NACOGDOCHES, Texas — While many view summer break as a time to unwind and relax, others embrace it as an opportunity to immerse themselves in a new culture while working long hours to accomplish meaningful projects. This past June, Stephen F. Austin State University students from the academic disciplines of agriculture, early childhood education, environmental science, forestry, nursing and social work did just that — dedicating almost two weeks of their summer break to accomplish a variety of projects in rural Haiti.
This marks the second summer in which SFA has partnered with One Foot Raised, a local mission-based nonprofit organization founded by SFA alumni. While the organization was officially established in 2016, its founders, Becky and Zac Weems, have led outreach teams in the country for a decade. The Weems said they work closely with leadership from a small number of villages to learn the exact needs of residents and then work hand-in-hand with them to achieve these goals.
In partnering with SFA, the Weems said they now have access to a vast amount of knowledge and skills in the form of faculty and staff, as well as students.
This year, Dr. Angela Jones, assistant professor of nursing within SFA’s Richard and Lucille DeWitt School of Nursing, and Dr. Shelby Gull Laird, assistant professor of forestry within SFA’s Arthur Temple College of Forestry and Agriculture, led a team of 13 SFA students who completed tasks ranging from human health and wellness to agricultural development in three rural villages.
“The whole goal of the trip for the nursing students was to immerse themselves in health care in the context of another culture, take what they’ve learned here and see how they can adapt it to meet the needs of a community using the services is has,” Jones said. “It was absolutely a priceless experience.”
Jones and the six participating nursing students conducted health clinics and home visits in the villages of Lamonthe, Quicroif and Thomassin where they focused on basic wound care, women’s health and distributed reading glasses after conducting rudimentary vision tests using a vision chart in French Creole, the official language of Haiti.
“We used shards of a broken mirror to show them their reflection wearing the new glasses, and it was amazing,” Jones said. “That was probably our favorite thing we did.”
Students from social work and elementary education assisted in various capacities, including organizing and facilitating the projects.
“They were a tremendous help in providing support and educational games to the children of those seeking medical care," Jones said.
Brennan Morrell, a senior nursing student, said the experience inspired him to seek ways to improve his nursing skills and gave him renewed gratitude for the American health care system.
“I kind of went into the trip with the mindset that I know everything I need to know to be a nurse right now, but in coming back I realized how much more I could do to be a better nurse,” Morrell said.
This introspection and personal growth is precisely what Jones hoped would occur.
“I really saw who they are as nurses,” Jones said. “I saw their hearts and passion.”
While overall emphasis was placed on the bipedal residents of Haiti, the four-legged variety was not neglected.
Drawing on her experience of keeping show rabbits, DeeAnna Berry, a junior studying animal science within SFA’s Department of Agriculture, developed a comprehensive brochure on rabbit husbandry that was translated into French Creole and distributed to a group of women in the mountain-top village of Quicroif.
Berry explained that the rabbits will provide the women, all widows, with a source of food and income, as well as fertilizer for them and local farmers.
In addition to the informational brochure, Berry and Jheri-Lynn McSwain, an SFA doctoral student in forestry and Shelby County extension agent, taught the women how to determine the sex of rabbits and efficiently harvest the animals.
“Being able to travel to different places to see how they care for their crops or their livestock versus how we do it in the U.S. is a real eye opener and can show us how to be more resourceful,” Berry said. “The community was very welcoming and just wanted to help everyone.”
Students also fine-tuned the design of an existing rabbit cage to allow for better ventilation and improved health of the rabbits.
“They had built a good cage, but the limiting factor was the wire mesh for the sides,” Laird said. “They used tin, the only thing they had accessible, and the cages were too hot.”
Following an extensive search of supply stores in Port-au-Prince, Laird and Zac Weems were able to locate the wire mesh needed.
Laird emphasized that the frame of the existing rabbit cage, made of limbs sourced from surrounding trees, was of excellent quality and served as a template for the cage built by the villagers and SFA students.
While on the surface the completed projects seem discipline specific, both Jones and Laird said that SFA students of all majors contributed in a number of ways and, perhaps most importantly, learned from each other. Additionally, Laird stressed that as the needs of the Haitian villagers change, so will the focus of the projects, allowing ample opportunity for more interdisciplinary collaboration.
“While all study abroad trips are important, I think this trip’s focus on service provides something different, and the students find more meaning in what they are doing,” Laird said. “They were able to contribute to other’s learning while also learning themselves.”
Laird explained that although One Foot Raised is a faith-based nonprofit organization, all volunteers from SFA are welcome to participate.
Looking forward, Laird and Jones hope to continue their collaboration with One Foot Raised, allowing SFA Lumberjacks from across disciplines to unite for a common good.