Four women’s soccer players: Shannen De Leon, Sara Fuller, Jordan Riser and Emily Yergin, took a girl’s empowerment trip to Jacmel, Haiti!
Jacmel is a commune of approximately 26,000 people on the southern coast of Haiti that was dubbed the “City of Light” in 1925 after becoming the first city in the Caribbean to have electricity.
Born out of an idea following a trip to the region last year by Shenandoah President Tracy Fitzsimmons, Ph.D., the four student-athletes, along with Head Women’s Soccer Coach Liz Pike and 14 members of the Shenandoah FC Elite U14 girls soccer team, will visit Jacmel from June 19-25 to educate through sport.
The group visited a school, ran soccer camps each morning and conducted other educational opportunities with the young girls in the area.
“It is a very male-dominated society,” Pike said. “We want to go down there and be positive role models for these girls. Hopefully, through our educational initiatives, we can make a positive impact.”
In addition, the group visited an orphanage.
For Fuller, who was adopted at 10 months old from Russia, the trip has special meaning.
“I have always wanted to take a mission trip like this,” Fuller said. “When Coach Pike told me about it, I was pretty excited. The fact that soccer is involved makes it even better.”
“We want these girls to grow up to be strong, independent women who stand up for themselves.”
“This is going to be overwhelming, but we are very excited,” DeLeon, who emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines with her family in 2003.”
“We just want to make an impact on these girls. This trip puts it into a different perspective for all of us to see how lucky we are.”
“These girls will walk 10 miles to school just to get an education. It just shows us how lucky we are.”
The group stayed at a facility run by the Community Coalition for Haiti and plans to make this an annual event.
“We want to make this a tradition at Shenandoah,” Pike said. “I would like this to expand to other sports – field hockey, basketball and lacrosse – to get our other women’s coaches and student-athletes involved.”
The following is a recap of the trip from rising junior Shannen De Leon.
By Shannen De Leon ’19
As we flew into Port Au Prince, I felt an overwhelming mix of so many different emotions. I was excited, nervous, anxious, and not sure if I was ready for such an experience. The whole week flew by way too fast, and six days was definitely not enough time to see everything in Haiti.
From Port Au Prince, half of our group drove to Jacmel in a bus and the other half flew in a biplane. The bus trip took about 3 hours and the plane ride was the scariest 30 minutes of my life. Emily (Emily Yergin) and I almost threw up five times!
When we finally got to the Isaiah House in Jacmel, we spent the remainder of our day there just unwinding and settling into our rooms. We unpacked all of our suitcases and got things set for our first day of soccer camp the next day.
At 6:45AM, a knock on our door woke Sara Fuller, my roommate, and I and we headed downstairs for breakfast. After we ate, we had about an hour to relax until we left at 8:30 to go to Mt. Fleury.
Roads are not a thing in Haiti, so we off-roaded through mountains and dirt trails. It would have been a pretty cool place to take my jeep, haha. About 15 of us were piled up on the back of a truck. People flew when the driver would suddenly break then hit the gas. There were branches everywhere and I got struck in the face by one maybe a hundred times, mostly because Emily would always neglect to warn me.
Mt. Fleury is where the soccer field we held our camp was. There was also a school with two very small classrooms. In those rooms, we held our arts and crafts breaks, snack times, and lunch times.
When we got there, there were so many girls that were so excited to see us. We parked under a tree and unloaded the truck, and when they saw all of the soccer balls, cleats, and sock we had for them, their eyes got big and they smiled so hard. We handed out all of the equipment and we helped the younger ones put their stuff on, and then we headed over to the field.
These girls who didn’t even know us immediately latched onto us, showering us with hugs and holding our hands. One little girl named Adacheca (pronounced ah-dash-ka) followed me around all day. Whenever I gave her snacks or water, she would ask me to not open them and to save them. Turns out, she wanted to save it for her mother, so I put it all in a bag for her to take home.
On Wednesday after camp, we headed to a nursery and elder care center. It was heartbreaking seeing all of the babies that were not with their families. We had the opportunity to play with them and show them the love and affection they deserve.
When we got home from that, we had about an hour to rest until we headed off to a different soccer field and play a game with some locals! We integrated our teams and played 15-minute halves. The halves were so short because we were worried about running out of daylight.
The Haitian girls were so impressive and the game was so exciting. There were two girls on my team that were actually members of the Haitian National team. We wanted to take those two back home to come play for SU, haha.
My team ended up winning 2-0 and the ride back home was an interesting one. The whole way back the Haitians chanted “2 to 0” in Creole. They have so much energy and passion.
On Thursday, we visited Wings of Hope, which is a center for disabled young adults. It was heartwarming to see such a great facility with amazing staff that truly cared about the children who were there.
We went back to the Isaiah House after that, threw on our swimsuits and dresses, and headed over to go swimming and eat dinner. It was nice just relaxing for a bit and cooling off, because it is HOT in Haiti.
Friday was the last day of camp, and it was hard leaving all of the children. As we said our final goodbyes, they started singing “Mesi” to us, which meant “thank you” in Creole. They were excited about their new cleats and balls that we had left for them and said that they would come back to camp if we came back next year.
I just hope that we truly inspired these girls and showed them how to be strong. In Haiti, males overpower women in every aspect. So, I hope by showing them that girls can be just as good as boys at soccer, it could help them see that they can do anything as good as a boy can, maybe even better.
After camp, we hiked to Bassin Bleu and swam. It was unreal and just like one of those pictures you see online of hidden waterfalls.
When we got back to the Isaiah House, we packed our bags and had a discussion later that night. Emily and I led the discussion and we all talked about our individual experiences and what we took away from our trip.
This was a great experience – it wasn’t easy, but I would definitely go back.
The following is a recap of the trip from rising sophomore Emily Yergin.
By Emily Yergin ’20
Visiting one of the poorest countries in the world was definitely an eye-opening experience. Upon arriving in Haiti I sensed the despair and struggle the people had to endure on a daily basis, but there was also a feeling of hope and fight that was undeniable which was evident just by looking into the eyes of the Haitian people.
As soon as we touched down in Haiti I began to drip in sweat; this type of heat is something I’ve never experienced before. A normal day in Haiti is like the hottest day in Virginia. When we arrived in Port Au Prince there were two options of how to travel to the small town of Jacmel – you could have either take a 3-hour van ride or ride in a small airplane which took about 15 minutes. I choose to take the airplane and the only thing that kept me from throwing up or passing out was the breathtaking views and not wanting to miss a second of it.
From the airport we drove in the open bed of a truck to Isaiah House. Driving on the roads of Haiti is like driving in Washington, D.C. on steroids. If someone isn’t honking at least every 10 seconds, then something is wrong. People are constantly passing each other and trying to fit through the narrowest of spaces, and most of the people on the road drive motor bikes. However, a majority of the population travels by walking… and in Haiti, pedestrians do not have the right of way.
From Tuesday to Friday we held a soccer camp for the local girls of Jacmel. This took place at local school which required us to travel up a mountain, across a river, and on a road that just dirt and rocks. Coach Pike wanted us to still get our fitness in and run the mile and half it took to get there. Thankfully, that desire never transcended into reality.
There was no way of knowing how many girls would show up, but when we arrived there were between 30 – 40 girls there. We sized them for cleats and gave them socks and shirts to wear. The joy in the girls’ faces of when we handed them cleats and a shirt is something that I will never forget. We were able to make them smile just by just the smallest of acknowledgement -even just giving them a high five or hug could make their day. Despite speaking different languages, a smile is universal and that’s a beautiful thing. It was so powerful to not speak the same language as someone, but smile together and form a connection.
During the camp we played relay games, fun soccer games and did crafts. Every day they taught us a new song or dance and let’s just say that they are able to dance a lot better than us. Also, every day we would give them several snacks, keep them hydrated, and provided them with lunch. By the second day we were feeding 110 girls!
In Haiti, there are hundreds of animals such as goats, cows, horses, donkeys, chickens, and dogs that just roam the countryside. At the camp I would look up and see someone walking their cows or riding their horses across the field. At first it was a bit shocking, but as time went on it become normal to see that happen.
At the end of each soccer session we finished with a scrimmage and every time a goal was scored it was like they just had won the World Cup. That enthusiasm and excitement is just one of the several things I admire about those girls. One of the scrimmages it was tied 0-0 for a majority of the game so Pike told me to take the ball and score. I waited patiently for the ball because I was playing in goal, but as soon as I was able to get a hold of it I sprinted up the sideline and blasted a shot. The celebration after that goal doesn’t compare to any other goal celebration in my 15 years of playing soccer. People were jumping, screaming, and high fiving everyone.
Besides the soccer camp we visited numerous other places. Tuesday, we went downtown Jacmel to some shops and the waterfront. Bargaining is a way of life there so I wanted to take the opportunity to experience that. I was able to buy a paper mache animal head, originally priced for $7, for $5 and bought 3 bracelets for $5 when they were priced at $2 each.
Additionally, we went to a clinic and hospital. Although they are faced with extreme poverty the conditions of those places was great. It made me truly appreciate the medical care I receive here in the United States because I know I could have easily been in their place. The next day we visited Mother Theresa’s nursery and eldercare. This place is run by nuns who help babies and children whose parents may have passed or abandoned them. They also aid people with disabilities and people with serious illnesses. After touring the place, we were able to feed the babies and the whole time I was doing it I just thought about how pure and innocent these babies are and they’ll have to grow up in country where they will have to face so many trials and tribulations.
Later that day we drove to a field about 30 minutes away where we scrimmaged girls from a team down there. The teams were mixed (half American, half Haitian) so we had the chance to place with Haitians. It seemed as if the whole town came out to watch this game and we even had a woman from the community come out to be the ref. She wore an official referee shirt and wrote down every goal and yellow card. Passing and working as team with the local players, professionalism from the ref, and energy from the crowd was an indescribable experience and a moment I will remember forever. The following day we went to Wings of Hope; a place for children and some adults who have severe mental disabilities. We got the chance to interact with some of those people and played basketball. Just like the girls, whenever a basket was scored they would erupt into cheers and have the biggest grins on their faces. After, went to a hotel which had pool we could swim in. When we arrived the view was astonishing. I could’ve stayed there all day just starring out at the mountains and the incredibly blue water. In a spur of the moment decision, we walked down the stairs to the beach and swam in the water with the locals.
Our final day in Jacmel, we traveled to Basin Bleu. It was a short hike with a steep incline to the top. The color of the water could only be compared to the color of light blue Gatorade. We got to jump off the cliff into the water and jump out from under a water fall. I’m not a big fan of heights, but it was so thrilling and fun that I ended up jumping from the cliff three times.
Our final day in Haiti involved a 3-hour van ride back to Port Au Prince. Well it supposed to be 3-hour car ride, but ended up being extended a little due to the fact that our driver stopped to use the restroom, get a bit to eat from a stand on the side of the road, get water, and talk on the phone. Before arriving at the airport we stopped at school where all three of the principal’s children graduated from Shenandoah University. It was an open floor plan and the classrooms were only divided by cinder blocks and the classrooms were filled with at least 35 students in each. While being at the school we visited a girl who was greatly impacted by the earthquake. She was trapped under debris for two hours without oxygen, she was left in critically condition and resulted in her having serious mental disabilities. It’s hard to wrap your mind and fully understand what this girl and her family have had to experience.
Seeing pictures or hearing about the life in Haiti doesn’t even come close to actually being there and experiencing it. You can’t fully appreciate what you have or understand a different lifestyle unless you go to a place where everyone has little to nothing. I came out of this trip with a new outlook on life, a life where I want to help people who have to face incredible struggle, a life where I appreciate the food and water in my fridge and clothes that I wear, and a life where I won’t take anything for granted.
The following is a recap of the trip from rising sophomore Sara Fuller.
By Sara Fuller ’20
My trip to Haiti was truly an eye-opening experience. I learned that we take so much for granted in the way we live in America and the things we have access to.
The very first day we were pulling up to camp and on the field were 75-100 girls from toddlers to teenagers waiting for us with smiles. Every day more and more girls showed up. Some even walked over a mountain to come play and eat with us. The girls were so welcoming and wanted to hug and be held by you; this made it easier for me to open up to them. While playing games and kicking the balls around you could see the pure happiness it brought to these girls to be included and to be put before the boys.
During the games, the girls were more physical than soccer players their age in America and it amazed me how tough and competitive they were. When somebody scored a goal or won a game it was amazing to see just how hyped up these girls got! After a goal it was like a mosh pit of cheering and jumping around!
One of the days a couple of us were teaching the girls how to count in English and they were teaching us how to count in Creole. We even learned how to sing happy birthday in Creole. Every day we brought food, water, and snacks for the girls, many of the girls would put the granola bars in their pants to bring home for their families. It saddened me to see the way the boys treated the girls. From stealing their food to pushing them around, it never seemed to end.
Every afternoon we went and visited other places such as a hospital, clinic, Sisters of Charity, a school, and Wings of Hope. At the hospital I was amazed to see the amount of patient beds shoved into the little area provided. Haitians have to pay for their own medical procedures as there is no insurance to cover costs. If they do not have the money they cannot get the procedure or see a doctor.
At the school, I had the honor to meet three Shenandoah alumni. The school we visited was very crowded because the earthquake destroyed the one they used to have. It amazed me while walking through the hallways and looking into the classrooms to see the kind of math and sciences they were learning.
Wings of Hope was a place for disabled children whose families could not give them the amount of care they needed. They could take classes such as photography and music. It was incredible to see the happiness on their faces when we played basketball with them.
The place that I had the deepest connection with was the Sisters of Charity. This was a place where elder men and women could stay who were sick and didn’t have family to care for them. It was also a place for children and babies. I got an opportunity to feed one of the baby boys. While feeding and holding him the happiness he expressed just to be shown love was incredible. These babies don’t get the love from a mother like we did and it was heartbreaking for me when I had to put him back in his crib and leave. Overall I learned that the people of Haiti are very resourceful and hard-working. Although Haitian children live a tough life, especially after the devastating earthquake they experienced a couple years ago, these precious children still love to interact and play just like every kid.
See more photos of their experience in Haiti!