MIssion to Haiti: Sheldon volunteers survive earthquake, return homeSHELDON, Iowa — Rachel Roozeboom was riding in the back of a truck, returning to Port-au-Prince from a village where she and other volunteers had been distributing clothes and shoes, when the earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12.
By: Beth Rickers, Worthington Daily Globe
SHELDON, Iowa — Rachel Roozeboom was riding in the back of a truck, returning to Port-au-Prince from a village where she and other volunteers had been distributing clothes and shoes, when the earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12.
“Since we were driving, I thought we had blown a tire or something, because we started weaving very quickly,” she described. “But when we pulled over, it didn’t stop.”
Roozeboom, the youth director at First Reformed Church in Sheldon, was one of six people from that church who were in Haiti at the time of the massive earthquake.
“There were six from our church and another five from our community, and some people from our church who had relatives along — sons, grandchildren, who were from other parts of Iowa and South Dakota,” explained the Rev. David Brower, pastor at First Reformed, which has a long history of supporting missions in Haiti. “We’ve been sending groups with an organization called Mission to Haiti — I’ve been here 10 years, and it was going on long before that — so maybe 20 to 25 years now.”
Founded by Bill and Ann Nealey, Mission to Haiti exists to help the Haitian people with their daily needs and bring them the Gospel message. Operating from a base camp, volunteers may use their time and talents in various capacities including vocational training, a Bible school, medical teams, construction teams and distributing food and community aid.
Some of the Sheldon volunteers had been to Haiti before — Brower said one church member has been there 20 times, another eight times — but for Roozeboom, this was her first trip to the impoverished Caribbean island.
“I’ve always been interested in missions, and I’d been able to do some international missions, and they were really eye-opening. God taught me a lot on those trips,” she explained. “So I thought I’d take this opportunity to go with the church.”
The team from Iowa arrived in Haiti on Jan. 11 and had just made their initial foray into the mission field — the first of four planned excursions — on the following day when the earthquake struck. Pre-earthquake, Roozeboom admits she was having trouble coping with how horrible the conditions were in Haiti.
“I thought it was bad before,” she reflected. “No drinking water, little shacks to live in, just hardly anything, trash everywhere. I was still trying to understand this Third World country when this happened.”
When the truck came to a halt, Roozeboom and her fellow volunteers got out to look around and assess what was happening around them. But they were in an area where there weren’t many houses and didn’t immediately realize the extent of the damage. As they drove toward the base camp, the reality of the situation began to sink in.
“I’ve never been more scared in my life,” Roozeboom said. “Everything around us was gone, but fortunately, our buildings (at the Mission to Haiti compound) were only cracked, so we could still use them. But we didn’t sleep inside; we were too scared for that. We were still able to use our beds, and our belongings were all safe, and we could still get to our medical supplies.”
Part of the group was there on a medical mission, so their services and those supplies were quickly put to use.
“We had doctors and nurses along,” Roozeboom said. “At the camp where we were staying, they provided as much medical care as they could. They stitched up a lot of people, set bones, had to carry some people away that passed away. ”
Without any medical training, Roozeboom felt “very helpless,” but she tried to pitch in as best she could.
“I was just able to bring people blankets and sheets and give them water to drink,” she explained.
Aftershocks made attending to the injured even more chaotic and brought increased panic among the survivors.
“Some aftershocks were worse than others,” Roozeboom said. “There wasn’t any rhythm to them, they’d just come whenever. Some would last five or six seconds, and you didn’t know what else was going to fall down, what else was going to happen.”
Prayers helped, but even those were hard to verbalize in the midst of so much tragedy and despair.
“The night of the earthquake, I couldn’t even form prayers,” Roozeboom remembered. “I was in complete shock. The only verse I could think of was Romans 8:26 — the Spirit intercedes for you with groans that words cannot express.”
One bright spot for the mission team was being able to communicate with their friends and families back home, letting them know they were OK.
“Our Internet was slow, but still working,” Roozeboom said. “Pretty quick after it happened, we were able to get word back. We’d try to give short updates.”
While they were doing all they could to help the Haitian people, the missionaries were also concerned about how they were going to get back home. At one point, they were sent to the airport for evacuation, but due to the crowds there, they had to return to the Mission to Haiti compound. Finally, a connection with the Mississippi National Guard aided their cause.
“We had tried everything to get out, but nothing was working,” Roozeboom said. “There was this lieutenant colonel whose church supported Mission to Haiti. He personally did everything he could to get us out. I guess a load of cargo came in, and he made (the crew) promise not to leave until he came back. So he snuck us into the airport in the middle of the night and onto this cargo plane. It was like something you see in a movie.”
Although they had expected to be evacuated to Miami, the plane’s first stop was in New Jersey. They were just grateful to be back on U.S. soil — and more stable ground.
“It was only when we landed in New Jersey that I knew the ground wouldn’t shake anymore,” Roozeboom recalled.
The Sheldon group eventually made connections to Omaha, where they landed on Friday night.
Since their return, the mission team has gone through a debriefing session to help them cope with what they experienced in Haiti. Before they boarded a Haiti-bound plane, Roozeboom barely knew some of her travel companions; now she feels close with them — bonded through shock and tragedy.
Roozeboom said she will be content to stay close to home for a while, but the Haitian experience has not totally squashed her interest in future mission trips.
“But I don’t think I can go back to Haiti any time soon,” she said. “I think it would take quite a bit to get me back.”
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