A Caring Heart

Caroline Schiltz’s birthday wish was to help children living in Haiti

Zoey Wagner and Caroline Schiltz with village children in Ticotelette.
Caroline prepares to board a plane for Haiti.
Children in Ticotelette are eager to play and learn.
The crowded ferry ride to the island of La Gonave.
Caroline’s father, Randy Schiltz, right, taught Haitian men how to build school benches.
A worship service in La Gonave.
Caroline intends to return to Haiti next year.
Photo
By KATIE VANBRACKLE
Posted

Becoming a teenager is a big deal. So on Caroline Schiltz’s 13th birthday in January, her parents, Randy and Casey Schiltz of Cumming, gave her the gift of travel. Pick a place for a special birthday trip, they said. Anywhere you’d like to go. They assumed she would choose a beach resort, possibly a cruise.

Instead, she chose to follow her heart to Haiti, one of the most desperately poor countries in the world. A place still struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake five years ago.

Her parents were initially surprised, but eventually agreed, knowing their daughter’s love for mission work of any sort.

“I’ve seen so many pictures of Haiti and really wanted to help the kids living there,” Caroline explained. “I knew this was my chance to go.”

Her father said Caroline has been talking about Haiti for years.

“Our church happened to be planning a mission trip that coincidentally fell over Caroline’s winter break from school, so we saw the writing on the wall and the opportunity before us and we signed up to go,” Randy recalled.

Sydney Schneider, who leads Haiti mission trips for Alpharetta Presbyterian Church (APC), doesn’t consider the timing a coincidence at all.

“It was the perfect example of ‘a child shall lead them,’” she said. “Caroline’s enthusiasm shaped our entire trip, and it was without question the best experience in Haiti we’ve had yet. God’s hand was evident from the very beginning.”

APC’s work in Haiti is through the La Gonave Haiti Partnership, a “ministry of presence” that provides resources and the education necessary for the people of Haiti to learn to help themselves – creating a sustainable community and an educated workforce.

La Gonave is a mostly barren, hilly island situated off Haiti’s mainland with 80,000 residents. The saying goes that if Haiti is “the land that the world forgot,” then La Gonave is “the land that Haiti forgot.” This is where you find the poorest of the poor.

Schneider’s previous trips to La Gonave focused on health and sewing projects with women in the tiny village of Ticotelette, but with Randy and Caroline on board, she recognized an opportunity to reach out to men and children as well.

Randy, who builds custom homes as owner of t-Olive Properties, secured donations of tools and cash for lumber and other supplies, with the intent of teaching the men of Ticotelette how to build basic school benches.

Caroline reached out to classmates at King’s Ridge Christian School in Milton and to neighbors in Cumming’s Vickery development to organize drives for toothbrushes, toothpaste and art supplies.

Caroline’s mother, Casey, was touched by the generous response.

“We wound up with 600 toothbrushes and huge boxes full of art supplies. People really do want to help with the situation in Haiti, they just don’t always know how,” she said.

Casey admits to being nervous about putting her husband and oldest daughter on a plane to Haiti.

“So many thoughts ran through my head,” she said. “What happens if there is an earthquake, what if someone gets hurt, where exactly are they going, could we communicate, could they honestly make a difference, how would they view everything when they returned?

“It’s very eye-opening for an adult to go to a place like Haiti, but even more so for a 13-year-old who hasn’t previously seen people who really need help,” Casey said.

“We were able to communicate via text the first few days and I was able to speak to her when they reached the base camp [on La Gonave],” she said. “I knew the moment I heard her voice that she was doing what she had been called to do. I don’t think I have ever heard her so happy. Of course, as her mom, I cried with a sense of pride and relief.”

Caroline admits to being a bit nervous when she first arrived in Port au Prince and boarded a small boat to La Gonave, crowded with people, supplies and even coffins.

Having her father by her side was a great source of comfort.

“My dad is very protective and made me feel comfortable. If he was scared, he didn’t show it,” she recalled.

In Caroline’s bag was a little gift from her classmate, Ashton Middleton. A bundle of postcards for Caroline to open – one each day – containing messages of encouragement and support.

“Most kids my age probably thought I was crazy for choosing to go to Haiti for my birthday, but my really good friends were totally supportive, even though they were scared for me,” Caroline said.

The six-person mission team from APC included the church’s senior pastor, Dr. Oliver Wagner. His ninth-grade daughter, Zoey, was Caroline’s roommate in their base compound, where the living was basic, but clean.

“There was a little bit of electricity, running water and a sort of shower which was more like a hose over a small tile floor,” said Caroline. “There was no air conditioning and it was very hot all the time.”

Meals featured many unfamiliar Haitian foods with lots of spices, and cooked fish containing every single bone.

“It was different!” Caroline admitted with a laugh.

Each day, the APC team drove for two hours up into the hills to the village of Ticotelette.

“They have no electricity or running water in the village,” said Caroline. “The women have to walk for hours to collect water two to three times every week, then carry it back uphill to their village. It’s more of a path than a road, and very rocky. We had trouble driving on it, I can’t imagine walking.”

Villagers live in crude huts and depend upon farming or the markets in La Gonave for food.

Caroline and Zoey invited the village children to play games and do art projects, with the help of a translator. The people of La Gonave speak Creole-style French. Over 65 children participated, ranging in age from 1 to 15, all smiling and eager to learn.

Using a Polaroid camera, Caroline took photos of the children and helped them make decorated frames, using the donated art supplies from home.

“Many of them had never seen a photo of themselves before and they were so excited,” she said. “It made me smile to see how something so small could make them so happy.”

Randy also noted the happiness and sense of community present in Ticotelette.

“Although poverty is everywhere and conditions look like they couldn’t be much worse, I never saw people sulking or blaming their life condition on anybody. They have what they have, and though they are so appreciative of a helping hand, life goes on as they know it,” he said.

Even with the challenges, Caroline says she absolutely loved every minute of the trip and can’t wait to go again.

“We were there for a full week and I formed some close relationships with many of the kids,” she said. “I want to go again next year and see how they are doing. My sister Emma Catherine might go with me next time.”

Casey remembers the moment when Randy and Caroline arrived safely home.

“Caroline came bouncing in the door with so many stories, but most importantly (and true to herself) she was already talking of a new plan to help the needs of Haitians on her next trip,” she said.

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