FALKVILLE — Joel Schrenk loves to share the story about how on a road trip to Michigan he ended up in Haiti.
It was not a misdirection play like the Falkville High School football coach might call on a Friday night in the fall. It was a chance encounter with a book that has fueled a passion for Schrenk and his wife Donna to help one of the most impoverished countries in the world.
“Haiti stole our hearts,” Donna said.
The couple was headed to Michigan for the Fourth of July in 2015 to visit Joel’s parents. Coach did the driving. Donna passed the time reading a book a friend had loaned her called “Miracle on Voodoo Mountain.”
The book tells the story of Lee Ann Newsom, who quit her job and sold everything to move to Haiti to address the devastation of the poverty-stricken Caribbean island. One part of the book that Donna found moving told of a 12-year-old girl sold into slavery by her family because they could not afford to take care of her.
“I just told Joel we had to find a way to go to Haiti and try to help however we could,” Donna said.
The Schrenks led a party of 10 to Haiti last year. They are leading a party of 16 that will leave Friday and return June 3.
“The need is so overwhelming,” Joel said. “The poverty is unbelievable. You can’t fathom it until you see it for yourself.”
Haiti is located on the island of Hispaniola in the Greater Antilles. The country occupies a little less than half of the island with the Dominican Republic. Haiti is 10,714 square miles and has an estimated 10.6 million people.
The history of Haiti is one of unsettled government. It is the only nation in the world established as a result of a successful slave revolt. Despite having a viable tourist industry, Haiti is one of the world’s poorest countries with corruption, poor infrastructure, lack of health care and lack of education cited as the main sources.
“It’s not a Third World country, it’s more like a Fifth World country,” Joel said.
After some internet searching, the Schrenks came in contact with Rod and Debbie Wray. The Canadian couple started making mission trips to Haiti 20 years ago. They moved there eight years ago and started Camp Mahanaim at Torbeck on the southern coast. It’s a sports camp devoted to the ministry of helping the local people.
“I thought with my sports background that Camp Mahanaim sounded like a perfect place for us,” Joel said.
From an aerial photo, the camp, which sits next to the Caribbean beach, looks more like a resort than a place of ministry. It is surrounded by a wall and is entirely self-sustainable with its own solar electricity system and fresh water well. It has dorms for boys and girls. There’s a soccer field and one of the few gymnasiums in the country. The open-air chapel seats 1,500 and is packed each Sunday. That’s when each child is given food supplies to take home.
“You just can’t help but fall in love with the children,” Donna said.
A small village sprung up in the thick forest next to the camp. Families living in homes made of nothing more than cardboard want their children close to the camp.
The Schrenks' first visit lasted one week. It was eye-opening trip. They decided that helping the ministry at Camp Mahanaim would be their mission.
“Before we left, we asked, ‘What can we do to help from home?’ ” Joel said. “They said to send anything from shoes to cloth diapers to food supplies.”
The Schrenk home in Falkville turned into the central hub for gathering supplies from area churches and individuals. Eventually, a tractor-trailer load of supplies was shipped to Florida for the trip to Haiti. Before it was delivered, Hurricane Matthew swept across the island, killing 546. The camp suffered major damage. The village in the forest next to the camp was wiped out along with the forest. It took the Wrays three days to return to camp from their inland shelter.
“I was ready to organize a team to head down there to help,” Joel said.
Instead, the Schrenk team is returning this week. They will help conduct a vacation Bible school program at Camp Mahanaim for 200 children.
“We can’t wait to get there to see what it looks like now,” Joel said. “We can’t wait to see those kids that stole our hearts.”