A youth group from Hendersonville First United Methodist Church is headed home early from a mission trip to Haiti after violent protests in the impoverished country prompted an emergency evacuation on Monday.
The five adults and 15 high school and college students were in the country with KORE Foundation, a non-profit group based in Gallatin that trains farmers and offers a feeding program to children in Haiti.
According to Katherine Louw, KORE Foundation director of development, the group included two of KORE’s team members on the ground in Haiti, 12 members of the First United Methodist Church youth group that organized the trip, and three members of Northfield Church in Gallatin.
The group that arrived July 5 had been staying on KORE’s 10-acre campus in Mirebalais just a day when the government announced a hike in gas prices late Friday. The announcement was followed by widespread rioting.
At least three people were killed on Friday as protesters blocked major streets with burning tires and barricades, according to the Washington Post.
Louw said KORE has been sending teams to Haiti for about seven years, and that demonstrations are not uncommon. However, Friday’s riots were more widespread and violent than the group had experienced before.
“Demonstrations are common in Haiti because it’s the only way they can have a voice and be heard,” she said. “But they are typically announced and you know what places to avoid. This was far and above anything we’ve experienced. Rocks were being thrown, some buildings were burned and people were feeling threatened.”
Louw said when the rioting started, the group remained on the rural campus, protected by armed security guards, and was never in immediate danger. They were transported by helicopter to an airport in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, on Monday.
“That was a new experience for all of our team,” said Louw. “We’ve never needed a helicopter before.”
After waiting in an airport hangar, the group chartered a plane to the Dominican Republic where they’ll spend Monday night before flying back to Nashville on Tuesday.
“There was only one charter plane available so it had to take two or three trips to get them all out,” Louw added. “But it’s been smooth and seamless.”
The unexpected evacuation will be paid for by the group’s travel insurance.
“Many groups haven’t been as lucky because there are often a lot of loopholes involved,” Louw noted.
She said the group remained positive despite the tense circumstances.
“The kids have been so amazing,” she said. “I know a lot of them are hoping to come back.”
Julie Leath, whose daughter Loren is on the trip, said parents started to get nervous when they saw the news reports of the rioting.
“Us parents were definitely worried, but at some point we had to just leave it to God and the KORE leaders to get them out of there,” she said. Leath said she talked to her daughter on Monday as she was boarding the helicopter and leaving her luggage behind.
“She thought leaving on a helicopter was pretty cool,” said Leath. “But I think they are disappointed that they didn’t get to do the work they went out there to do. Some of them are already talking about going back.”