Many people prefer to spend their vacations away from work, but three Jackson Township firefighters recently spent their time off by continuing to help others.
Jackson Township firefighters/paramedics Luke Smith of Pickerington and Rob Sneller of Westerville visited Haiti Jan. 24 through Feb. 1 as part of a mission trip with Grace Fellowship Church in Pickerington. Fellow firefighter/paramedic Greg Tussing of Grove City went on a mission trip to the area with Amazing Grace Christian Church of Grove City Feb. 16-23. It was Smith and Sneller's first mission trip but Tussing's second.
"I had never done a mission trip, and I always wanted to do one," Smith said. "I jumped at that opportunity."
Sneller said he had spoken with a friend from another church who had gone to El Salvador and another friend who had gone to Haiti.
"It sounded like such an experience," he said. "Let's just go and see if we can help people."
Tussing first went to Haiti as part of a surgical team in October 2007, before the 2010 earthquake that devastated much of the country.
"I guess the bigger question, to me, is why did I wait so long to go back," he said. "The need is so great. ... As poor and displaced (as the people were) then, it's much worse now."
Arriving in Port-au-Prince International Airport, Smith and Sneller said one of the first things they noticed was the smell. To Smith, it smelled like "burning dirt."
"It took four days to get used to it, where I didn't smell it in every breath," Smith said.
That smell is the result of no trash services and other sanitation; everything is burned, he said.
"To me, it smelled like a house after a fire," Sneller said.
Sneller and Smith rode from the airport to the village they would be working at on a vehicle called a "Tap-Tap," which Smith described as similar to a dump truck with benches on it.
"Locals pack like 50 (people) on them," Smith said. "We had 17, and we felt we were packed."
Throughout the drive, Sneller and Smith sat on top of the Tap-Tap.
"It gave us a chance to look around and see," Sneller said.
Smith said Haiti in a way has more gas stations than anywhere else because so many people sell gas in milk jugs and other containers along the roadside. There were no trees, which had long since been cut down, and tent cities were everywhere, he said.
"It was very shocking," he said. "It's very desolate."
Sneller said many people lived in shacks that he couldn't distinguish from being half-built or half-destroyed.
"I had never seen anything like it," Sneller said. "It was such a different world to me."
The pair worked at a village as part of a medical team that also included a Haitian doctor, four nurses, one dentist, one dental hygienist and 15 people from the mission.
"They call it a village, but it's grown to 120,000 people," Smith said.
On his first trip, Tussing assisted with pre-op and post-op patients who were getting surgeries for cleft lips, hernias and other conditions. His task on his second trip was different.
"We poured concrete at a new facility," he said. "During raining season, (the ground) completely floods up and becomes mud."
Tussing spent the recent trip in a more remote area of the country where there weren't any trucks and very few cars.
"The mission we went to employs a number of Haitians," he said. "They use bags of concrete and mix it on the ground."
Other workers shovel the mix into wheelbarrows to pour it.
"The job we did was putting the form in place and finishing the concrete," Tussing said.
Smith and Sneller said disease was rampant, ranging from malaria to a lot of infections.
"Most everyone there was ill," Sneller said. "Everyone just seemed used to it."
But despite their poverty and other hardships, the people of Haiti were friendly and happy, all three firefighters reported.
"Down there, people look at you, smile and say hello," Sneller said.
The firefighters said that everywhere they went, there were lots of children and even adults who wanted to walk with them and hold hands.
"They are just super full of life," Smith said.
In a country where most people get maybe one meal a day, Sneller gave one boy a Pop Tart.
"He looked excited when he figured out what it was and called his friends over to share it," he said.
"People there with next to nothing have a lot more smiles than people here who have everything," Tussing said.
Smith described the trip as a "life-changing experience."
"For me, it put your priorities in perspective," he said. "They really value human life and the relationships they have. ... We feel like we're so rich, but they're so rich in ways we're not. You really saw that on the faces of the people who were there."
Sneller said the trip was a good reminder of how so many people in the world live.
"It was a trip that gets you out of your comfort zone," he said. "I really do hope I can go back."
Tussing said he also plans to return.
"What took me back, I guess, was the overwhelming appreciation from the people," he said. "You could tell they were really grateful for any help they could get."