Dan Hunhoff and his daughter Abbey knew the goal in their trip to Haiti was to teach others. What they didn’t know was that they, themselves, would also be learning at the same time. Abbey grins, “You think you’re going there to teach them, but they have so much more to teach in return.”

Listening to their remarkable experience makes me immediately think of the proverb “In teaching others, we teach ourselves.” Not a novice at going out of her way to help others, Abbey has been out of the country a couple times on mission trips and has even completed missionary training. Her passion for this stems from a past personal struggle.

She explains that, several years ago, she faced an addiction to drugs and the Teen Challenge program was suggested to her to aid in her recovery. With several of these programs across the country, she was able to get into the program in Illinois. She explains the history of the 12- to 18-month program - it’s called Teen Challenge because it was originally started in a ghetto in New York in the 1960’s when a man there started working with teens and gangs. He obtained a house specifically for the troubled youth and began inviting them in, teaching them about God and discipling them and they began to turn away from addiction and toward living a life for Jesus. The faith-based Christian program models their plan on the book Helping Without Hurting, a focus on empowering people rather than creating a dependency.

Teen Challenge has since expanded and there are groups located all over the world. Still maintaining it’s original “Teen Challenge” name, it’s been expanded into four groups: men, women, teen boys and teen girls. South Dakota has a men’s group in Brookings.

Abbey credits the program for her success, stating simply, “It changed my life. I am forever thankful.”

Since completing the Teen Challenge program, she became passionate about making an impact on others and has traveled to other Teen Challenges to learn more. She heard about the Haitian Teen Challenge, where they have “life trips” that focus on empowering their students. The volunteers on the life trip are there to teach a skill, with a goal to empower the Haitians to rebuild their country.

“I wanted to go so bad, but what skill do I have to teach?” She laughs. Though she couldn’t immediately think of a skill she had, she thought about her dad’s talent at gardening. So passionate about his hobby, he serves as a volunteer with the Master Gardener program through the SDSU Extension. She wondered if he would want to accompany her.

When she called him about what would be his first mission the trip, there was no hesitation in his agreement to go. He laughs, “I was overdue for an adventure!” Because this would be Abbey’s first time leading a group rather than being a participant, she wanted to start small to gain experience.

She took along her dad and her friend Shelly. Shelly helped teach gardening and taught some Haitians to swim as many didn’t know how.

They explain to me the life in Haiti. Approximately 60% of the population lives in poverty with nearly 25% living in extreme poverty. A densely populated country, many live in tiny houses extremely close together and others live in shacks or tarps. Not having any traveling experience outside the United States, I was shocked as I listened to the living conditions. When I researched the country a bit, I learned that the country is listed as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and is vulnerable to natural disasters, having experienced many cyclones, floods, hurricanes tropical storms and earthquakes.

Dan explains the terrain in Haiti. What should be a tropical jungle has been deforested over the centuries for charcoal to be used primarily for cooking, lumber and other necessities. The deforestation is still a struggle. The clay soil in most places is rocky and gravely though the climate is good. He researched their gardening methods and wasn’t surprised to see that that they used different methods than we do, even noting that some place their garden planters on their roofs to avoid theft. He researched which vegetable varieties grow best in that climate, ordered some seeds and was even given seeds to take with. He really didn’t know what to expect.

Upon arriving, they met the director of the Haitian Teen Challenge and learned his story. He left Haiti at a young age to attend college in the United States, with only $400 in his pocket. As he attended college, he found a family to help him. He then lived in Minnesota for a while before going back to Haiti to help rebuild his country and help the youth. This Teen challenge is for men and women ages 16-24 and is the only one in Haiti. The program, allowing 20 participants at a time, has thousands on their waiting list.

Abbey reminds me of the family lives of Haiti’s Teen Challenge students. Most are not coming from good backgrounds, many have experienced abuse, neglect, trauma and prostitution. Many women took to prostitution because it was the only way they could eat every day. The women had been praying for gardeners because they wanted to learn how to grow food and avoid turning back to prostitution.

The leaders then met their students and introduced their goal of teaching them gardening skills. Dan showed the group pictures of his ideas, including planters made of used tires, which were abundant in the area. Because his pictures included primarily flower gardens, a student asked the translator if they were going to plant flowers. Dan, apologetic, explained that he was sorry he didn’t bring flower seeds; they were going to plant vegetables. Abbey shared with me a video of the participants’ reaction, the entire room erupting in applause and excitement of the food source that will now be available to them. They have a large courtyard each at the women’s and at the men’s center and they were eager to start their vegetable gardens there.

The three teachers started gathering their supplies. Dan already had the seeds and their driver helped them get six tires. They were able to get to a hardware supply store and bought out the rest of their 6-8 bags of potting soil. They realized this would be their only trip; it took a half day to get this done due to traffic and security.

Dan wanted the students to start small, he believes that the biggest mistake for beginning gardeners is starting too big.

He wanted to leave things up to the students as much as he could,

since it was going to be their garden, but guided them in the process. At the women’s center, he told the women to put the tires where they wanted their garden to be. Instead of putting them were he imagined the garden would be, the women took them to a shady spot in the back. They placed gardens at the men’s center and even some on rooftops, with the help of the bodyguards on a ladder hoisting the tires up. The male students cleared out other areas used for gardens and dug the trenches.

Abbey described the work ethic of the Haitians. “They were so hard working. They are not entitled there; they all want to work hard and want to learn. It’s so encouraging to see; it was very refreshing.” The students worked hard, taking turns working and digging. When the teachers would try to help, the students would take the shovel, refusing to have the leaders do the work.

The Haitians are very proud of their country and love it when people come to visit, Abbey explains. Because of the economical turnover recently, they’ve felt like they’ve been forgotten about. She was approached by one man who told her he was very depressed lately, feeling neglected. Their visit left him with a renewed spirit and belief that they weren’t being overlooked.

Their week-long visit went by fast. Not only did they teach the students classroom and hands-on skills, they participated in Haitian culture. The Haitians wanted their guests to take part in everything they could, including daily worship and some sight-seeing. Dan wished that he had more time to work on the gardens and would like to go back to see if how the gardens are doing. Abbey would love to go back again, leading a larger group.

Several of the Teen Challenge staff have phones, internet and access to Facebook and Abbey communicates with them regularly. She recently heard from one of her contacts who told her that the “leaves are beginning to grow in the garden.”

The Haitian Teen Challenge is always looking for people to visit and teach them life skills. They’re especially interested in learning entrepreneurship, human resource skills, business leadership skills and how to maintain buildings with techniques on electrical repairs, plumbing and repair work.

Abbey’s passion for her missions is evident in her encouragement to others. She stresses how going there changes your mindset to be grateful for what you have and not to take things for granted. She encourages others to take the opportunity to go to places like Haiti or Africa, where it’s feasible. “There’s a lot to be learned. In other cultures, its different in that it’s not based on a task or a schedule, it’s more based on relationship. And I think there’s just so much to be learned from that, and just to understand that so many people in the world don’t have what we have in the U.S. It’s good to go and see that you should be grateful for what you have.”