Although the Caribbean may be a popular spot for snowbirds hoping to get away from the tough winters up north, there's one island there that isn't exactly being flocked to: the poverty- and earthquake-ravaged nation of Haiti.
Tanja Dwire and her youth group from Blower's Chapel in Sebeka, however, worked for 15 months raising $11,000 for the chance to go. After finally finishing their fundraising efforts, Dwire's group left Christmas Day for Port Au Prince. They ended up in a village called La Digue, 30 miles northwest of the Haitian capital.
The five adults and three teenagers stayed in a secure compound for six days, while they assisted a missions group called "Children's Lifeline" in providing aid to the impoverished Haitians living all around them.
Dwire said crime is down in Haiti, as a result of the country being so poor.
"They don't have money, so they don't have guns and they don't have drugs because they can't afford it," Dwire said.
Despite the horrific situation the Haitians face, the mission group was struck by the unbreakable optimism of the Haitians they encountered. Dwire and Pam Allebach, another trip participant, both said the moment that stuck out to them the most happened when they met with a group of widows and a missionary asked the women if they had something to be thankful for.
"All 40 ladies started talking at once," Allebach said. "Their joy in such devastation and such poverty makes me so humble to know they're thankful like that."
Dwire said the group's mission involved serving food in conjunction with "Kids Against Hunger," as well as doing Vacation Bible School projects and stories with kids in local orphanages. Not only did the children love it, but they were incredibly respectful, Dwire said.
"The patience that these kids have, you just don't see that here at all," she said.
Allebach said her daughter, Hannah, was so inspired by the trip that she is now considering doing missions work in Haiti as a career. Hannah said she had been thinking of doing missions work since eighth grade, but it was the people she met on the trip who made her pick Haiti.
"Even though they were so poor ... they were so happy around each other, and that just is really amazing to me," Hannah said. "It's where I think God wants me."
Dwire said another trip to Haiti is on the horizon, but the youth group is also working on giving more aid right now. The Blower's Chapel group is seeking donations of peanut butter jars, to be sent to Haiti. Dwire added that peanut butter is a good donation item because it is high in protein, has a long shelf life and does not need to be refrigerated.
Starting this weekend, drop-off sites will be open at Chuck's Country Foods in Menahga, Ernie's Market in Sebeka and Super One Foods in Wadena for people who wish to drop off jars. If the peanut butter drive gets enough donations, Dwire said, they can send the shipment through the U.S. Air Force directly to "Children's Lifeline" and avoid U.S. Customs delays.