More than a half-billion children, or roughly one in four, now live in countries affected by conflicts or other disasters, according to a recent report from the United Nations Children’s Fund. More than 90,000 children are in need of help in Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country.
Disasters have come to define Haiti. Devastating hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes have repeatedly hammered the impoverished nation and, as a result, many Haitian children live without access to good nutrition, quality education or health care.
That’s why strong-minded volunteers like Emma Ryan, 17, are so critical to the region.
The 17-year-old Hilton Head Island High School senior has volunteered on two recent missions to Haiti. After graduating early, she will return to Haiti on a third mission, this time to teach English.
“During my first two missions to Haiti, we fed children, taught Bible school, painted buildings, and fit adults for reading glasses,” she said.
It was while she was helping adults with new glasses that she realized many of them couldn’t read.
“The embarrassment across an old man's face when he could not read a single word was heart-wrenching. During his eye exam, he had to point to arrows instead of letters. The look on the same man's face when he put on his new glasses overwhelmed me,” she said. “Light shone through his eyes. This humbling experience was another push of encouragement to return to Haiti and teach young people how to read, so that they would never have to go through that same kind of embarrassment.”
Emma describes her mission experiences in Haiti as “life-changing.” What ultimately swayed her decision to return to the country was her volunteer work at the School of Galilee in Mirebalais, Haiti.
“Even though the young children were starving, you could see kindness shining in their eyes and through their actions. As they began to eat the rice and beans we prepared for them — some children eating for the first time in days — they eagerly offered me bites of their food. I also noticed that a girl would always feed her younger sister first before eating,” she said. “Selflessness is a constant among Haitians. Another endearing thing is their gratitude and happiness, even though they have virtually nothing! This changed me, and made me realize what is truly important in life.”
What drives Emma’s passion to serve on Haitian missions is her deep spiritual beliefs.
“I’m a Christian. I believe that God has been calling me to missions for a long time, and I know in my heart that will never change,” she said. “I believe that Jesus Christ came into this world to show us the love that our father has for all of us. I hope to be an advocate in the same way. I want the children of Haiti to know that no matter what their situation may be, the lord of the universe loves them unconditionally.”
Hurricane Matthew didn’t impact Emma’s decision to return to Haiti. She had already planned to return. It became the main reason for her early graduation from high school.
“Teaching English to Haitians is definitely something that I could see myself doing in the future,” she said. “In the fall of 2017, I plan to go to college to pursue my teaching degree.”
If she had the resources, she said she would create jobs and build schools and hospitals in Haiti and make sure medical personnel is available to residents.
“And I would make sure that each child had shoes to wear and that no one goes hungry. But since I don't have that power,” she said, “I’m going to go and use the hands that God gave me to do my best.”
To help support Emma’s mission to Haiti, drop off school supplies such as chalks and crayons at Piggly Wiggly in Coligny Plaza on Hilton Head. Or visit the Love and Grace Ministries website at www.loveandgracehaiti.com.