For a second year in a row, several Pitt student-athletes went on a mission trip to Haiti.
Mark Steffey and Kelly Cook are both full-time campus ministers for the Coalition of Christian Outreach (CCO). It's their full-time job to involve student-athletes as part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). As part of their duties, they organized this trip to Haiti for a second year in a row. While there, the Pitt student-athletes volunteer their time helping out youth in orphanages. Their duties included working in the villages and helping some of the kids with their schoolwork.
"I know, in my experiences working with young people, the most formative and transformational ones you can have are the ones where you step outside with what you are comfortable with, where you are challenged," Steffey said. "Especially in an environment where you've never been, where things are much different with where you're from."
So with this second trip in the works, there were some athletes who immediately wanted to sign up for it again. Others, based on how popular the trip was last year, reserved a spot early.
Fullback Mark Giubilato was one of the returnees for the trip, as well as soccer standout Katie Lippert and wrestler Tyler Wilps, just to name a few. Newcomers include football players Devin Street and Mike Caprara.
"I thought it was a great experience," Caprara said. "I thought it was a great opportunity for me to get out of my comfort zone. It brings the whole group together. Every night, we'd do a bible study every night. You could see each one of us growing."
For Giubilato, having the experience under his belt, he had a better idea of what to expect the second time around. As a result, he had his own personal goals and ideas of what he wanted to accomplish this time around, and what kind of interactions he would expect.
"When I came back to the United States (last year), it was something I thought about all the time," Giubilato said. "I kept in touch with kids throughout the year. I knew all along I wanted to go back. Going back this year, it was a no-brainer. I was really happy to be able to get some of the guys to go back down with me."
For Caprara and Street, though they were both new, they both had different ideas on what to expect, and both took away different experiences. Street was involved in an off-campus incident, where he allegedly punched another student. He said that incident bothered him, even just having his name linked to the incident. Therefore, he was eager to get involved in this project to show a different side, but to also learn something about himself.
"That got to me," Street said of the incident. "Anyone who truly knows me, knows I would never, ever do that. Whatever the case may be, I did not punch that kid. I have to deal with that scrutiny. That got to me. Haiti was very powerful. I am forever indebted to Haiti, the impact it had on me. I've been battling my whole life, finding good people, and people who could be true to each other."
Caprara recalls walking up the mountain to where church services would be. He noted that the young boy he was accompanying, stopped several times throughout the walk. At first, Caprara thought the boy was getting winded. Then, he noticed he was stopping to write something down.
"I got to know a kid named Mackinson," Caprara said. "They're really strong on academics over there. He was 13. He led the way (up the hill). As we were climbing, maybe five or six times. The first time, I asked him, 'why are you stopping?' He brought his math notebook with him. He was finishing his math homework. He said, 'you guys can go on without me, I'll catch up.' That really hit me hard.
Caprara said the students aren't separated by grade levels based on age. There are 20 different levels separated into 20 different books. In this instance, the student he was working with was working through one math level, one book, along the walk.
Giubilato also said the hills were quite challenging, almost an elevation of 4,000 feet. While the trip serves as a wake up call in many ways--how the villagers don't rely on their phones, nor do they own wardrobes of clothes or shoes--something such as climbing the hill to go to church, the players said was much difficult than the hills they're accustomed to for training. For their own conditioning sessions, which includes Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park or sometimes the stairs that run from Chevron Hall to Sutherland Hall, the mountains of Haiti posed more of a challenge.
"Mount Washington without an incline," Steffy added.
The group would help build a church at the top of the mountain, which included carrying cinder blocks and 25-pound bags of concrete--something Giubilato said was even tougher than the conditioning routine that the football team goes through when running hills.
Take someone like Street, who led Pitt in receiving last year, and earned second-team all-Big East honors. A former walk-on from the cross country team, Hillary Doucette, did not know who Street was. Street said that alone--meeting another student-athlete who didn't even know what sport he played--taught him some new things, aside from the Haiti experience.
"I probably connected with her the most," Street said. "That meant a lot to me that she didn't know my name. Some people would be offended by that. I embraced it. That was big for me."
Even gestures the group came up with on its own, the Haitian kids showed they could one-up the student-athletes. The group had the idea to do laundry for all the youth in the village as a nice gesture. In turn, the Haitians showed them their proper way of doing laundry. It was something the group of student-athletes was humbled by--a nice gesture on their part, and in return an even nicer gesture of the Haitian way to do laundry.
"We thought it was a great idea," Caprara said. "We started scrubbing, and probably five seconds in. They pretty much said, 'we'll wash the clothes, you soak them'"
"There was a proper technique to it," Street said. "That was unique to me, because they took so much pride in just washing their clothes. That was amazing to me, how much pride they took in doing a little bit of laundry."
Lippert, with the soccer background, also helped coordinate a soccer game between the Haitians and the Pitt student-athletes. It was a game the Pitt students won, but as some noted, only because some had shoes on. Former Pitt linebacker Joe Trebitz was also on the trip. A high school classmate of his, Jozy Altidore plays on the U.S. National Team. He had jerseys, shorts, socks and soccer balls all shipped down to Haiti, a donation from his own foundation.
"I just think, how by the end of the week, how God brought each one of us on the trip for individual reasons, but also how we grew as a group," Lippert added. "Just to watch each other transform throughout the week. It was really inspirational. We all grew off of each other. That's what made the trip even better."
Lippert, who will graduate in another year, says she's already trying to form a future group of alumni athletes that will continue to make the trip, after school is over.
"Everybody can be as involved as they want to be," Steffey said. "When you do that, we see everybody is on a level playing field."