From left to right, Alex Carlin, Jeff Royer and Thaddeus McKee recently returned from serving in Haiti. The trio make up, JUST Cause International, an organization devoted to bettering the lives of Haitians.
COLUMBIA CITY â€” Out of small, rural towns in Indiana, three young men had an idea to leave their protective, familiar circles and travel to Haiti.
Thaddeus McKee, 24, Jeff Royer, 22 and Alex Carlin, 23, all from Whitley County, recently returned from a long trip of service to the areas of Pierre Payen and Boreal, Haiti.
McKee spent six months in Haiti working with GAP Ministries before founding JUST Cause International (JCI) and convincing his two friends, Royer and Carlin, to join in the crusade.
JCI partnered with GAP Ministries and Homes for Haiti to design mission trips and service programs, allowing others to work with Haitians to reach the needy.
These organizations, including JCI, work in prisons, through youth programs and evangelism ministries to improve the lives of Haitians.
McKee said, â€śJCI is about getting out of our comfort zone and being part of a movement that is bigger than ourselves. We want the Haitian people to be a people who make a difference.â€ť
For McKee, the pull to serve in Haiti was a personal one. He was born in Haiti and at 10 months old, he was adopted by Dennis and Linda McKee of Columbia City.
While in Haiti, Thaddeus McKee was able to come face to face with his birth father.
â€śThere are no books to prepare you for a meeting with your birth father,â€ť he said. â€śWith Dennis, there is a bond. He is my dad. When I saw my birth father, there was a blank reaction because he was a stranger to me.â€ť
McKee learned he has four sisters and three brothers and is now talking to them and fostering relationships with them.
The other two men in the adventurous trio decided Haiti was for them once they saw what McKee was doing.
Carlin and McKee attended both high school and Bible college together.
Royer visited McKee in Haiti before signing up for a six-month stint. It was on this trip he felt the draw to serve along side his friends.
â€śI couldnâ€™t ignore the feeling. I knew I was suppose to be serving in Haiti. I knew I was being called to be in missions full time,â€ť Royer said. â€śIt broke my heart to see the Haitian people. I was different after that visit and I knew I had to go back.â€ť
But the decision to drop everything and fly to Haiti wasnâ€™t the first choice for Royerâ€™s mom.
He said his mom was leery at first to have her oldest son off in an unknown country.
â€śShe was able to come on a short trip to visit me while I was in Haiti. Once she was there and saw what was happening, she said she was impressed and never thought this is what I would be doing. Thatâ€™s when she really got it.â€ť
Linda, Thaddeusâ€™ mom said, â€śI couldnâ€™t be prouder of the guys. I sure do miss him while heâ€™s gone, but he is doing what he loves. What parent doesnâ€™t want their child happy? All three boys are living out their faith in a bold and fruitful way. Itâ€™s contagious.â€ť
â€śMy mom knew this was something I was supposed to do,â€ť said Carlin. â€śShe had no hesitation. She knew this is what God wanted me to do and put me, my safety and the whole thing in Godâ€™s hands.â€ť
While in Haiti, the trio worked to establish events and projects that would allow them to reach out to the Haitian people.
Soccer Salvation Camp, founded by Ron Rhoades Ministry, was an organization Carlin had the chance to connect with before ever leaving for Haiti. But once he was there, he had an idea to hold a soccer camp for kids.
â€śThe kids involved all got a T-shirt and soccer balls and we fed them, too. An area church got involved and really saw that a lot of it was taken care of,â€ť Carlin said. â€śAfter the camp was over, I would be walking down the street and see kids wearing those T-shirts and they would remember me. It was cool that we were able to form that kind of a bond with them.â€ť
Royer worked on a 5K race to create awareness regarding the injustice that goes on in Haiti.
He said, â€śWe went to 26 schools on foot. It was our goal to get two kids from each school involved in the race.â€ť
After the race, JCI shared with the crowd of participants the ways they could make positive change in their communities.
â€śThese kids are the next leaders. So we wanted to tell them and encourage them to stand up and create a better life for themselves,â€ťsaid Royer.
A large part of the time in Haiti was spent in the prison located in Boreal. The JCI team took time to visit with the prisoners as well as bring them food.
â€śThe food is really bad there in the prison. We would bring some food and snacks to the men and be able to spend time with them,â€ť McKee said. â€śIt was a chance for those guys to know someone cared about them.â€ť
Royer added, â€śI know we were there to be a blessing, but we were blessed by them. We would get notes of encouragement from them. I began to see them not as prisoners, but as brothers. We were there every week for six months.â€ť
Serving in the prison was not just about serving the physical need of hunger. McKee said they were also there to give the inmates hope.
â€śWe told them there was a God who loved them and cared about them, â€ťsaid McKee. â€śThere was one day that 41 guys were baptized. The weird thing was that we had to haul buckets of water to the pool where we were going to do the baptism. It was a lot of work and we were exhausted, but it was worth it. It was strange to have to go through so much just to get water for a baptism. We would never have that problem here in the U.S.â€ť
And there were other hurdles to cross. Being in a different country meant there were communication and cultural differences to work through. Carlin was even pick-pocketed. He said he then took the opportunity to tell the would-be thief about God.
The newly-formed organization, JCI, was able to acquire a house that the group hopes to use in a variety of ways.
Carlin explained, â€śWe want the house to be a place where people can be discipled in a positive way. We hope to have a feeding program as well where we can feed people five days a week.â€ť
JCIâ€™s approach to feeding the hungry is slightly different than most conventional feeding programs.
Rather than focus on feeding a large group of people, the men want to keep the numbers manageable so that relationships can be formed.
â€śWe want to spend time with them, to sit down and share a meal with them. We just want to do life with them. In Haiti it is all about family and friendships, so we want to build that sense of family with them. If that means we feed a smaller amount of people, then thatâ€™s okay,â€ť said Carlin.
JCIâ€™s foreseeable future is centered on maintaining the programs that were established, as well as creating a sustainable way to fund the organization and staffâ€™s ability to serve there.
Carlin said the entire budget for this past trip was just $9,000, which included the materials needed for the programs as well as a small stipend for the three of them and another worker in Haiti.
For the moment, the trio is adjusting to being back in their hometown. But in the future, all three have a goal to go back to Haiti as soon as funds are available.
All three men relied on fundraising through family, friends and churches to financially pave the way for them in Haiti. Now the fundraising begins again and the three are working to get the money together to return.
JCI is always open to contributions and donations. For more information on Just Cause International, or to contribute, visit www.facebook.com/pages/JUST-Cause-International or email firstname.lastname@example.org.