Opinion from OU Senior Associate Athletics Director for Communications Kenny Mossman.
NORMAN, Okla. --
Forty of us, including nine OU women's basketball players and nine OU football players, spent last week in Haiti expecting to help that nation, the poorest in our hemisphere, in its attempt to escape the third-world poverty that has plagued it for centuries.
We were bent on giving of ourselves sacrificially in building projects and babysitting; painting and playing.
Then we landed in Haiti and the tables turned.
The trip organizers had tried to prepare us for what we would see in Haiti, but there is no preparation for the sites an American finds there. The January 12, 2010, earthquake only exacerbated matters for a country that was already too familiar with living conditions that defy most vocabularies.
The school bus ride from the airport to our living quarters was sobering. In the first 20 miles we saw multiple tent cities and the mass burial site where thousands of Haitians were interred after the quake, all just a two-hour jet ride from our shores.
Against the backdrop of so much desperation we arrived the following morning at the campus of Mission of Hope, our host for the week. It was there that the purpose of our trip blurred. Was this for the Haitians or for us?
Children greeted us with broad smiles and bright eyes, faces that reflected a hope and joy more in line with the country's breath-taking mountains and Caribbean shoreline. They beamed at us and by doing so only further confused those of us struggling with a tidal wave of emotion and new experience.
A people with no apparent reason to be joyful were filled with joy, at least some. The years have taken their toll on many Haitians and the glint is gone from their eyes, but in so many others we found optimism even if we couldn't always see the foundation.
Our athletes and the children of surrounding villages and the Mission of Hope orphanage met like old friends. Some were as several of the women's basketball players had made the trip one year earlier and were back for a second time.
But even the newbies, which included all of the footballers, meshed immediately. Children nestled into their laps, hugged their necks and rode on their backs. It was impossible to behold such a thing and restrain the tears.
And so it went for a week. Day after day, we were hustled off to either play with the children or work under the brutal Haitian sun as Mission of Hope, a remarkable organization, works to expand housing projects, schools and medical facilities.
The heat and long hours were draining, the food was suspect and the water undrinkable, but the purpose, driven by those remarkable children, never waned.
The fallout? Children ate a ton of free candy and many buildings got a fresh coat of paint. Relationships were renewed and new ones were forged. And to be sure, all of us got an education in appreciating what we have.
But the thing that perhaps struck me most was those 18 student-athletes, and the way they grew individually and collectively. There is no way you can visit Haiti and come away unchanged, but the change in the Sooners stood tall like the peaks on Haiti's southern peninsula.
Compassion poured from them and I saw them care for others in a new and refreshing way, a way that I think will persist in their lives for years to come.
Most athletes have swagger. We embrace that quality of cool and confidence. But there was no swagger in Haiti. This was about transparency and building up the images of others, not self. It was a time to promote, exalt and love a group of children who lay open their hearts in return.
And those OU athletes who weren't already broken to that process, soon became so. Humility and compassion ruled the week in a way that warmed the soul.
The Mission of Hope basketball team defeated the OU athletes fair and square on the dusty, outdoor court. In the post-game photo, it was impossible to tell from the grins who had won and who had lost.
We returned tired and spent, physically and emotionally, but also strangely renewed and refreshed. And better. May the same hold true for the people of Haiti.
Note: This trip was not sponsored or organized by the University of Oklahoma.