Back in the late 1970s, Barry Benton started flying small teams of dentists and doctors on mission trips to Haiti, hoping to fulfill God's will by helping to improve medical care for needy residents of the impoverished Caribbean nation.
The first trips were tough. Benton, then a Lexington attorney, would take three or four volunteers at a time in his little single-engine plane, making grueling 12-hour flights from Lexington with multiple refueling stops along the way, ending with a six- or eight-mile hike to the small town of Ranquitte in Haiti's northern mountains.
Nevertheless, they soon had a little medical clinic and a small school in Ranquitte (pronounced ron-keet), supported by a organization back in Lexington that they called Christian Flights International. CFI, now a non-profit corporation based in Richmond, celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.
”The little elementary school we started had 12 students, and I think they have about 1,000 students now,“ Benton said last week. ”They have a computer lab, can you believe that? They have solar panels to recharge their lights. They have lots of other programs going. It's amazing how far things have come.“
That might be an understatement.
Today, CFI has roughly 100 employees — all Haitians — working in Ranquitte. Most are involved in operating the school, now called the Calhoun-Spady Missionary School, which boasts a six-acre campus and offers classes from preschool through the first year of college. The little clinic has become a free-standing operation, staffed by two registered nurses with physician backup. There's an agricultural program and a reforestation program. One of the latest efforts is a plan to produce coffee in Haiti for export, with the hope of generating $100,000 a year for the local people.
Those little mission trips have grown too.
CFI now sends about a dozen teams of volunteers to Haiti each year, each made of about 18 people who spend a week at Ranquitte doing a bit of everything from providing medical care to distributing food to building houses and digging wells.
The entire operation is supported by donations from individuals and churches scattered across the country, says Dr. Ray Jackson, an emergency room doctor from Richmond, who is president of Christian Flights International.
But despite all the involvement from America, Jackson says it is Haitians themselves who really run the operation at Ranquitte.
”One thing that has kept us strong over the years is that 99 percent of this is done by Haitians, helping Haitians,“ Jackson said. ”We empower Haitians to help other Haitians. Everything is done in the name of Christ, and there's not one of us who thinks we could have done this on our own, or that we know where this is going. It is God who is directing us.“
CFI always has been religiously based. Barry Benton and some of the early participants were Seventh-Day Adventists. Today, CFI remains religious, but strictly non-denominational.
Another thing that hasn't changed is that service with CFI changes people.
Jackson made his first CFI mission trip to Haiti in the mid-1980s, after reading an account in the Herald-Leader of an earlier CFI mission. He was so profoundly touched by the experience that he found himself going back again and again, eventually assuming leadership of the organization.
”Medically, the biggest problem back then was that people were starving to death,“ Jackson recalled. ”You would see children that literally were dying from lack of food. In 30 years in medicine I never saw a single person in America starve to death, but it was common in Haiti. I came back home feeling like I had to do something about it.“
Jackson was also touched by meeting Ducange and Ivy Salomon, a deeply religious Haitian couple who lived in Ranquitte and who had been working with CFI from the beginning. Ducange Salomon, who was losing his eyesight to glaucoma at the time, was memorizing the Bible, Jackson said.
”I thought that was impossible, but he had already finished the entire Old Testament and was half way through the New Testament,“ Jackson said. ”To see someone who was that dedicated to Christ really changed my life.“
Tracie Lainhart, who teaches math in Berea, has visited Haiti several times with CFI. She recalls asking one Haitian woman how she dealt with the struggles and worries of life in Haiti.
”She said, "I'm a Christian, so I have no worries,'“ Lainhart said. ”That was a light bulb moment for me, because I worry every day and I have much better living conditions than they do. I expected to minister to the people there, but I was ministered to, and in a bigger way.“
Mort Trimble, a CFI team leader from Winchester, took his daughter, Katie, with him on a mission trip to Haiti in 2005 when she was a senior in high school.
”It really touched her, seeing how much need there is in that country,“ Trimble said. ”She came home and decided that she wanted to become a pediatrician and do mission work. Now, she's in her second year of pre-med at the University of Louisville.“
Scott Mandl, CFI's executive director and only full-time employee, says there's always room for more mission trip volunteers. It costs about $1,400 to send one person to Haiti, including passport, transportation and immunization. Most volunteers line up sponsors to pay their costs, although many pay out of their own pockets, he says.
”You think that $1,400 could be a pretty big flat-screen TV or some other trinket, but folks still regularly take their own time, their own money and somewhat of a risk to go down and help people they don't even know,“ he said.
A more immediate need, Mandl said, is sponsorships for teachers at the Calhoun-Spady Missionary School.
It costs $150 a month, or about $1,800 a year to sponsor a teacher, he said. Without sponsorships, CFI has to pick up the costs out of its own funds, which could be used for other purposes. Now, however, only about 25 of the school's 50-plus teachers have scholarships.
”If we could come up with 10 more teacher sponsors this year, it would be a huge thing for us,“ Mandl said.
Jackson says conditions in Haiti have improved since CFI began — although recent civil unrest there did cause the organization to cancel one mission trip.
”When we first started going to Haiti, there was no freedom of speech at all. Now the nutritional status of the people has improved, their education has improved.
”We have graduates of our school who are mayors or are going into politics. We keep doing everything we can think of. ... Some of them work, and some of them don't. But when you can turn out a hundred or so kids every year with a high school education, you can gradually change a country.
”It's an amazing thing to watch the word of the Lord work through such a variety of people. There's no reason for any of them to be down there, except the Lord told them in the Great Commission to go and do it.“
To learn more
You can learn more about Christian Flights International, including how to volunteer, by going to its Web site, christianflights.org, or by call the main offices at (859) 623-6402.
You can e-mail executive director Scott Mandl at email@example.com.