Grace McGowan is a bright, articulate freshman at The Barstow School in Kansas City. Not unlike many of her classmates, she is active in sports, participating on the school swim team.
She is also a member of an a cappella group and has participated in school plays and musicals.
But there is something else that has made its way into the head and heart of this impassioned teen, and it drives her to work hard to inspire others to join her.
Shortly after the end of her eighth grade year, McGowan and five of her friends including Gia Colon, Kennedy Dockhorn, Jessica Krech and Elizabeth Leach, also students at Barstow, along with James Egan of Bishop Miege High School, traveled to Port au Prince, Haiti, by way of the Global Orphan Project. The local organization is focused on supporting orphaned children in impoverished countries by creating mission trips to bring aid and awareness to areas in need. McGowan had heard from several friends about their life-changing experiences from recent mission trips to Haiti.
McGowan is no stranger to visiting international orphanages. In fact, seven years earlier when she was 8, she traveled to China with her mother, Shelly, to meet and eventually bring home her new baby sister, Gabrielle, now 7.
McGowan came away with a haunting memory that stays with her today.
“It was the first time I had seen so many children, mostly babies and toddlers, living that way,” says McGowan. “I was unaccustomed to seeing children who were so in need of attention. You could tell they didn’t get visitors a lot as they were watching us closely; you could tell they were hoping somebody would play with them. It was surprising to see that.”
As McGowan and her friends were preparing for their trip to Port au Price last year, their enthusiasm soared. Wanting to be sure they did as much as they possibly could while there, they devised a plan to raise funds. They learned the devastation of the 2010 earthquake still causes many to struggle for good nutrition. Chickens have become the primary way Haitians get protein in their diet and chickens in Haiti are $10 apiece.
McGowan and her friends raised a staggering $8,000 to help buy those chickens. They produced a talent show, charging $10 a head. McGowan’s sister, Gabrielle, was one of the performers in the show. She played the piano, sang a solo to The Lion King’s “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King,” and she and big sister McGowan performed a song and dance number together to “Every Heart,” creating a full-circle moment.
“The neat thing about the show,” says McGowan’s mother, Shelly, “is that many people who came for the event wanted to give more than $10 for their ticket. Some paid $30 or $40, knowing their money would directly affect the children whose photos plastered the walls of the church space where the event was held.”
McGowan says the trip to Haiti was indeed transformational.
“I just didn’t expect to see so much joy,” she says.
Her favorite moment on the trip was playing with Claudette, the first child she met at one of the four orphanages she visited.
Claudette was just 4 years old. They played together for several hours. McGowan painted her nails and they created a chalk art drawing.
“Nothing we did was very remarkable,” says McGowan. “But I loved seeing the hope and vivaciousness inside of Claudette. Sometimes the simplest things can be the most powerful.
They speak Creole there and I study French, so I was able to communicate a little, but language was not the biggest part of the communication. It was more about interaction.
Claudette and I communicated more by smiling and body language.”
McGowan and friends are making plans for the next trip to Haiti in 2014. The group, which calls itself Geaux Haiti!, is planning a fundraiser which will take place Jan 19 at 68’s Inside Sports. The Geaux Haiti! group has been given exclusive use of the facilities from 8 p.m. to midnight. Admission is $20 with 100 percent of the money going to benefit the Global Orphan Project. Attendees will have full access to the sports facility with basketball, volleyball, football and many other sports activities, plus the NFL Conference Championship will be airing live on eight jumbo TVs.
“Everyone should think about going to Haiti,” McGowan says. “Even if they’re not sure, they should go. It has changed the way I think and makes me so much more appreciative of what I have.”
For more information, visit online geauxhaiti.org.