When Becky Armstrong signed up for a mission trip to Haiti, she thought she had an idea of what to expect. Devastated by a severe earthquake nearly two years ago, the country of Haiti is known to be one of the poorest in the world.
During her seven days in Haiti last month, Armstrong witnessed "almost unbearable" amounts of hardship, poverty and famine. And until you've been there and seen it for yourself, she said, you don't really understand it at all.
On the trip, Willmar locals Armstrong and Connie Spartz, along with a group from Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church in Minneapolis, traveled to Haiti's capital city, Port-au-Prince, to deliver around 450 pounds of essential supplies including medicine, food and clothing.
Throughout the week, the group visited schools, orphanages, a church, a hospital and a nursing home to bring supplies to the people there. As they visited with the local people, the two women saw how much the Haitians have been struggling to rebuild their lives following the earthquake.
"People still live in the tent cities they set up immediately after the earthquake," Armstrong said. "They live there because they know it's better than what they would have otherwise. In the tent cities, they have clean water and toilets. They're not guaranteed that everywhere."
Though she had expected it, Spartz was also surprised by how much debris from the January 2010 earthquake remained on the streets. Everywhere they went, they were reminded of how much the Haitian people lost in the natural disaster, Spartz said.
"After two years, there is just still so much damage left behind," Spartz said.
"We realized that there is so much work left to be done. Even with so many people coming into the country to help, the effects of the earthquake are still everywhere."
Both Armstrong and Spartz have been on mission trips before. They chose to go to Haiti this year because they knew the need was great and that they could make a difference there. Before leaving for their trip, Armstrong, Spartz and a few others from their group raised nearly $1,300 in donations for new library books for a school in Port-au-Prince.
Once they arrived in Haiti, they invited the school's principal to meet them at a bookstore and pick out the books that he wanted for his students. When the principal got there, he was like "a kid at Christmas," Armstrong said, and couldn't wait to bring the books back to the school.
"He was so excited," she said. "He kept picking out books and thinking there wouldn't be any more money left. When he would learn he could pick out some more, his face lit up all over again. It was a great feeling."
Armstrong also chose a few books for the students, including picture books and classics such as "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," "Little Women" and "Robinson Crusoe." The group only purchased hardcover books, including some textbooks and reference books, so that as many children as possible could use them in the future.
While the books seemed like a small gesture at first, Armstrong soon realized how valuable they would be for the students.
"Those kids don't have much," Armstrong said. "They don't have textbooks. They sit on wooden benches in the classroom, and there isn't any art on the walls.
Knowing that we could give those kids their first library books was very rewarding. We gave them a bright spot to look forward to, even if only for 10 minutes of their lives."
Spartz, a retired teacher, knows just how much those books will mean to the school. "When we first went to the school and toured it, I did not see one hardcover book at all," she said. "Giving them those library books was by far the most rewarding part of our trip. Those calculus and physics books will go a long way in their education."
While the two women felt they did make a difference to the people they met, they also left wishing they could have done more.
"Everywhere you go, you can see the trauma on people's faces," Spartz said. "They have so little and are deprived of so much. The poverty there is overwhelming. I felt like our contributions could only make a small dent."
For Armstrong, who has been on several other mission trips in the United States, the trip was unlike any other she'd ever taken.
"I've seen some of the poorest areas in the United States, and even they don't seem like anything compared to Port-au-Prince," she said. "This trip was truly an eye-opener. It was emotional overload. In Haiti, people live just to survive. I've never been around that before."
Spartz said the time she spent in Haiti taught her to look at her own life through a different lens.
"Everybody in Haiti lost friends and family in the earthquake," Spartz said. "It would be impossible to find someone in Haiti who wasn't affected by the earthquake. When you realize that, it helps put our own problems into perspective. What we face every day is miniscule compared to their loss and fight for survival."