This article was published in the Spring 2010 issue of The Baylor Line.
After moving to Haiti in December, Ben and Katie Wilhoit Kilpatrick found their lives and work radically changed by the catastrophic earthquake.
“WE. ARE. ALIVE.” The simple posting on a blog web-site maintained by Katie Wilhoit Kilpatrick ’08 and her husband, Ben, wasn’t an announcement—thankfully, their families had known for a few weeks that the couple had survived the massive earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12.
Instead, the statement was a verbal realization of what the couple considers a miracle. “Buildings collapsed all over, pancaking people of every color and nation and age,” Katie wrote on January 31. “We could have died. I don’t think I’ve really absorbed that fact. Or adequately thanked God.”
On December 29, the Kilpatricks arrived in Haiti, where they had accepted teaching positions at Quisqueya Christian School, an international, kindergarten through twelfth-grade school in Port-au-Prince for both Haitian children and children of missionaries. For the first two weeks there, the young couple settled into a small apartment, adjusted to the different culture and climate, and developed the curriculums for their classes.
And just when they were feeling up to the challenge they had set for themselves, the ground crumbled beneath their feet—literally. As Katie says, “It’s been quite a season of change, to say the least.”
More than a month after the quake, the Baylor Line caught up with Katie and Ben to find out how they are adapting to conditions in Haiti and how long they intend to stay.
BAYLOR LINE: As the only school in Port-au-Prince to be left undamaged, Quisqueya is now housing U.S. Army troops, doctors from around the world, and Haitian refugees. What is life like on the school campus and in your surrounding neighborhood?
KATIE KILPATRICK: Our neighborhood is much safer than the downtown area you’ve probably seen on CNN. Our neighborhood has seen no widespread looting, although certainly the rubble of fallen grocery stores has been picked through. It would not be safe for us to, for example, walk home carrying grocery bags or a water bottle openly as we would have done before the quake. One major indicator of a neighborhood’s safety is the street traffic. Many ladies work as merchants, selling food and other items on the streets. If they judge that it is safe to sit in public with a table full of food and change in their pockets, I take that as a strong indicator that things are okay here. I feel safe because our perimeter wall is intact around the school and because the U.S. Army has set up a local command center at our school. We are still living on campus and will be here for much longer than I originally thought, which is disappointing because I really loved the off-campus home Ben and I had set up together. Until EDH (the public electrical utility here) is operating again, we cannot move back into our home because the gravity-fed water system’s pump is electric. Well need running water back and to know that it will be safe to walk back and forth to school before we can move back into our home.
BAYLOR LINE: Are you able to hold classes?
KATIE: Yes, our school is holding classes again! We started on Wednesday, January 27, and now have sixty-five students, down from 275 before the quake. I did teach geography, speech, theater, and ninth-grade English, and now I teach English for seventh through eleventh grade. Ben previously taught world his-tory, comparative government, sociology, and psychology, and now he teaches seventh through eleventh-grade history. The main challenge is that I have only two class periods—junior high and high school. So when I have high schoolers for English, I have about fifteen kids working on three separate curriculums in the same room. I could have written a new course plan to blend ninth, tenth, and eleventh-grade English together, but I felt it was important that they continue working on their separate textbooks and novels, so now we’re working on a rotational plan where each grade level has a discussion with me every third day while the others are reading their assigned literature.
A major challenge is trying to operate a school with limited resources. For instance, the kids no longer have lockers since the Army is renting the high school building and we’re meeting in the other half of campus. Without lockers, where do they put their books? Without a copy machine or printing, how do you create tests or worksheets? When some of your students are living in tents in the backyard of their destroyed home, they can’t exactly create a papier-mâché volcano or do Internet research as homework. They’ve lost all their school supplies and backpacks. Where do you buy a graphing calculator in the middle of a natural disaster? We are adapting everything.
BAYLOR LINE: One of your blog posts talked about how the school curriculum has changed to also focus on emotional and spiritual health. How are the children doing?
KATIE: Every child is coping differently. On the first day of school, we played a game where I said a sentence and any students who agreed with that sentence raised their hands. When I said, “I wish I had evacuated to a different country,” about half of the students raised their hands. That was sobering for me to realize that some kids disagree with their parents’ decision to keep them in Haiti. Another surprise was that almost all raised their hands when I said, “I don’t want to talk about the earth-quake, and I only want to do earthquake activities if they are private.” I had been prepared for days of group discussions, debates, and telling our stories. After hearing their desire for privacy, I switched to some creative writing and journaling. It was heartbreaking to read their writing—their stories were filled with violence, death of loved ones, and hopelessness. One activity that seemed helpful was when I had the high school students share one thing that made them feel better after the quake. Some said they were glued to the news; some said the news made them sick. Some said they went out to serve as interpreters in the midst of the trauma, and some said they holed up in their room and watched movies. They seemed surprised to hear such differing responses among their friends to the same traumatic event, and at the end I believe their tolerance and respect for varying forms of grieving was increased.
BAYLOR LINE: Was anyone from the school’s staff killed in the quake?
KATIE: No, however, many of the staff evacuated to the States, particularly the young, single teachers. Many of our Haitian staff members’ homes were destroyed completely, and at least two of our Haitian staffers lost children in the quake. Those staff and their families are living on the campus now, and we’re commit-ted to helping them rebuild and get back on their feet.
BAYLOR LINE: Are provisions get-ting to the people who need them most, or is there still trouble with transportation and government corruption?
KATIE: The one consistently problematic situation is food distribution. Two methods of food distribution—supply drops from helicopters and distribution from the back of a truck—have caused great violence because hungry people know that the supplies will always run out before the whole line receives aid. Those kinds of distribution scenarios can turn into a flash mob in an instant. One interesting solution I’ve heard of this week is that some aid groups are organizing women-only food distribution sites.
The aid is moving much better now than in the initial days after the quake. However, there are some important ethical and economic questions to raise at this point in the quake recovery. Initially, as Christians we want to meet immediate needs by passing out food to the hungry and homeless. We send in doc-tors to give medicine and do surgeries by the thousands for free. But at what point in the recovery effort does it actually harm people to continue giving them handouts every day? This morning my coworker observed a UN food distribution line stretching for many blocks directly past a fruit and vegetable market. So because the UN is giving food for free, they are putting out of business many local merchants and stores that have now re-opened. Also, the aid groups need to move from providing one-day solutions (like water bottle distribution) to long-term rebuilding of businesses, safe homes, and public services.
BAYLOR LINE: Take us back to the days following the earthquake. It sounds like you became a medic almost overnight.
KATIE: Yes, we somehow got nursing degrees instantly! Two minutes after the quake, we ran out of our house with hand sanitizer and paper towels and started wiping down head wounds on a four-year-old boy wandering the street alone. It was just incredibly natural for me. Of course I am no doctor, and I could do nothing for the femur fractures or crush injuries flooding toward the hospitals, but everyone with basic first-aid knowledge can clean and bandage a wound. It feels wrong to say the word “favorite,” but my favorite two days since the quake were the two days Ben and I spent at a clinic at a neighborhood church. Ben carried the wounded in stretchers all day, and I worked in wound care. I’ve never been too squeamish, but I also believe you can do anything when you need to. I never thought I would be able to pick skull fragments out of a wound or help scrape burned tissue off an infected burn, but somehow in the moment you just do it. The hardest part is not seeing or treating the injuries themselves, but hearing the pain of those you’re treating without adequate painkiller. Even if you know you must cause the pain in order to make the wound heal cleanly, it goes against everything in my soul to make a toddler cry. It was emotionally very difficult to absorb the wounds, the screaming, the infections, and our own limitations—several times a doctor told me that a wound I’d just treated was probably already too far gone and that the patient would likely lose the limb or die if they couldn’t get to a working OR. Those two days were full of life-and-death realities. I felt such incredible purpose and satisfaction at being able to tangibly solve something, anything, in this immense disaster, even if what I “solved” was just the cleanliness of a cut.
BAYLOR LINE: Ben, some would say you put yourself in danger by traveling throughout the city and into the countryside in your efforts to help the Haitian people.
BEN: I do not think I have taken any additional risks beyond living in Haiti and staying in Port-au-Prince after the earth-quake. I also don’t think I have done anything heroic, in a Jack Bauer way. I am just here to serve the Haitian people any way I can; there are much more heroic people here than me.
That being said, there are jobs and tasks that need to be done here, and they require doing things I wouldn’t have thought of doing before. A truck loaded with supplies and volunteers broke down in the Dominican Republic, and we needed to tow it back here. I speak some Spanish, and they needed someone who could help navigate the police and military checkpoints that are on the other side of the border. So I went with a Haitian pastor/truck driver and another missionary I had just met. It took thirteen-plus hours; we left at 5 p.m. and got back at 7 a.m. It was interesting crossing the border in the dead of night, but I never felt it was risky. I felt God with me the whole time.
It has been that way with everything I have done. When I accidentally drove into the secured part of the airport and onto the UN compound, I was aware that I was trespassing (accidentally, I swear) but it all worked out okay. Or when I had to trans-port medicine to a country hospital or change money at a less-than-reputable market—all of those things needed to be done, had to be done so people could be healed, so supplies could be purchased. Those are normal, everyday things here, and they sound much more terrifying to people in the States than they feel here. Driving, period, in Haiti is an adventure, but not risky.
BAYLOR LINE: You have also both helped in orphanages around the city. Do you have any thoughts on the U.S. missionaries who were arrested for trying to take children out of the country?
KATIE: I don’t know the truth about what those Americans were doing, but I know that they have now caused incredible pain and heartache for hundreds or thousands of families in the process of legitimate adoptions. Ben and I hope to adopt one day, and many of the American missionary families here in Haiti have adopted. I think adoption is a beautiful metaphor for the way we’re wel-comed into God’s family and given a hope and a future, and I saw many joyful adoptions when I worked at Buckner Interna-tional before coming to Haiti. However, we’ve seen the pain of the process—anxiously waiting weeks for this signature or that document, rules changing in the middle of the process, dealing with the whims of officials. Anyone who cheats the system or brings negative publicity to adoption makes it less likely that the 147 million orphans in the world will ever find a “forever family,” and that is an extremely serious offense to commit.
BAYLOR LINE: Have you been involved in foreign mission work before, or is this your first experience?
KATIE: Before moving to Haiti, I had been on mission trips to India with Antioch Community Church in Waco as well as Guatemala and Honduras with Buckner International. Going to Honduras with Buckner in June 2009 was revolutionary for Ben and me—our first mission trip together. I had always been interested in international missions, but it was on that trip that God really called Ben to that same passion. We began looking into opportunities overseas and found Quisqueya Christian School online.
Before Haiti, I was working in fundraising for Buckner International, and Ben was in corporate recruiting. We had great jobs, an apartment we loved, and had just become involved in a newlywed small group at Fellowship Bible Church, where we met amazing friends. It’s hard to explain, but we just knew that God was calling us to serve overseas. It was really painful to sell all our things, quit our jobs, and say goodbye to loved ones, but we knew we were right in the middle of God’s plan for us. Little did we know what was coming around the corner!
BAYLOR LINE: How did you two meet?
KATIE: Well, I love telling our story! We both grew up at First Baptist Church of Richardson, and we met there in junior high choir when I was in seventh grade and Ben was in ninth grade. We dated for more than a year in junior high, then went our separate ways for high school. We began dating again in the summer of 2004 when we both worked in the children’s ministry at FBC Richard-son. I had just graduated from high school, and Ben had just finished his sophomore year at Texas Tech. We fell in love and began dating long distance; we burned many miles traveling between Waco and Lubbock to see each other. Ben graduated from Texas Tech with a degree in history and psychology in 2006 and we were married on November 22, 2008.
My family is one of those that has taken a family photo with the Judge Baylor statue every year since my parents—Randy ’80, MBA ’82, and Susan Rhodes Wilhoit ’81, MBA ’82—were married. So for my bridal portrait, I climbed up in my favorite tree between the SUB and Carroll Science in my wedding dress! My favorite part of Baylor was being a Pi Beta Phi. I loved being a part of Homecoming, Sing, Diadeloso, rush, and all the traditions of Baylor life. It was in Pi Phi where I found a community of women who love the nations and who have dedicated their lives to loving radically.
BAYLOR LINE: You had initially planned to be in Haiti for two to three years. Have those plans changed?
KATIE: Before we left, we felt that we were in a really unique window of time in our lives—we’re in our twenties and don’t yet have children or a house. When will we ever be this free again? As far as we know, we still plan to be in Haiti for two to three years.
BAYLOR LINE: What type of aid will Haiti need in the coming months?
KATIE: We are very concerned about the upcoming rainy season because it will bring contamination of the water supply. There are thousands of bodies under the rubble, and there are very inadequate sanitation facilities in the numerous tent cities that have sprung up in every public space and park. When it rains, all that human waste will contaminate the ground water, bringing disease with it. In addition, there have also been increases in rat and mosquito populations due to sitting water and trash, bringing vector-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever as well. We need to see great systems of both prevention and treatment. Many aid groups bring food or water, but as far as I know no aid group’s main task is building latrines in tent cities or sanitation education. That’s not a very “warm and fuzzy” sounding job, but it will save just as many lives as performing surgeries. Later this year, we’ll also need to begin rebuilding efforts with skilled and unskilled laborers. There will be a special need for electricians, engineers, plumbers, and other construction experts.