For a third year in a row, Pittsburgh student-athletes took a week of their time to spend in Haiti, volunteering as tutors and helping out at a Haitian orphanage.
Each year, the student-athletes get more out of it. This time around, while there wasn't a waiting list, numbers for the group grew. Just to name a few, senior swimmer Lauren Mills, and former women's soccer player Danielle Benner.
Then combined with a number of prominent football players, as well as the first addition from the men's basketball program, Cameron Wright. Among those football players, running back Isaac Bennett, defensive end David Durham, quarterback Chad Voytik, defensive tackle Khaynin Mosley-Smith, linebackers Bam Bradley and Mike Caprara, and receivers Chris Wuestner and Dontez Ford.
Each year the group is led by Mark Steffey, who serves as minister for all of Pitt's student-athletes. He admits going forward, there will be changes to better accommodate the group. One change he thought would be beneficial for the group would be a more direct flight. However, it came with one slight obstacle in terms of travel plans.
"We took a direct flight from New York City to Port-Au-Prince (Haiti)," Steffey said. "But then, we had a six-hour drive through the mountains, some of it pretty crazy."
Some parts of those mountains on the edge of cliffs, with roads so narrow that if there was a blindspot ahead. Buses had to honk to alert other possible oncoming traffic. Luckily, despite some hair-raising routes, everyone arrived at the orphanages safely, where the student-athletes volunteered tutoring Haitian children, ranging in ages 5 to 19. In these schools, grades don't depend on age, as much as they do what level they're on for their reading or math track. For example, Caprara said he tutored a girl who was 19, but working through her second level of math.
It was a return trip for those such as Caprara, but a first for players like Voytik. Bennett and Durham, to name a few. If there was one constant them in talking with the student-athletes this year, it's not the impact they were hoping to leave on the kids. It was the impact the kids had on the players.
"A typical day, you don't wake up with your phone, you wake up with roosters," Caprara said. "The Haitian group we stayed with, prepared the food for us. From there, we go to Ebok--a lot of hands-on tutoring. English, science. I said this last year, you're asking them to take a break, but they'd just keep going. That's their work ethic."
Take Bennett for example, making his first trip. He says he thought about doing the trip last year, but admits he dragged his feet until it was too late in the process.
"It gives you an insight on how other people live, as far as their faith," Bennett said. "Their faith is so strong. God is there. As far as everywhere you went, nature, through mountains. It was obvious that He was there. Those were the things I saw."
Durham became especially attached with a few of the kids he worked with during the week, saying that he wasn't expecting it to hit him, until he departed.
"Leaving the children was pretty strong for me," Durham said. "It was hard to leave them, but you can stay in contact with them, and I will go back. I built some strong relationships when I was there.
"There was a little girl Ruthzar, 10. She was quiet, didn't say much. Because I was kind of skeptical on how much of an impact I could make in one week, God really changed my mind. At the end of the week, I saw God's unconditional love. I thought I went down there to impact them. Instead, they impacted me."
One of the interesting things is how the Haitians approached the Pitt athletes. For the Haitian youth, there is no white or black. Everyone is Haitian. LeBron James, well-known amongst the kids, is considered Haitian to them. The youth accepted players like Mosley-Smith, or Ford, because they had the same skin color--Haitian. The white athletes, such as Voytik or Caprara, they appeared more timid.
Mosley-Smith and Ford tried to explain to the youth that they and their teammates were all the same, but admit it was difficult.
"Some of the kids, they got upset, wondering why some of us were of different race, some kids will run away," Mosley-Smith said.
"Me and (Mosley-Smith) tried to explain it once," Ford added. "I told one of the kids I was an African-American, but they didn't understand. They thought we were Haitian. LeBron is Haitian. Eventually, you had to go with it."
Ford was also moved in working with one particular youth. Ford lost his brother when he was younger. He was sharing pictures to one of the youth, when he asked about why Ford had one of his pictures in black and white, a picture of his brother. It turns out Kenly, who he spent a lot of time bonding with, also lost a brother. When both realized they had this common bond, it added up as to why they related to each other so well during the week.
"(Kenly) complimented on how beautiful my family was, because I had these pictures," Ford said. "He lost a brother, and I did too."
On a lesser scale, the Haitians could not understand the significance of the American football game, with soccer being the main game in town. Explaining football, the American game, was humbling for someone like Voytik.
"You'll tell them you play football, they think you're talking about soccer," Voytik said. "They don't know much about the sport. I tried saying that I'm the one who throws the ball, but it doesn't matter. It hits you a little a bit. You're not as cool as you thought you were."
Voytik also took notice on the values of the Haitian culture--a lot of how it's based on family and faith, something he took from this trip the most.
"In a way, it might sound crazy to say you're jealous because of the situation, but they have a unique idea of their priorities," Voytik said. "I envy their simplicity. Their relationships are true, their faith is true, they fall on that. I got a piece of that in Haiti. We built those relationships in such a short time. That was so fulfilling."
Wright, the first men's basketball player to make this trip, was the tallest of all the athletes on the trip. He didn't think much of it, but did realize he was the tallest person around the village. It was an eye-opening experience for the kids when he demonstrated how to dunk a basketball.
"I'm really building a relationship with these kids, it was eye-opening," Wright said. "I got sick on the fourth day, but I still wanted to be around the kids. It all gave me a totally different perspective. On the fifth day, we played soccer with the kids. They were fascinated when I dunked the ball. By the time it was the last day, all we wanted to do was just help the kids."
During the school year, players hold planning meetings, and they do certain fundraising activities--writing letters to family and friends, asking for donations to help fund their trips. The trip costs $1,500 per person. Caprara fundraised enough to fund two players.
Without question the trip had special meaning for all those involved. Everyone who made this trip is committed to coming back next year.
As if there needed to be any more of an impact, some players have already changed their daily routine in America based on this one trip.
"For me, it changed me as far as helping me deal with American culture better," Bradley said. "When we were there, life was simple. You don't have to worry about what other people think of you. Coming back from there, I don't think the same way. Things that used to bother me, don't bother me anymore. All they ever think about is being loved, and that's really what God thinks. Since I've been back, I've gone home to Ohio every weekend, and I want to be with my family every weekend. It makes me feel totally different from when I left."
Bringing the athletes closer together, or even incorporating new friendships, is also just one small piece that makes this a unique experience for all those involved.
"I built relationships that I'll have the rest of my life," Wright said. "I knew Isaac and KK, we used to talk once every two weeks. Now, it's two or three times a day. Chad, we're planning on going golfing."