Pitt student-athletes travel to Haiti

By RJ Sepich

Hubie Graham recently traveled to Haiti, but he didn’t come home with his new pair of tennis shoes.

That’s because the redshirt senior tight end on the Pitt football team gave his Nikes to a young Haitian boy. And to Graham’s amazement, instead of putting the shoes on his feet, the boy immediately took them to his father, because his father had never owned a pair of shoes.

“For having absolutely nothing, they are so selfless,” Graham said of his experiences with the Haitian people.

As part of a group led byVince Burens, the chief operating officer for the Coalition for Christian Outreach at Pitt, and Mark Steffey, a campus minister working with the CCO, Graham and 15 other Pitt student-athletes journeyed to Cap-Haitien, Haiti, after spring classes ended to volunteer for six days at a pair of orphanages in the poverty-stricken Caribbean country.

Mark Giubilato, a redshirt sophomore linebacker on the football team, said he was in the car last winter with Graham when the pair got the email asking if anyone would be interested in going on the trip.

Giubilato said he was immediately interested, because he didn’t want to pass on the opportunity to go and regret not going later on.

“You hear a lot of ideas about this kind of stuff, and over time it just sort of fades out like, ‘Oh, I could have done that, but I didn’t,’” he said. “I really wanted to take advantage of this and I’m sure everyone else was the same.”

Sixteen Pitt athletes — three football players, three wrestlers, six women’s soccer players, two women’s divers, one women’s swimmer and one men’s soccer player — volunteered at the EBAC orphanage in Cap-Haitien. The orphanage, which was established in 1978 by Fayette County, Pa., natives Alice Wise and Kathy Gouker, houses about 90 Haitian orphans.

The idea for the trip developed from a conversation that Steffey, who has worked at Pitt for four years as a minister to student-athletes, had with the chaplain for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pittsburgh Penguins.

“My relationship with Brad Henderson, who’s the chaplain for the Pirates and Penguins and the president for the Pittsburgh Kids Foundation, is really what led to this trip,” Steffey said. “Brad has taken many groups down to Haiti over the years.”

Steffey also said the timing felt right to plan a trip of this magnitude.

“I’ve built relationships with students,” he said. “This was the right time to come to a group of them and say, ‘Let’s go somewhere and do something significant.’”

The three football players to make the trip — Giubilato, Graham and redshirt senior safety Andrew Taglianetti — said they spent most of their time at EBAC either playing with the children or doing manual labor, such as laying cement and cutting down trees around the property.

While the football players were at EBAC, some of the other student-athletes visited the nearby IDADEE orphanage, where women’s soccer player Danielle Benner said she and other members of the Pitt women’s soccer team played their sport with some of the native children.

“Outside of the IDADEE orphanage, we ran a soccer clinic with the street kids from the area. There were about 50 kids and seven of us,” Benner said. “None of the kids spoke English, whereas at the orphanage a lot of the kids spoke English, so that was a whole new experience — us trying to communicate with the kids and facilitate activities.”

Burens said that despite the language barrier, the Pitt athletes were able to connect with the native people through sports.“The Haitians tend not to like to play soccer with the Americans who come down, because the Americans who come down tend to be well-meaning people who are not very good at soccer,” he said with a laugh. “Well, we had six players from the women’s soccer team, one from the men’s soccer team and two very fit, large wrestlers to play soccer with them.”

When it was time for the Pitt athletes to leave, they didn’t re-pack their bags.

Instead, they all returned home with empty luggage after deciding to donate all of their clothing to the children of EBAC.

Like Graham, Benner said she was amazed the kids never fought over the food or clothing the Pitt athletes provided them.

“Not once did they fight. Not once did they argue,” she said. “It was the most incredible thing I have ever seen. These kids who have nothing are so willing to share with each other.”

Steffey believes this trip could become a regular opportunity for Pitt athletes in the future, saying that numerous athletes have asked about going to Haiti next year.

“I can say with confidence that we probably would be able to take 30 student-athletes in the future,” he said. “I had a lot more interest in the trip than just these 15 student-athletes who went.”

Taglianetti said he would definitely be interested in going again after the experience changed the way he looks at life.

“The impact we can have on their lives is kind of miniscule. The impact on us will last a lifetime,” he said. “It was tremendously eye-opening.”