Newlyweds Katelyn and Ryan Dodge quit their jobs, packed their belongings into carry-on luggage and moved to Haiti last June to work as missionaries for a year.
They returned home about three months earlier than they’d originally planned but completed a lot of the work they had set out to do.
The couple worked for myLIFEspeaks, helping orphans, seniors and others in the village of Neply.
Katelyn taught the organization’s founders’ three children, and Ryan worked as the community involvement coordinator.
Story continues below gallery
Ryan created a program for the village’s senior citizens — a population myLIFEspeaks wasn’t working with on a regular basis. Every Wednesday, 20 to 25 seniors participated in activities like bingo, arts and crafts and beanbag toss.
“These people are in their 70s, 80s and 90s and they’ve never been exposed to anything like that,” Ryan said. “They were genuinely excited to learn and grow.”
That program continued in Haiti after the couple returned home.
Ryan is continuing his work with senior citizens as the wellness nutrition site leader for Thrive Alliance at the Brown County YMCA. Katelyn works at a local hotel as a waitress.
In Haiti, Ryan also helped to add another component to a program that brings at-risk children and restaveks, or child slaves, together for tutoring, Bible studies, games and crafts.
He wanted to teach the teens how to grow food.
“You would think that in one of the poorest countries in the world, that they would have the knowledge to grow food for themselves, because it’s so inexpensive to do. But the knowledge just isn’t there; it’s not something that is taught in school, and it’s not something that parents or grandparents are really passing down to the next generation,” he said.
The myLIFEspeaks directors told Ryan he would have to wait until funding came through the next year to start the class or figure out a different way to raise the money.
In mid-September, he and Katelyn returned home for a visit and spoke to their congregation at New Life Community Church.
“That project was totally funded by the congregation at New Life,” he said. “The giving was outrageous. It was above and beyond.”
They returned to Haiti and spent October building six raised, self-sustaining garden beds out of wood pallets. PVC piping collects water that the roots can suck from the bottom of the bed, Ryan said.
“A lot of the kids in the program didn’t want to be in the gardening class. They were like, ‘This sounds disgusting.’ A lot of the girls didn’t want to get their hands dirty. But after like five or six weeks of the gardening class, they really, really started to come out of their shells and really enjoy it,” he said.
While the Dodges were there, myLIFEspeaks was selected to host a Night to Prom by the Tim Tebow Foundation. Tebow, currently an NFL free agent quarterback, surprised everyone when he showed up for the prom, which more than 300 people attended, Ryan said.
The couple had anticipated a lack of modern conveniences, like adequate health care, while living in Haiti.
When asked if the experience was what they expected, Katelyn answered “yes and no.”
“It was really great. We loved it down there. It was so much more than we ever expected in good ways and bad. It was kind of like every day was a new crisis just because we were in a third world county with extreme poverty,” Katelyn said.
Those crises included caring for a premature, 2-pound baby who was abandoned by her parents; helping bandage a man who fell into a fire trying to cook a meal for his family; and watching as an elderly diabetic friend had his leg amputated below the knee after not receiving proper treatment for a stubbed toe that turned gangrenous.
“There were definitely nights I was just like, ‘Oh, what did we get ourselves into?’”Katelyn said.
However, the couple was glad they went. “It was a phenomenal experience,” Ryan said.
They plan to visit their friends again in Haiti, but they aren’t sure if they will ever move back.
“I have Haitians sending me Facebook messages just about every day asking ‘When are you coming back? Where are you? What are you doing?’” Katelyn said. “I can’t imagine moving back, but I never imagined moving there in the first place.”
“I think that if we really felt we were being called to move back down there, we would, but you just never know,” Ryan said.