Guest Column:

Lessons of fitness — and football — in Haiti


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A little over eight years ago, Haiti was rocked by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that left the low-lying areas of the country covered with piles of rubble, and claimed the lives of an estimated 300,000 people. The quake further crushed a population already struggling to survive in what was — and still is — the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

But today, 4,500 feet above the city of Port-au-Prince sits a gem that offers relief and hope to the ravaged land below. God’s Littlest Angels, Haitian Baby Ministry — located in Fort Jacques, an upscale area amid the rural mountain sprawl — was founded by John and Dixie Bickel on Christmas Day in 1994, and is currently an independent, non-denominational Christian ministry dedicated to the care of premature, malnourished and abandoned children in Haiti. Besides providing exceptional full-time care, the orphanage operates a fully functional nursery, where critically ill infants can be monitored and provided with oxygen, intravenous fluids, warming beds and incubators. GLA receives the majority of its funding from churches and individual donors in North America and Europe.

One special Tuesday morning, I was invited to lead a group of the Ministry’s oldest orphans in a day of fitness. When it comes to fitness, I’ve become a bit of a buff, after spending the last 18 years as a personal trainer and, subsequently, as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. What was scripted as a simple day of calisthenics for the children proved to be a surreal life experience for their instructor.

I admit that before I arrived at GLA, I had a bit of tightness in my stomach, an oblique muscle-tightening case of the jitters. Call it expectation of the unexpected. But, on the hour-long ride up the winding roads of Port-au-Prince and Petionville from my gated, shotgun-protected Marriott to GLA, I fell into conversation with my driver, James, a Haitian political science graduate. We talked about Haitian culture, and it was a relief to finally hear from a local who knows the way things are, but doesn’t deny the way things could be. Despite some of the undesirable sights — and local driving (this can only be explained as quasi-lawless) — I experienced a certain calm just by surrounding myself with the unknown. Thanks, James.

When I arrived at GLA’s beautiful five-acre property in the breathtaking Kenscoff Mountains, I was provided with a warm introduction to the 44 orphan children before our conditioning routine commenced. For many of the children, who ranged in age from three to 12, this was a new beginning to their fitness culture. And mine, too.

As we lined up on GLA’s outside artificial turf, the look of satisfaction that overcame the faces of the orphans was overwhelming. Heart-wrenching. And we hadn’t even begun the formal physical education and performance of jumping jacks, pushups, leg lifts and manual body squats — a full body extravaganza.

Moving through the instruction, demonstration and execution of the exercises — two difficult single-set circuits of 10-25 repetitions per exercise and varying 15-30 second static holds — their eagerness to learn and incorporate these foreign movements was absolutely eye-pinning. They instantly loved fitness. But why? After all, who was I besides a new-faced American they had just met? In Haiti. But ultimately, to them, age, color, creed and nationality didn’t matter. I even received a few hugs. That’s a lie — a lot of hugs.

But there was even more to this phenomenal day. Holli Bickel, GLA’s volunteer coordinator at the time, took me on a 10-minute walk to the Evergreen Mountain American Academy, the school that her son Jaydrik attended for kindergarten through 12th-graders and had an enrollment of about 40. On the way, I was almost plowed down by a random, seemingly out-of-control cow — my only Haitian threat during the trip. Losing my life to a cow, wow, now there’s a quality dinnertime tale.

At the EMAA, I met a unique group of older dudes, who, ironically, became one of the first Haitian-level high school teams to go beyond the status quo sports of basketball and soccer, and become part of the first Haitian-American football program. Oh wait, I forgot to mention, they ALSO won the championship. That’s called: making … things … happen.

“Being in the first ever Haitian-American football league is one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do,” said Jaydrik, who was the Evergreen Mountain Wolves’ quarterback. “Knowing that this could be the start of a big thing in Haiti makes it even more special. But my favorite part of playing Haitian-American football is watching my teammates — who have never played American football before — fall in love with the sport and get excited before every practice, and every game.”

The Wolves were part of the Haitian American Football Association, which included four additional squads — Exceptional Learners School, Morning Star Academy, Union School and Quisqueya Christian School. The association — started by Port-au-Prince’s Benedick Sejour — was flag football-oriented and the equipment was self-funded by the individual programs.

The HAFA was originated in 2009 while Sejour was employed at one of Haiti’s American schools, but the idea was quickly halted after the earthquake, until its reorganization in 2013. The HAFA strived to establish American football into the country of Haiti, teach leadership skills, sportsmanship-like conduct and unity to each of its youth participants, according to Sejour.

“I saw that in all of the schools they practiced and played the other sports except for American football,” Sejour said. “So I said to myself, ‘Wow, all of these American schools, why don’t they play American football?’ By the grace of god, I managed to put together a good structure on how to go about it and it seems to be working.”

But when it eventually became time for their fitness lesson, I decided to give the Wolves a bit more of a physically-aggressive fitness wrath, tossing in some static wall squats and body planks to destroy — well, fatigue — the core. I was hoping these newfound techniques would become protocol in their physical strength training and help them win another championship. That would’ve been sweet.

As the day ended and we hopped back into James’ car, and braved the nutty driving, he had a truly genuine question for me: “So what do you think?” James asked. “What types of ideas are you going to bring back with you?”

Well James, simply, I think I’ll be coming back to Haiti.

Brian T. Dessart, a former Herald sports preview editor and director of marketing, now writes for Sports Illustrated, covering performance, fitness and action sports. He also hosts weekly video segments for SI’s NHL division, titled the #NHLNugget.