Army Cadet tells Christmas story of service
February 28, 2012
FORT KNOX, Ky. -- While other people were getting together with family and friends over Christmas break, Jeremiah Cioffi was teaching English to children in Haiti, helping establish a distribution system with local leaders and playing soccer with the local kids.
But Cioffi wasn't on a deployment or a military mission. Or even on an internship. Cioffi, a history and international relations major and Reserve Officers' Training Corps Cadet at Boston University, was in Haiti on his own because he wanted to aid people who were less fortunate and in need of help.
"I'm involved in a Christian group on campus where we have a Bible study once a week," he said recently about his experience. Staff members "on campus were going on this mission -- there were people from other schools, too. But they said they could help me raise the money if I wanted to go. I was looking for an opportunity to go somewhere to help -- like Haiti or New Orleans."
"There were people living in tents on the roadside, living on what they could scavenge on streets and so forth," he said. "I realized the comforts I had are not enjoyed by all. I knew that, but I saw it firsthand so now I have a different perspective."
Cioffi said the part of Haiti he visited looked like a stereotypical third-world village. The people didn't have a lot of possessions, they lived in mud huts and the kids were only partly clothed. But he enjoyed his time with the people.
"We taught them English, they taught us Creel and we played soccer with the kids," he said.
Cioffi said it was notable to be in Haiti for the one-year anniversary of last year's massive earthquake.
"There was a church service held, and people walked up to 50 miles to talk about where they were and how it affected them. It went on for seven hours, and it seemed like time passed in the blink of an eye. I was sitting with a group of kids who played with my hat, and it was very meaningful."
In many ways, he said, the trip was what he expected. In other ways it was not because even though people were needy, he couldn't just hand out supplies.
"I had gone down with the mindset I would distribute supplies to people and that sort of thing and help any way I could. But I found out there were internal displacement camps," he said. "The capital was still in such disarray. I thought I was going to hand stuff out, but they don't want us to do that anymore because as we'd hand out, like water bottles, the kids would get beat up and someone would take the bottle."
That is where Cioffi found the opportunity to practice some of the leadership techniques he learned in ROTC.
"On the first couple days I was there, there were leaders on a sort of campus where there is a community that has developed -- they have a school, medical facility and such. So I sought out leaders so we could find a way to make things work -- if handing stuff out isn't working, then what would?" he asked.
"So we came up with a plan that would make things work so the people got the help they needed. The community is still using that plan. I used the things I learned (in ROTC). It provided me a chance to take some initiative."
Last summer, through Army ROTC's Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency Program, Cioffi went overseas to Morocco, seeing another foreign culture firsthand. He said many of the Moroccans he met were open and appreciated the Cadets' presence.
The CULP program is designed to immerse Cadets in foreign culture and language so they can better understand how others around the world view the United States and, in the process, learn more about themselves. Overseas immersions help educate future leaders in ways the classroom cannot.
Cioffi said he has learned that across cultures and organizations -- from Morocco to Haiti, and within his ROTC and his Christian groups -- respect is a glue that bonds leaders to people. There must be respect both ways to result in effective leadership, he said.