Haiti: A First and Last Experience

Nearly 28 years ago, my grandfather Stuart Eugene Kelly, was asked to accompany a friend to observe what he had been doing in the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti.  This one trip changed the life of my grandfather, but not only did it change him, it carried through his life and into the countless lives he touched in his three decades of servitude.

The town of Gressier, city of Port-au-Prince, and several other small communities in Haiti, were all touched by his generosity,  love, and compassion.  This was my first trip to a third-world country, and I am sure as a photojournalist, this will not be the last.

My grandfather, at the age of 85, however was making his last trip.

“One of the most rewarding things about coming to Haiti over the years, is the opportunity to bring other people with me and observe the effect visiting Haiti has on them,” said Stuart Kelly.

My father, my brother, and I accompanied Stuart on his sentimental final journey in April of 2014. Three generations of the Kelly blood line.

In an interview I had with my grandfather Stuart, we lounged on lawn furniture on a veranda overlooking the Caribbean Sea from the sloping cliff from which the guesthouse sat.  This was nearing the end of our journey there, but the rising sun and smell of the rain forests refused to remind us of an end, but rather a fresh and clean beginning. Perhaps I am the heir, the one who will carry on his sacred mission?

I asked why he kept returning over the years. Why he would do this for weeks, and months at time; in-between harvest or planting season, nearly 6 times a year?

“A fairly accurate reason could be, I tell people when I came to Haiti, I caught a fatal disease, it’s called Haiti-itis, and I keep coming back for treatment,” Stuart said.  “You catch the vision, you see the needs, you fall in love with the people and, there’s something about the country, especially the people, you make friends, and you keep coming back to do what you can.”

Stuart Kelly has been a servant in all the ways he has felt called or needed.

I recall on a trip we made to a village two hours outside of the capital Port-au-Prince. We carried in two large bags of rice and beans as a gift, the food would be used to feed the school children there.

The trek into this remote village outside of Mirebalais included a float trip across a river in very leaky rafts, and a hour long hike along mountainous farmland; a trip not preferable for frequent use. On our backs we carried rice, beans and various snacks that we would leave for the nearly starving residents.

Upon arriving, we were greeted with open arms, recognizing my grandfather and immediately offering our group steamed rice, beans and an onion sauce. I cannot explain the guilt I had as I ate food offered to me by starving locals. But as my grandfather explained, it would have been offensive of us to reject such an offer. I noticed in that moment how my Grandpa had touched their lives.

It was in this little village that he dedicated himself to the people of Haiti. The people respect him as a leader and an elder.  Both as a farmer and a missionary, he explained that as a Christian, it is a duty to care for, clothe and feed the least of these. The Bible instructs Christians to “feed the sheep.”

In the 28 years that Stuart dedicated to Haiti, his main focus was the children. He fed, clothed, loved, and taught children of all ages in every part of Haiti where he would visit. Some locals we met on our journey remember him from their childhood. Now with families of their own, they hug him like he was their father just as they did as children fifteen years ago.  It was immeasurably gratifying to meet so many Haitians that through my Grandpa’s love had become my brothers and sisters.

“The children, they are so innocent, so sweet, and the needs are so great,” Stuart said.

Today Stuart lives with his wife Barbara in Hamilton, Illinois where he fondly remembers Haiti and the lives he touched. People all over Haiti will remember him for generations but very few will ever see or hear from him again as his health is quickly failing. He is dearly missed but the work of his heart, hands, prayer and God are his legacy. And someday, I will return.