Panther Profiles: Worthington, Schmidt Try To Make A Difference In Haiti
Oct. 11, 2012
Story by Nolan Murphy, Student Assistant
MILWAUKEE - College spring break typically consists of a trip to a tropical beachfront location for plenty of fun and relaxation.
The duo went to Haiti, looking to help an island nation overrun by tragedy and despair. What they found was overwhelming.
"What you see on television or in magazines is exactly what you see as soon as you get there," Worthington said.
"Most people think of Haiti as a tropical location because it's in the Gulf of Mexico," Schmidt said. "Port of Prince actually looks more like a desert than somewhere you would want to vacation. There are many nice, scenic locations on the island, but that is not where most people live."
Haiti is still very much at the beginning of the long process of recovering from the January 2010 earthquake that took the lives of over 300,000 Haitians. Ensuing hurricanes and tropical storms have often set the recovery back, as has a lack of funding or even basic infrastructure.
But Worthington and Schmidt wanted to make a difference.
"I wanted to experience and see what these people where going through," Worthington said, "and get out my comfort zone."
It didn't take long for the two to see they would be well out of any comfort zone.
The first sign of destruction that still exists in the country, Worthington said, comes upon arriving at the airport, which was still in shambles. And that matched what she and Schmidt found elsewhere.
"In the city, it is just so different," Schmidt said. "Their country doesn't have some basic things, like a garbage-removal program, so everyone just throws their trash in the streets.
"Right when we got there, we saw someone who had just gotten in a car accident. The body was just lying on the side of the road and that didn't seem to affect too many people. That was definitely a game changer for all of us."
Said Worthington, "No one has a house; there are just tin roofs with sticks. People are living in just extreme poverty."
But that means the opportunity to help and make a difference is great.
Worthington and Schmidt traveled to Haiti as part of Mission of Hope, a group working to train and educate Haitians. The goal, Worthington said, is to one day have Haitians take over their jobs and replace the volunteers that are coming in from the U.S. and elsewhere to help. The focus for now has been on gathering resources for structural buildings as well as nutritional and educational resources for the upcoming generation of Haitian citizens.
Worthington and Schmidt were also able to put their academic background into action in Haiti. The two have taken French courses at UWM, with Worthington actually majoring in the language and Schmidt minoring in it, as well. While many citizens actually speak Creole, the two found many similarities in the local language and traditional French, and knowing the language helped immensely in communicating with the people.
"I tried to spend the whole time there speaking only in French and it was a huge benefit," Schmidt said. "One of the head nurses we were working with didn't speak much English so she would call me over, tell me something in French or Creole and I would be able to communicate that with the rest of the workers."
Worthington's soccer background also played a role in her experience in Haiti. Mission of Hope was in the process of building a soccer complex while she was there, and has plans to start a youth soccer program.
"When I brought my soccer ball out by the end of the first day it was worn out from the kids just playing all day," Worthington said. "The building of the soccer complex is a movement to prevent violence and give the young kids activities to do."
The pair spent most of its time near the capital city of Port of Prince, considered one of the most dangerous places in the world. But at no time did Worthington or Schmidt ever fill unsafe or in danger. And, Worthington's observation was that most of the fighting went on between the two social classes and over politics. In fact, she said at no time was lying, cheating or violence visible among the people she worked with.
"There was a sense of community among the people despite the troubles that faced them every day," Worthington said.
That sense of community really struck Worthington, who was truly moved by the large amount of time spent in medicals clinics affiliated with Mission of Hope, doing whatever possible to help the native people. She was particularly struck by the hope and happiness displayed by all of the people she encountered, in spite of the desperate situation.
"Everyone's overall happiness was something I definitely noticed and took away," Schmidt said. "We drove a portable clinic around to get to people who needed attention and people would be waiting for hours on the most uncomfortable wooden benches, but when we got there, they always had a smile on their face or got their kids to giggle for us."
Currently, Worthington is in the middle of helping the Panthers win a Horizon League Championship and return to the NCAA Tournament, while Schmidt's season is just getting underway as the women's swimming & diving team looks to repeat their league title, as well. But Haiti is never far from either of their minds. Worthington is already planning a return trip in January and Schmidt hopes to return after her season is over in March.
Worthington said the main goal of her return is to form an even bigger bond with many of the Haitian people. And, she plans to bring a few more soccer balls this time, and just about anything else that can help the people who have had such an impact on her.
"I wish I could just spend months on end there, but right now being a student-athlete it just won't work out," Worthington said. "But it's very important to me and something I want to do later in life."
Tim Prahl contributed to this story