Editor's Note: Texas A&M's student-athletes regularly excel on the field. They also do a remarkable job of making us proud off the field, as well. Recently, 28 Aggie athletes gave up part of their summer break to go on a mission trip to Haiti. The trip was organized through Mission of Hope Haiti, a faith-based organization that regularly hosts people of all ages for mission trips in the impoverished island nation.
A&M student-athletes were charged with raising money to pay for their airfare expenses, and the voyage represented the first international trip for several.
The following is a first-person account of the Aggies' visit to Haiti, as told by Sophie Reiter, a sophomore on the A&M equestrian team.
It was 3:30 a.m. in College Station on Wednesday, May 11, and I was standing alongside 27 other student-athletes boarding a bus that would take us to George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. Many of us had not slept a wink, choosing to forgo a couple hours of nervous rest for some extra time double-checking our bags and mentally preparing for the upcoming days.
Many in our group were less than 24 hours removed from completing final exams for the spring semester, meaning this all-night affair was coming on the heels of a few days of intense studying during a different type of all-nighter. But we knew that would be the case when we committed to the "Aggies For Haiti" mission trip a few months earlier. Despite the exhaustion, our excitement and anticipation were evident as we bused to Houston.
After we finally arrived at the airport, checked all our luggage and managed to get every member of our party through security, it finally hit me as I sat down and waited to board: This is the day we have been working toward since January.
For several in our group, this would be their first time leaving the country, and going to Haiti for one's first time out of the country is brave. It was also admirably selfless. Considering the average summer vacation for football players is about three weeks long, seeing so many of our football players and other student-athletes volunteer to give up one-third of their break in order to help others was humbling.
After two flights and a few naps, we touched down in Port Au Prince and loaded into a bus that took us to what would become our home for the next week. We were given strict instructions on how to go about the airport: how to dress, what to say and how to fit into the Haitian culture.
The first day was spent traveling and learning the culture, so day two was when our work truly began. This was one of the most special days, but also one of the hardest days both mentally and physically.
We spent the morning planting trees for families living in the village of Susmatla. As we dug, the hot Haitian sun grew stronger, and it became crucial to stay hydrated in order to properly complete our tasks. At one point, while drying off the beads of sweat covering my face, I looked over my shoulder to see Charlene Sumlin taking control of a heavy pickaxe to break up the tough ground.
Entering the Mission Field
Four different A&M sports were represented on the "Aggies For Haiti" trip in late May. Mud and sweat were a constant, as A&M's stellar student-athletes, including story author Sophie Reiter (shown in the photo at the bottom left of the opposite page), spread God's word in one of the poorest nations in the world.
Planting the trees required full participation, but it also provided chances for us to connect and pray for the people in each house. As the morning came to a close, Mrs. Sumlin and I were sweaty, blistered and hot. Leaving the last few trees to the boys, we put our domestic skills to the test. We sat down with two women washing clothes outside in a bucket and bonded while learning to wash, bleach and scrub clothes. In the midst of scrubbing a shirt belonging to a young boy I realized how much I had learned in the few hours we had spent with these families, and how much our group would learn the rest of the week.
After planting countless trees, we loaded up the bus and headed to lunch, which consisted of rice, beans and chicken. We then broke into groups and painted houses, and this is where the real fun began. While painting we had the chance to play with children ranging in age from nine months to teenagers. Josh Reynolds and Jake Hubenak encouraged many young boys to help them paint. The local boys were fascinated by Josh's tattoos and decided to paint "tattoos" on Mikado Hinson, the football team's director of player development and one of the primary planners of the Haiti trip.
Our mission was to spread the word of the Lord and to carry out His work in Haiti, so I was speechless when a little boy named Mathai (pronounced Matt-tie) painted a cross for Jesus on Mikado's arm. Seeing and feeling the Lord's presence through the children and people of Haiti was the most rewarding aspect of our trip.
As our second day came to a close, our group had formed a family. This family was not just our group of athletes, it was the translators who allowed us to connect and bond with everyone we encountered, it was the interns at Mission of Hope, and it was the chaperones who earned names like, "Mama Char" (Charlene Sumlin) or "Doc Bobby" (Dr. Robert Statler). The family we created helped us grow and learn for the entirety of the trip.
The third day was filled with new and different experiences and challenges. We were divided into groups and spent time visiting classrooms for grades 1-12. We talked about the importance of staying in school, and connected to each room by leading them in prayer. Some groups even taught classes the "Gig 'em, Aggies" yell. Koda Martin was a rock star in every class, as his ability to speak the word of God and bond with the children and young adults through prayer was truly inspiring.
Members of our group visited seven or eight classrooms, and different people were able to pray, talk and share their personal story of struggling in school, and the importance of overcoming it.
While visiting with a 12th grade class we were faced with challenging questions about our purpose and mission in Haiti. Senior linebacker Shaan Washington captivated everyone with his ability to use the word of God and his own story to convey the reason and purpose that we had in Haiti.
Spending time with families in the villages provided another opportunity to witness and experience God working both amongst our group and also with the people of Haiti.
At one of the houses we visited, I had the opportunity to ask an older woman what God meant to her. She replied, "God is my savior. He is my everything." As she shared her testimony with us, we learned that as a young girl, gang members in the sex-trafficking industry kidnapped her. Despite the circumstances this woman faced, she said she survived because of her faith in the Lord and trusting His plan. Hearing stories like this was a reminder of how central God is in our lives, and an example of how strong our faith must be to overcome obstacles. This strong, brave woman touched my heart and helped me grow in my faith that day.
Each day after we arrived back to the Mission of Hope campus, we spent time participating in something very familiar to us: sports. After getting off the bus, a very intense game of volleyball would be played until dinnertime. Sometimes it even caused us to be late! Needless to say, if you put 28 Division I student-athletes together, things will get competitive.
On one of these nights, senior quarterback Trevor Knight made the decision that the losing team would have to serve dinner to the winning team that night in the dining hall. Our games were extremely competitive, and Matt Fontenot, the assistant director of football operations, was the MVP of these very physical, loud games. Regardless of how tired, sunburned or sore we all were, the two teams played some grueling, fun games every afternoon.
We ended each day with a closing prayer and worship. One of my favorite nights was when a contingent of student-athletes from Oklahoma joined us for an unforgettable night of praise. Mikado led both schools in prayer and genuinely spoke the word of the Lord, encouraging each of us to continue in our journey walking with Christ. It was unbelievably special being able to connect with the OU athletes, usually seen as rivals, and come together for the same mission.
Quite a Group
One highlight of the trip for many was a joint worship service between A&M and a large contingent of student-athletes from Oklahoma. Mikado Hinson, A&M's director of player development, led the service.
As a member of the A&M equestrian team, I am around four-legged animals all the time. One of my favorite experiences in Haiti was spent herding a group of goats, leading them around a village and handing them out to families. The goats were given as pairs to families to breed and use for milk. After a year and a half, the pair of goats are returned and the family is allowed to keep the baby goats to use them for money, food or breeding purposes.
Walking down mountains and through villages with goats tied to a rope is very challenging. As the day went on we decided to make it fun and turned our goat adventure into the "goat combine," treating each goat as if it were a contender in the NFL Draft, offering prizes to the first pair or the "first-rounders."
My goat "LeBron" and volleyball sophomore Gabby Litwin's goat "Gabby" were first-round picks, giving us bragging rights. Sophomore Daylon Mack and senior Daeshon Hall conducted interviews and expressed their personal opinions on the goats, making it more competitive. We all had a laugh when Otaro Alaka's goat "Achilles" went as a free agent, essentially losing the goat combine.
Coming together even during the most abnormal of chores was something so special that we were able to do as a group. We were extremely lucky to have AggieFBLife photographer Haley Graves traveling with us, because she was able to capture moments like these for us to always remember.
Having the opportunity to impact lives in Haiti was incredible, but the women and children we worked with also had a profound impact on us. As a group we were given the chance to work with girls and boys at Haiti's Olympic training center.
The football players ran and helped boys with football skills and drills, while the volleyball team along with soccer's Taylor Saucier and myself did a volleyball clinic for girls and boys in the gym. After a morning of playing indoors, we joined the boys and ran drills and tossed footballs on the outside field.
During this time, Taylor and I met a group of teenage boys and seized this opportunity to explain our mission and preach the word of God. We asked them about their faith and journey with Christ and discovered that two of them were not believers. This was something neither of us had experienced and was a challenge for us. Taylor used her love and talent for soccer to connect with the boys, and after passing the ball back and forth we created a bond.
We spent about an hour with these boys and listened to them explain why they had no reason to believe that God was worth trusting. After praying for them and with them and sharing our own testimonies, these young men became believers. This was the goal of our mission, and being able to change the lives of two nonbelievers with Taylor was so rewarding.
This experience gave us an opportunity to carry out His mission and work, and a chance to feel the presence of our Lord. After our experience, I asked Taylor to include her thoughts on that moment.
She said: "For me, it was so gratifying to see the smiles on the faces of the boys that we had the pleasure of meeting and talking with. I believe that one's happiness depends on the happiness of others, and the happiness that I saw on their faces made my day. The Lord had a purpose for Sophie and I that day. He wanted us to meet these boys and share His love them. At first they were hesitant but soon accepted His love, and to witness that brought a tear to my eye. This will forever be my favorite memory from the trip because the Lord worked through me in order to share His word."
Although we maintained a positive outlook throughout our physically draining tasks each day, we encountered arduous challenges and difficult moments that tested our faith and forced us to think deeper about our own relationships with God.
At the beginning of the trip, Trevor told us that there would be days where we wouldn't feel as strong--not because of the physical requirements but because of the difficult things we would witness and see. Initially, I did not understand why someone so confident in his faith would say this, but the more children I met and the more hardship I witnessed I found Trevor's words to be true.
These particular moments that tested my faith encouraged me to rely on the family we had created to become even stronger in my faith.
On its web site, Mission of Hope states its vision in this way: "As an organization following Jesus Christ, Mission of Hope exists to bring life transformation to every man, woman, and child in Haiti. We desire to serve the nation of Haiti, and see lives changed."
Through projects, education, orphan care, church advancement, health care and nutrition, Mission of Hope continues to live out this vision. Although our stay in Haiti was short, we were able to witness God's work through every man, woman and child in Haiti.
Jay Richardson, a Texas A&M former student and now the Mission of Hope Director of Mobilization, was the backbone of this successful trip. Jay led us through villages, filmed the goat draft and even participated in volleyball games, our nightly dance-offs, and baptisms. Because of Jay, we were able to play a small role in Mission of Hope's bold vision.
On our final day in Haiti we were able to relax and take time to reflect and pray over what we learned and experienced during our week.
May 17 will forever hold a special meaning for me because I was baptized in front of our group. Mikado and Tanna Burge, A&M's assistant athletic director for sports performance, baptized 13 members of our mission group, allowing us to publically profess our faith and belief in Christ and forever alter our spiritual lives.
In many ways, this trip changed my life forever.
I left College Station on a bus full of 27 other Aggie athletes, some of whom I knew and some that I knew simply from seeing them in passing during lunch at the R.C. Slocum Nutrition Center. Little did I know that within a week, I would return home with 28 new brothers and sisters, as well as a new southern mom (Charlene Sumlin, that would be you). I learned something from each and every person we encountered.
I could go on about these amazing, impressive and influential athletes and staffers, but for the sake of my word limit I will stick to a simple thank you, or as we said in Haiti, "merci." Merci to all who made Aggies For Haiti possible, merci to Haley Graves for documenting this incredible opportunity, and finally, merci to everyone who donated to Mission of Hope and helped us raise enough money to make this trip possible. Thanks, gig 'em, and see you next year, Haiti!
When it comes down to it, education is the most important thing someone can have, and student-athletes give so much of their time and talents to our school. If we can help support them to earn that diploma and Aggie ring, then that is what we want to do."