DALLAS TWP. — There was the baby he held one day who was dead the next. Or the teen with a leg wound he treated only to hear it was later amputated.
“It doesn’t get easier,” John Giangrieco said of his three service trips to Haiti. “But you get accustomed to life in Haiti, to the idea that their world is a lot different than yours.”
At age 18, the Misericordia University freshman is preparing for his fourth trip in three years to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. He made his first trip as a junior in high school. It affected him so much, he went a second time that year, then again as a senior.
Raised in Montrose, Giangrieco decided to attend Seton Catholic Central High School in Binghamton, N.Y., where he met Sister Brigid O’Mahoney. She runs week-long trips to Haiti and he signed up.
“I really like to help people,” the soft-spoken nursing student said, “especially those who can’t help themselves.”
He found his first trip as a 16-year-old to Haiti “eye-opening. To see people who are starving, who haven’t had anything to eat or drink in a week.”
Despite that overwhelming need — or maybe because of that — he keeps going back. This year he will return with the high school group “as a chaperone,” though he’s hoping to get Misericordia to add Haiti to the list of countries offered as service trips to students.
Even the name of one place he annually visits can depress: Mother Teresa’s Home for the Sick and Dying. “They have newborns to, I want to say, 6 or 7 years old. They have malaria, Zika (virus), but even the common cold is a problem because of the poor health care.”
The litany of tragedy goes on.
“They burn all their trash on the side of the street, their trash is in the river and they use that to bathe.”
“One day I was holding a baby and I had to leave, and the next day we were told that baby passed away. That’s pretty hard to take.”
“People are starving, they could be dying. Babies’ stomachs were bloated beyond belief.”
The week-long trips involve working “from sunrise to sunset,” moving from place to place including four medical clinics in three villages. But “we’re only bringing things like Neosporin, Band-Aids, Advil — just first aid kind of stuff.
“The last trip a kid, probably 15 years old, came in from a motorcycle accident with a huge cut, like 4 inches deep, almost to the bone, and it was infected … . We tried to sterilize it, wrap it up. Later we heard he lost the leg to infection.”
‘We could do more’
In his book “Toxic Charity,” Robert Lupton argued such brief service trips are often counterproductive, in part because the money to get all the people to the site for a week could have bought much more if spent directly on those in need, but also because “most short-term trippers return to the same assumptions and behaviors they had prior to the trip.”
Giangrieco has not read the book and obviously does not fit that mold.
“Every day we feel we could do more, but there is only so much you can do in one day,” he said. “So I keep wanting to go back.”
Because so many health problems, like that motorcycle accident gash, would have much better outcomes with modern medicine, he also wants to get more fourth-year health-care majors to consider going. Students in nursing, physical therapy, occupational therapy and others could do a lot of good even in week, he predicted. One reason: in as little as 90 minutes, the group of 12 to 18 volunteers he travels with may see as many as 150 people at a single clinic.
In his three trips so far, Giangrieco said the toughest sight was discovering there can be separate communities for those who are deaf, are missing a limb, or are widows. “There can be a couple hundred in each village,” he recalled. It hit him hard because while he doesn’t speak French, he does speak American Sign Language.
The Haitians use the same signs, so they can communicate pretty well, though sometimes they convey different meanings.
The great need, though, makes for great joy in things most would take for granted: Clean bottled water, a few soccer balls, a Frisbee.
“Everyone’s faces just lit up, they were so excited,” he said. “Seeing how happy they got just by having a few soccer balls and Frisbees.”
Do the parents of this only child approve?
“Last time my mom went with me,” he said. “She was approached by one of the village leaders who said that these kids are very bright, they need to go to a high school or college.”
She arranged to pay for 10 to go to college this year. And she’s joining him again as he heads off for his fourth visit May 23.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish