Several Pitt student-athletes recently participated on a mission trip to Haiti for nine days. This program is a joint effort by the FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes), but is also sponsored in conjunction with a couple of local foundations. Former Pittsburgh Penguin Max Talbot and former Pittsburgh Pirate Sean Casey have set up funds to sponsor trips such as these. Other prominent local names such as UPMC physician Dr. Freddie Fu and radio talk show host Mark Madden also got involved in sponsoring the trip.It all started with a simple social interaction from Pitt senior-to-be Andrew Taglianetti.
He put a tweet out, simply saying he was interested in taking this mission trip. He was quickly joined by fellow football players Hubie Graham and Mark Giubilato, along with women’s soccer standout Danielle Benner and wrestling standout Tyler Wilps. Wilps’ brother Matt—an All-American for Pitt this past season—also joined in.Taglianetti wasn’t so much surprised that some other student-athletes wanted to join in, as much as he was surprised at how a simple tweet could spark so much interest in such a hurry. Madden was also one of the first to step up, responding to Taglianetti’s tweets as well.
"You hear a lot of ideas about this kind of stuff,” Giubilato said, referring to his reaction when he read Taglianetti’s tweet. “A lot of it, over time, just kind of fades away. This was something I really wanted to take advantage of, for sure.”
The group traveled from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and then Fort Lauderdale to Haiti. One the way back, they had an experience that can only be provided from a trip like this. They flew on a World War II fighter plane on the return trip, that included a stop at the Bahamas, where the plane would refuel before continuing back to Fort Lauderdale. It was approximately a two and a half hour flight from Haiti to Fort Lauderdale which including the stop in the Bahamas to refuel—simply because the plane was not equipped to carry enough fuel for a nonstop trip. The plane was not pressurized, with all the seats bolted in. In fact, they noticed they needed an additional seat after boarding. An additional seat was brought on board and bolted in to the floor of the aircraft.
Outside of a few pictures taken during the course of their mission, there was almost no room for additional souvenirs. In fact, most of the athletes donated the clothes off their back—some with the Pitt logo on—to the villagers and children they met. It was a nice token gift, but at the same time convenient in having less things to track through customs. All the athletes came back with machetes—something that became symbolic of their work in the villages. Graham had his painted. With Taglianetti’s bag completely empty from clothes they brought down, was filled with approximately 12 machetes from their trip.
“We were in customs, in Florida, I put my bag through, and I ran over to the x-ray machine because I wanted to see it go through,” Taglianetti said. “You see this huge assortment. The customs guys just start laughing.”
Just as this group of students was brought together via a simple tweet, one of the things most interesting for them were the social interactions of the culture they were in. Social interactions and specifically how one small token from one of the athletes to any of the orphans could go so far and mean so much.
As a parting gift, Giubilato gave one of the kids a $20 bill.“I gave him a twenty dollar bill, and he started crying,” Giubilato said. “I’ve stayed in contact with him. He has Facebook-messaged me almost every day. It was a really awesome experience.
"With that $20 bill, the young man gave his roommates 10 dollars to share. He took the other 10 and got two months of the internet on his phone, and a SIM card (intercghangeable memory card for smartphones). He still had four dollars left.“It just goes to show how far the American money will go,” Giubilato added.
Then there was Graham, who says he made a connection to one of the boys during the week. Graham left for him a pair of Nike shoes. Instead of keeping them for himself, the boy took the shoes to his father. He told Graham that his father had never owned a pair of shoes in his life.“I thought that was pretty incredible, and how a 14 year-old is looking out for his father like that,” Graham added.
Graham also picked up on their manners and social behaviors. Bringing food down on this trip, some athletes were concerned and even expecting the kids to fight over food.
Graham said he was pleasantly surprised at how they shared, which gave him a further insight to their culture.“The one thing I got from the entire trip is how selfless they are as individuals,” Graham said. “For having absolutely nothing, they are so selfless. I remember giving a boy a granola bar, and he took a little bite of it, then passed the rest around to his friends.”
Early on, Taglianetti said that the work they put in with these orphanages--most of it was contruction of dormatories for the orphans. He added that the manual labor they put in was like nothing he’s experienced in any conditioning session in his time at Pitt.
"A lot of us guys, we were laying concrete for this dormitory,” Taglianetti said. “That was kind of grueling. Here are these 13-, 14- year-old Haitians and they’re carrying buckets, and I’m struggling just as much as they are. I don’t know how they do it. It was 150 degrees inside that little place that we were.
"Me and Hubie and Matt Wilps were helping chop down a tree with a machete. That was something, I had to do it. That was really exciting. I still have a little wound from it, too.”
Additionally, the Haitians chop down trees to make charcoal in use for cooking.
When there was down time, the athletes were able to compete in such activities like soccer. Even an accomplished soccer player like Benner—who played in 16 games last season as a defender for Pitt’s women’s soccer team—was blown away by the skill of the players who were all much younger than her and the rest of the athletes. Not just that, there was a language barrier. Soccer is popular worldwide, so despite the language barrier. Many of the natives speak Creole. Additonally, a lot of the older Haitians view Americans who come on these mission trips as not very good soccer players. In many cases, they avoid playing soccer with American guests. In this case, it was the older Haitians pushing out the younger Haitians to play with this group from Pitt—sensing that the Pitt group could actually play, in their eyes. This Pitt team consisted of six members of the women’s soccer team, the Wilps brother and Taglianetti in goal.
“We had a soccer clinic with a lot of the street kids that lived in the area,” Benner said. “There were about 50 kids. We just did a soccer clinic with them, then afterwards, we played against them. It was crazy because none of the kids spoke English. We had one, maybe two translators.”
At the end of the trip, it was an eye-opening trip for the student-athletes. Already theres some planning for another trip next year. This group of athletes--some of who always envisioned what a mission trip might look like. Now they have experience with one.
Then there's the social interactions, and even how the Haitians are very humble people--something that really opened the eyese of the athletes on this trip. But one thing they didn't plan on when taking up this trip, was learning more about and getting to know each other on this trip. Benner summed it up best.
"Every (team) hangs out in their own different clicks," Benner said. "I always had this predetermined image in my head of what football players would be like. It really opened my eyes, and that there's a bigger picture."