The Denlinger family came back to the United States from Haiti on Tuesday night. For them, it was a homecoming a year in the making.
Jeff and Deb are the founders and directors of Awaken Haiti, a non-profit organization that seeks to serve people in need in Haiti. They started Awaken Haiti shortly before the earthquake occurred in Haiti in January of 2010. A group from their church, Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church, had been traveling to Haiti for several years to help the local children and Jeff Denlinger went there in the summer of 2008 to help a team build a roof for a school.
According to Denlinger, he had the opportunity to go to an orphanage in Port-au-Prince owned by Good Samaritan Ministries and found the orphanage was in need of help.
Denlinger, his brother, Doug Denlinger, and his former business partner decided to start a sponsorship program for the children at the orphanage. In a few months, 27 families were sponsoring children and helping with their school fees, Denlinger said. Eventually, Awaken Haiti was born from the sponsorship program.
"That's how it started, and it just grew," Denlinger said.
In October 2010, Jeff and Deb, along with their three children - Colton, 13, Kylie, 9, and Brooke, 7 - journeyed to Haiti to live and work.
After arriving, the family was busy, working with the Good Samaritan orphanage, which currently has approximately 25 girls and 7 boys in the home, as well as developing a transition program to help the children learn how to be self-sufficient adults in Haiti.
"One of the things we try to do, instead of just feeding and educating, we're working on trying to do the best transition (for) these kids into being self-sustained after they leave the home," Jeff said.
In another area, the Denlingers have built a school and church in the tent city of Canaan, where most of the people live in tents or temporary wooden structures. There are now 130 children being educated at the school and about 250 to 300 people attend the church every week, Jeff said.
The church and school used to be in a tent, the Denlingers said, and it was a big moment for the community when the permanent building opened.
"It was pretty significant," Deb said.
Deb also runs the medical program of Awaken Haiti, Jeff said. They hold large monthly clinics when volunteer teams come to help and serve up to 70 people per day, he said. They also teach hygiene education and CPR and are working with a group called "Potters for Peace" to obtain 250 pots to be filled with fresh water from large tanks every day.
In February 2012, Awaken Haiti plans to start a new housing project that will involve building two 20-by-25-foot houses, both complete with individual water systems.
Each house costs about $8,500 to build, and the money mostly comes from fundraisers, teams that come to volunteer in Haiti or from the families who will be living in them.
Although the Denlingers just got into town, they will be in Carlisle only for two weeks before Jeff and Deb journey to Canada to visit an extension of the ministry. Then the family, which has committed at least three years to Awaken Haiti, will go back to Haiti to live and work.
Deb Denlinger currently educates their three children using cyberschools.
"Deb's figured it out that they can get enough time in that when teams are there once a month that our kids go along with us," Jeff said of managing their schooling.
"Our kids are part of our ministry," Deb said. "They're just in the thick of all of what we're doing."
"So they're actually as much a part of what we're doing as we are," Jeff added.
"Overall as a family I think we've all learned not to worry about the small things," Deb said. "We've all kind of learned to look outside of ourselves a little more for others needs."
"They think about others differently, I think. They think about others more before themselves," Deb added about her children. "Really, all three kids have just jumped into what we're doing and have loved these kids (in Haiti)."
The big projects that Awaken Haiti continues to work on are building the medical clinic program as well as teaching the children about transitioning into Haiti's adult world.
"And that's a messy, long process of trying to provide opportunities," Jeff said. "Educating is not the problem. Money educates. But it takes a lot more money, a lot more resources and a lot more time to provide opportunities for these kids to succeed."
"We're trying to think farther ahead and not just providing for the now, but actually provide opportunity for later. And that's our goal," Jeff said.
An Awaken Haiti Celebration and Benefit Event will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. this Sunday at the Carlisle Brethren in Christ Church, the church that sponsors the non-profit organization.
"The basis of the benefit event is to let people know what is going on now and also casting a vision for what is going to go (on in) the future," Jeff said.