On the second-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake that hit near Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the Caribbean nation is still trying to rise up from the rubble.
And while billions of dollars in aid has been pledged by governments around the world since the 7.0 quake rocked the country on Jan. 12, 2010, the reconstruction process has been a slow one and hundreds of thousands of Haitians are still homeless or living in deplorable conditions.
This week, a group of student-athletes from Slippery Rock — Athletes for Forgotten Angels — is making the journey to the nation still reeling from the natural disaster with the mission of visiting orphanages trying to make the children’s days a little brighter.
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The women’s soccer head coach Noreen Herlihy has mentored the Forgotten Angels since it was formed in 2008. A couple student athletes had attended a Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) leadership conference, and they were challenged to develop different ideas about community service projects. They shared their idea with Herlihy and former men’s soccer coach Matthew Thompson (now at the University of D.C.), who immediately signed on to help turn the concept into reality.
“The whole idea was to touch the lives of underprivileged children here in America or even abroad,” Herlihy said. “We left it open. The concept wasn’t affiliated with a church group — it was just a bunch of athletes from various backgrounds and denominations getting together and trying to make a difference in the life of a child.”
The group is comprised of student-athletes that compete in various sports from the Division II athletics program. Every year, there are between 10-15 student-athletes in the group who volunteer as members and raise significant funds so the group can go on service trips.
In 2008, the inaugural group decided to visit Haiti because one of the soccer players had a connection to an orphanage there. The Forgotten Angels visited hurricane-ravaged New Orleans in 2009, putting in hours at soup kitchens and clothing banks, and working with children at a local YMCA. In 2010, the group headed to St. Lucia – not for a beach vacation, but to work with children in the poorest villages, holding soccer and basketball clinics.
The earthquake in Haiti prompted the group wanted to return in 2011, but their trip was postponed due to a cholera outbreak. Instead, the Forgotten Angels built a memorial garden next to SRU’s athletic field house to honor those who had lost loved ones to cancer.
Herlihy is the only member of the original group that will return to Haiti this week, but she will be taking the new participants to the same orphanage as well as a newly-constructed orphanage nearby. The Forgotten Angels will be bringing 15 boxes of athletic equipment.
“They truly have nothing, so when we bring down soccer balls and cleats, and basketballs and volleyballs, it is like Christmas for them,” Herlihy said.
The Forgotten Angels will be working with an organization called Missionary Flights International in Fort Pierce, Fla., which will fly them and the equipment to Haiti. “We’ll basically be a cargo plane, and these planes are designed for soft field landings,” Herlihy said. “It will be a neat experience in itself.”
For six days in Haiti, the Forgotten Angels will be putting on sports clinics and spending time with the orphans. They’ve learned from past trips that simple things like coloring pictures and hugs make a huge impact for the children.
“They love the attention,” Herlihy said. “They love little things like holding your hand … those things truly mean the world to them.”
“I think what take the most from these trips is that the kids just want attention and love,” Sarah Cadwallader said. “I’m so excited to see that. Just seeing how the kids react is the most beneficial aspect of being a member of Forgotten Angels.”
Cadwallader is a women’s volleyball player and president of the group. She has traveled to New Orleans and St. Lucia, but this will be her first trip to Haiti. “I’m really looking forward to being with the kids and making a difference in their lives even though it is just going to be a week,” Cadwallader said.
Herlihy also knows that the children in Haiti will not be the only ones benefiting from the experience. It is a truly a win-win for everyone involved. “We all want to win as coaches, and have good, quality programs, but I think we have a responsibility as well to let student-athletes know there are far greater problems in the world than losing a soccer game here or there,” Herlihy said.