Even as the plane was landing in Port-au-Prince, Monge Codio Jr. realized this was going to be unlike any experience he had ever had. Stretching before him as far as he could see was a teeming makeshift tent city of people still dispossessed by the January 2010 earthquake.
“Thousand and thousands of people in tents—if you can imagine Times Square on New Year’s Eve and seeing that many people in an area,” he recalled. “I was not expecting that kind of poverty right near the airport. It was just a different level of poverty than I had seen anywhere—kids without shoes, shirts, underwear and so forth. That was an eye-opener.”
Then there was the grueling seven-hour, 85-mile bus ride on unspeakably bad roads over mountainous terrain to Cap Haitien on Haiti’s north coast. At one point the missionary team that Codio was part of was obliged to duck for cover when police fired gunshots and teargas to quell a disturbance in a market town they were passing through. Further on, they witnessed a traffic fatality when a truck ran over a motorcyclist.
“At that point I was saying to myself, oh my God, what have I gotten into?” Codio said. “This is not a vacation area we’re in. This is very real.”
But that doesn’t mean Codio will never go back to Haiti. Quite the opposite, he intends to go back soon–and often.
“I would love to go back,” he enthusiastically told CNY during an interview in his Manhattan office. “They go twice a year. I would love to go back with them in December.”
Sponsored by Catholic Charities, Codio, 38, director of CYO operations in the Hudson Valley Region, went to Haiti with his 70-year-old father in late May as part of a 17-member missionary team recruited by the Salesians of Don Bosco. The mostly young missionaries from all over the United States, including youth ministers, lay staff and two Salesian priests, were assisting in the restoration of the Ecole Agricultural Fondation Vincent, a Salesian-run agricultural school in Cap Haitien that teaches 165 young men and women engineering, farming, carpentry and fishing skills.
They were there from May 23 to June 1, wielding hammers and paintbrushes to refurbish the school. Codio’s father, returning to his hometown for the first time in some 40 years, acted as an unofficial interpreter and cultural guide.
“I said to myself, I got to take it a day at a time and help as much as I can during this trip. We helped build a 7-foot security wall, paint a chapel and finished some of the floor. But mostly we were just there to let them know we love them and that God is with them,” said Codio, who added that he also used the opportunity to be a missionary for CYO.
“I wanted to share our CYO model with them and how it helps build bridges among different parishes and keeps kids active and off the streets. I stressed how important sports and recreation was with the youth that we serve in the Archdiocese of New York,” he explained. He was impressed by the athletic ability of the kids he saw there and said the biggest need is for proper basic athletic equipment, soccer balls, basketballs, hoops and netting. Codio hopes to work with CYO here to provide some of that equipment. He took 200 CYO donated t-shirts with him to distribute.
Despite the arduous and potentially dangerous journey, and the devastation and destitution he witnessed, he said what he would remember most about the trip was the verdant beauty of the countryside and the indomitable spirit of the Haitian people.
“It looked like something out of National Geographic,” he said of the drive from Port–au-Prince to Cap Haitien.” He has a dream to buy property close to Cap Haitien and build a mission there to house future missionary visitors like himself and he hopes to perhaps even retire there someday.
“My parents being from Haiti, I thought it would be a good opportunity to go back and to give back as a Haitian-American and also to come back (here) and inspire other Haitian-Americans to go,” he said. “The trip has changed my life in numerous ways. It has helped me become more spiritual and to prioritize. We forget about the little things, like saying hello to strangers, appreciating the food we eat, our living conditions.
“Haiti is poor but has a lot of strengths, the climate being one, the people being another,” he affirmed. “These are hardworking people and they are very proud of their country. I want to help them rebuild.”