LAFAYETTE — As his plane lifted off from the Miami airport, Chris Prater looked at the city disappearing below him and caught his last glimpse of civilization as he knew it for nearly two weeks.
On the mission trip he was taking with eight other students to Haiti, there wouldn’t be many skyscrapers where he was going, nor would there be the conveniences he had grown accustomed to as an American.
He didn’t know what to expect as he embarked on a journey to an unknown world, but what he found there had a profound impact on his world view.
Prater returned to that Miami skyline 12 days later with the understanding that, while the exterior differences exist between the world he knew and the one he discovered, humanity is the same worldwide.
“The main thing I got from the trip was to realize that the issues of the heart are the same, no matter where you go,” said Prater, an expected starter for the Louisiana-Lafayette football team on the defensive line. “I understand that I’ve only been to one other country, but I would like to think that it would apply anywhere in the world — that anywhere you go, a child wants to be loved by their parents, and any loving parent would like to provide for their children.”
Prater was one of a contingent of Cajuns athletes who devoted a significant chunk of what little free time they had to helping those in need in Haiti. Cajuns quarterback Brooks Haack and women’s basketball players Keke Veal, Sylvana Okde and Jodi Quinn joined him.
The trip was put on by the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship and was the first of its kind. The organization has sent students on evangelical trips to Europe before, but none of those excursions had been geared for athletes until this year.
The task of sending athletes on such trips is made difficult by their demanding schedules. Haack said he has been approached about going on mission trips before, but it has always conflicted with something he already had planned. Blair Claypoole, the trip’s team leader and a former Cajuns volleyball player, is familiar with the demands on a student-athlete’s time.
“A lot of times, it’s like, ‘Summer? What’s that? I have workouts. I have summer school. I’m giving myself to my team,’ ” Claypoole said. “Here, as the team in Haiti, they were able to give themselves and serve someone else and use their strength to the fullest. It was amazing.”
The small Cajuns cadre partnered with the Convoy of Hope and Mission of Hope groups to assist Haitians, whether that meant planting fruit-bearing trees to provide food long after they’re gone or building a shelter for those still recovering from the massive earthquake that leveled much of the country in 2010.
It was a staggering experience for Haack and Prater, neither of whom ever had been immersed in the type of living conditions they saw in Haiti.
“We saw people there where they maybe open up a well one day a week, and that’s the only time they could get water,” Haack said. “Walking around and seeing kids without clothes, kids without shoes, just the simple things that we take for granted, it really was eye-opening.”
For 10 days, the group “woke up with the roosters” Claypoole said, usually around 5:30 a.m. After a quick breakfast and a briefing on the plan for the day, they’d head into a village and offer their service.
As it turns out, a group of twentysomethings in peak physical condition who know how to work as a team can be quite useful.
One day, the group worked as home builders for a woman who lost her home in the earthquake. Some in Haiti are still living under the blue tarps provided in the aftermath of the disaster.
“They’re trying to get everybody out of those blue tarps and into cinder-block homes,” Claypoole said. “We were able to basically help make concrete to finish off this one woman’s house. That was a fun day. We worked in an assembly line, everybody knew what role they played on the team and it was like clockwork.”
The team concept was easy for the athletes to grasp. The underlying message was a little more complex: Some gifts transcend sports.
“I wanted to … let them know that all this talent that your coaches have helped grow and these skills that you’ve put so much work into, there’s so many ways to utilize them (even) if you don’t play the sport the rest of your life,” Claypoole said.
It’s not just the physical gifts Claypoole was talking about. She knows Haack someday wants to be a coach and, based on his interaction with the Haitian children, she has a feeling he’ll make a good one.
Prater said the children usually would approach him, with his facial features and dark complexion resembling those of a local. But once the kids found out Prater didn’t speak the language, they’d flock to Haack, who was more than willing to serve as a human jungle gym.
“All they wanted to do was be held,” Haack said. “You could tell, any time they could get any type of attention from any of us, they were wanting to. We’d have one kid, and another kid would be trying to pull that kid down for us to hold him. It was a constant battle for us to give our affection to them.”
This was the true goal for Haack, Prater and the rest of the group — to provide whatever sort of help they could while expanding their own horizons.
Prater had never been outside the United States before his short trip to Haiti. He didn’t want to isolate himself to the one corner of the world he knew, but he also wanted to leave for the right reasons.
“I figured that I wanted to leave the country, and what better experience would it be for my first trip to go on a mission and to send some help and be of use to someone?” Prater said. “Vacations are cool — I’m not knocking vacations — but I thought it would be cool for my first trip to not be about me.”
So Prater and the others left their comforts behind, not for themselves but for others. In doing so, they may have helped themselves by developing a deeper understanding of the world around them.
“Even though we’re from different native countries, people want to be loved,” Prater said. “It was important to share our experiences with each other to understand that.”