FHSU students' mission is a trip to Haiti

Haiti 2016

By Randy Gonzales
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. -- Despite the sweltering heat, despite the lack of electricity and water -- despite everything -- once someone makes a mission trip to Haiti that person feels compelled to go back. The reason? The children.

Dr. Jeff Burnett, professor of health and human performance at Fort Hays State University, recently returned from leading his third mission trip to Haiti. Burnett is also the director of Encounter, a faith-based organization on campus through which the trips are sponsored. On the first trip in 2014, 43 students signed up. Last year, it was 59, and this year, it was 55 for the six-day trip. Burnett has had several students who have made all three trips to the poverty-stricken nation in the Caribbean.

"The trip is definitely a humbling experience," Hays graduate student Kelsey Billinger said. "I've had a kid that's been with me the past three years. I met another little baby this year, and this was probably my hardest trip to leave.

"It makes me super emotional," she added. "I get really attached to those kids. I still think about them all the time; makes me want to go back every year to go see these kids I get close with."

The FHSU students give attention to the children, teaching them the basics of living, from good hygiene to proper nutrition. Some students also help build schools and churches. It's all for the children.

"They really don't have anything," said Kade Spresser, who is from Hoxie and will be a junior in the fall. "They don't have anything to look forward to. It's just survival, day by day."

Lauren Clark founded "Here Am I Ministries" after moving to Haiti in 2004 as a missionary. She started a feeding program for the street children and in 2010 she partnered with a local pastor to start an orphanage, church and school. Meanwhile, Burnett had some Encounter members who wanted to go on a mission trip. He mentioned it to his mother-in-law, and she put him in contact with Lauren Clark, a friend of hers.

The trip costs $1,200, but what the students receive in return is priceless.

"I've never experienced anything like this," said Spresser, who made his first trip. "I think it's good for people to get out of their comfort zone a little bit. God can call you to serve in the mission field. I think everybody should go see a third-world country and experience how nice we have it back here in the (United) States."

Billinger, who said she was heavily involved with the Encounter group on campus, saw the trips to Haiti as an opportunity to grow in her faith.

"I know we're super privileged in the U.S., and I wanted to see how other people lived, knowing they still had their relationship with God," she said.

What the students find out upon arriving in Haiti is that the children are craving love and attention.

"The first thing we do is play with kids and love on these kids that truly have one parent -- or many of them (who) have no parents," Burnett said. "The next thing we do is make sure they're all fed and they all have water. Water down there is gold."

The students stayed in the evenings in Clark's guest house, which had security in place for their safety. During the day, they ministered to the children or worked on construction projects.

"The humidity, it's so sticky, you just sweat all night," Spresser said. "They don't have air conditioning. They don't have a lot of good, running water. They don't have a trash system. It's pretty sad."

Yet, still, the students were encountered by young, smiling faces every day.

"The kids just love you," Spresser said.

And the FHSU students keep loving back and coming back, year after year.

"It does go back to the quality of students we have, looking beyond themselves," Burnett said. "That's one of the great things about Fort Hays State. It's a testament to the administration all the way down to the students, the parents."

Burnett sees what the students accomplish during the mission trip and sees how they are changed, too.

"I so much enjoy watching their faces and their reactions and how their lives can change and they get moved on a daily basis," Burnett said. "Every day down there, we cry together. We all smile, we all laugh, we all cry."

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