcases full of school supplies.
The group included four teachers, among them Emily DeWitte, a teacher at Grand Rapids Public Schools’ Southwest Community Campus, and former teachers Rhoni and Jennifer Kaastra. The 11 students included Rockford students Sami DeKuiper, Isaac DeWitte and Ally Orvis, and seven college students including four Rockford graduates and a Cedar Springs grad.
They stayed at a compound owned by the foundation, inside semi-style containers outfitted with bunk beds, toilets and fans to help relieve the heat. “You definitely want to go to bed with your hair wet,” DeKuiper said with a chuckle. “It’s pretty sticky to say the least.”
Seeing Hope Amid Heartache
Despite the rugged conditions, DeKuiper said the work is gratifying. She described feeding, changing and holding infants in the Sisters of Charity orphanage founded by Mother Teresa, with wall-to-wall cribs all filled. Most of the babies never see their parents.
“Many are knocking on death’s door. …. We might be their last touch,” DeKuiper said. “Our time there is heartbreaking, but always time well-spent providing comfort and love to so many children.”
The bed deliveries culminate a program that tries to lift women from dispiriting conditions and improve mothering practices. “It’s such a humbling experience to deliver a bed to these women,” DeKuiper said. “You get there and they’ve been sleeping on crushed concrete.”
In Bible studies, children were donned with paper crowns to “remind them that they are children of a great and mighty King and that they were made for a purpose,” she said. “There is nothing better than the smile of a Haitian child that knows that they are loved and never alone.”
Once back in her classroom this fall, DeKuiper will read her students a story about a Haitian girl who wants to go to school to become a doctor and take care of her people. Because of her mission work, DeKuiper hopes her students realize children elsewhere are “begging to go to school.”
“I hope they are a little bit more thankful for what we have here,” she said.