Smiles all around as Catholics bring health mission to Haiti


By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger

A team of 27 people from the Diocese of Davenport and elsewhere provided medical and dental care to Haitians in the Jean-Denis area of Haiti last month.

Katie Kustes of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf is surrounded by children in Haiti. The parish did its annual medical and dental mission in January.

Ann Wester, coordinator for the Haitian Connection mission group of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf, said the majority of volunteers were from the parish. Others came from Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish in Muscatine; Iowa City; Dubuque, Iowa; and from the Quad-City area. They met with a team from Hands Together of Palm Beach, Fla.

More than 1,700 people received help in the medical clinic this year and around 300 people were seen in the dental clinic; 700 people received eyeglasses and 400 received sunglasses. “Due to their constant exposure to the sun, sunglasses are especially needed for the Haitians,” Wester said.


Each mission group member was assigned two, 50-pound bags to check in. They were filled with medical supplies and medicine, eyeglasses, toothbrushes, floss, shampoo, soap and toothpaste, granola bars and dental equipment. St. John Vianney parishioners and others donated many of the items. Genesis Health services donated the bulk of the medicine. Religious education students donated school supplies.

Three Haitian dentists who were hired to work with the St. John Vianney group performed tooth extractions, cleaned and filled teeth and provided dental education. The dental and medical clinics were held at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Jean-Denis.

“This year we were blessed to have Father Ross Epping (St. John Vianney’s parochial vicar) with us. He concelebrated Mass on the weekend with Father Jean Salomon (pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary). And he also presided at daily Mass,” Wester said.

Wester’s granddaughter, Katie Kustes, volunteered on the mission trip after being inspired watching her grandmother coordinate the mission trips. “I’ve always been in awe of her willingness to help others in need. At some point I just said to myself, ‘I want to do that too!’ And six years later, it finally happened,” said Katie, a sophomore at Pleasant Valley High School in Bettendorf and St. John Vianney parishioner. She worked at the intake station recording temperatures, height, weight and blood pressure. “Being assigned at the intake station was fun because I got a chance to talk to and see every patient who walked in the doors.”

She wanted to give the Haitians “all my money and take them home with me and introduce them all to what the United States has to offer.” Knowing that she couldn’t do that “broke my heart.” The heat presented another challenge. “It got to almost 100 degrees some days. The bug bites weren’t fun either.”

But volunteering in Haiti was “the best experience of my life. I went there with a goal to change the lives of hundreds and hundreds of Haitians. Little did I know, they would change my life. Mostly the kids taught me the things that I could never learn in a classroom or from a book. I learned to cherish the people that I have in my life, and not the materials. I learned to stop sweating the small stuff, because in the long run it won’t matter. I learned to pray, and to pray hard, because God will be there when no one else is. I learned to have hope for a better future. And most importantly, I learned to love harder.”

Fr. Epping, writing in the parish bulletin, said his Haiti experience was awesome. “The people we met, our brothers and sisters, are a people who have very little. They come to us with hunger pains, with vision problems, with infections and malnutrition and high blood pressure.” In the U.S. these issues can be addressed with greater ease. Even though the Haitians have very little, he observed them to be happy. “Why? Because at the end of the day, they have one another and they love one another. That’s one of the main differences between our reality and the reality of the Haitians.”

Tia Watson also participated in the medical mission trip, her fourth one. “Like so many others, I was struck by the massive destruction of the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and felt a need to help. When our parish formed a Haiti committee to explore the possibility of partnering with a Haitian parish, I was all in. …I really enjoy the variety of jobs available to nonmedical professionals like me. I was a dental assistant, helping the dentists extract teeth and fill cavities. I worked in the pharmacy, splitting and bagging pills, and in the intake area, recording patients’ symptoms for the doctors. Finally, I helped distribute glasses and sunglasses in our vision clinic.”

Watson most enjoyed getting to know and work closely with a diverse and talented team of volunteers committed to a common goal of ministering to their less fortunate brothers and sisters. She said it was “very gratifying to see the delight on an elderly woman’s face after finding her just the right pair of eyeglasses that will allow her to continue sewing, or the grateful look of a mother after providing medication for her sick baby.” Working long days and lacking good sleep was challenging. But more challenging was the realization that the “medical care we’re providing is only short-term. We’re committed to finding sustainable solutions for the people of Jean Denis and helping them help themselves.”

This medical mission trip has been life-changing, Watson said. “It’s humbled me and taught me to be grateful for the many gifts I have. It’s also made me realize even more that we are all God’s children, we are all equal in his eyes and deserve to be treated with love and dignity, regardless of our circumstances.”

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