- Garry Paskwietz, Publisher, WeAreSC.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The smiles on the faces of the children.
When talking to members of the USC football team who recently took a trip to Haiti, you will invariably hear them mention those smiles as one of their most endearing memories.
"They are such beautiful people," center Khaled Holmes said. "For them to smile through all their adversity is really inspiring."
This wasn't a fun-filled college vacation to an island paradise, mind you. This was a trip to an earthquake-ravaged country to build houses and bring supplies to people mired in poverty.
There were 16 USC football players who took part in the visit, which was arranged in part by Les Barkley, father of USC quarterback Matt Barkley. In conjunction with a disaster relief organization, Hope Force International, the players visited the areas of Leogane and Sous Savanne and spent four days working in an environment that they couldn't have imagined before the trip.
"The bus ride from the airport when we got there was silent because guys were just taking it all in," punter Kyle Negrete said. "Words can't describe the poverty we saw. Any preconceived notion we had of how bad it was going to be was just blown out of the water."
Negrete had been part of an aid mission to Nigeria in 2010 with the Barkley family but said the conditions they found in Haiti were much worse than what they saw on that trip.
"This visit made Nigeria look like a resort," Negrete said. "Haiti was a poor country even before the earthquake, but now it's really bad. I didn't think it would be as bad as it was."
The players described Haitian streets littered with trash and human waste dumped into latrines that were little more than a hole in the ground. The tent homes that still house roughly 500,000 people consisted of four sticks, a bedsheet and maybe an old tarp for a wall. Food was in short supply but rain wasn't, as thunderstorms hit hard while the players were there and the tents did little to prevent the local kids from going to sleep cold, wet and hungry each night.
"The living conditions were beyond not being suitable for a human being," safety T.J. McDonald said. "I've done community service before, but nothing at that level. The kids have no clothes, but yet they are smiling the whole time. They smile through everything."
One of the main purposes of the trip was to build four houses, with the players splitting up into four groups to build one house each. The players also solicited donations for supplies that were handed out. There was an orphanage visit and even a soccer game on a small patch of grass at a school.
"That soccer game was great," Holmes said. "It's their main sport so the kids had a blast. I actually kicked one ball and it went in for a goal. I'm no soccer player so that was fun."
The interaction between the players and the kids was a high point for all. Each player talked about sharing a special connection at some point on the visit with a certain kid.
For defensive end Devon Kennard it was Jim Sum, a 12-year-old who spoke in a thick Creole accent. For McDonald it was Steeve, a 10-year-old who made sure to write out his name so that McDonald would know it had two "e's" in the middle. For quarterback Cody Kessler it was Dehlane, a 5-year-old girl at the orphanage who grabbed his hand when he walked in the door and didn't let go for the 90 minutes he was there.
"She was amazing," Kessler said. "I asked if I could put her in my back pocket and go home."
When dealing with the kids, the USC players also noticed first-hand the hunger -- and at the same time some inspiring generosity.
"In the entire eight hours I was with Steeve I never saw him eat," McDonald said. "At the end of the day I gave him a granola bar. I figured he would devour it but he sprinted 15 yards to his brother and two friends. He split the bar into four pieces and shared it. Right as he was about to take his bite a girl walked up so he broke his piece in half and gave her the other half. This kid has nothing yet he was acting with such maturity and being so selfless."
Kennard witnessed a similar act from Jim Sum.
"As I was leaving I gave him a Gatorade bar," Kennard said. "He was so hungry but everybody just started swarming him so he broke off a piece for everyone. At the end he had one piece left, he took one bite and then gave the rest to his little brother."
Kessler said one of the best parts was the joy the kids showed despite being unaware of the athletic status of their new friends.
"They had no idea who we were and they didn't care," Kessler said. "They were just so happy to see us, always smiling and giving us a thumbs up. It was awesome."
For Barkley, a trip to serve others with his family is nothing new (his parents and siblings were part of the trip) but it was a new experience to bring along so many teammates and to see how they respond in that setting.
"You really get a sense of a person's character when you see them working in that environment," Barkley said. "It was really cool to see that side of them come out, to see someone Nickell Robey, whose grandfather was Haitian, as he interacted with the people. He was in my group building homes and it was neat to watch that.
"Even though the rest of the team couldn't be there I think the effect of the trip will trickle down to them from the guys who were there. It was something that a lot of people hadn't seen before and it had a real impact. I can't wait to go back."
It was a trip that built houses for four families, brought in some much need supplies and, more importantly, a lot of fun moments for Haitian kids who have life rougher than they probably know. That definitely sounds like something to smile about.
The USC athletic department sent a videographer along to document the Haiti visit, click here to watch the video.