Love of sports and kids takes Brooklyn Park man to Haiti

Missionary trip's goal is to start athletic program at orphanage

August 02, 2006|By SUSAN GVOZDAS | SUSAN GVOZDAS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

While Jason Elder is packing inflatable beach balls, Frisbees and footballs for his trip tomorrow, he's not exactly going on vacation.

The Brooklyn Park resident is flying to Haiti to help orphans, and he is also taking his expertise as a sports instructor at the YMCA branch in Pasadena.

Elder, 29, will be in Port-de-Paix with the Northwest Haiti Christian Mission until Aug. 12 to help put the finishing touches on a church and start a YMCA-affiliated sports program at the mission's orphanage.

By day, Elder is an intelligence analyst for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, helping police departments target areas troubled by drug trafficking.

After work, he often visits North County schools as head of the Super Sports program of the Anne Arundel County Family Branch of the YMCA of Central Maryland in Pasadena.

Super Sports is an hourlong, six-week after-school program for children in grades 1 to 5. Super Sports incorporates lessons on sportsmanship, honesty and respect.

Elder runs about five sessions a year. The most popular one, "Showdown on the Playground," features a combination of games such as dodgeball, kickball and basketball.

"The kids really respond to it," Elder said. "They usually add their own rules."

This is Elder's first mission trip. His wife, Devon Graham, is staying behind in Maryland to finish her doctoral degree, but her father, Chuck Graham of Ellwood City, Pa., is accompanying Elder to Haiti.

Graham and his wife, Debbie Graham, travel with the Northwest Haiti Christian Mission, a nondenominational organization based in Kentucky, at least three times a year. The volunteers pay from $1,200 to $1,400 for the trip.

"We've always talked about it," Debbie Graham said. "It just surprised us when he [Elder] did say he wanted to go."

Mission volunteers sleep in tents or on cots wrapped in mosquito netting. Mosquito spray will help prevent bites that can cause malaria and dengue fever.

The Grahams have both contracted the latter, a sometimes fatal viral infection.

Elder is willing to take that risk to help. He likes doing construction on the side, so he thought he could help on that front. He figured the children might enjoy Super Sports too.

A co-worker, Matt Smith, said Elder's interest in working with the Haitian children makes sense. Drug prevention starts with teaching children values and how to make better choices, he said.

"You just want to help [children] any way you can, and I think he recognized there are areas other than the Baltimore area that need help," Smith said.

Elder is taking a small amount of sports equipment, including a few balls, a pump and flag football equipment, thanks to $100 raised by teens at the YMCA and donations from branch patrons and local businesses, including Modell's Sporting Goods in Annapolis.

The YMCA would like to raise an additional $300 to buy more equipment, said Lana Smith, the branch's executive director.

"The plan is that once he teaches the children at the orphanage some games and establishes contact with leadership there, we will send them a box of more equipment," she said.

The Chalet Orphanage houses about 130 children ages 2 to 14. They do not attend school in the summer, said Pam Shelton, the office manager for the non-denominational organization based in Kentucky.

"They just love to get attention," Shelton said.

Debbie Graham said previous missions have run basketball and soccer camps, and the kids have loved them. Balls and other sports equipment left behind, however, have been damaged or lost, she said.

The equipment is used not only by the orphanage children, but also by the children who live nearby. Many poor families cannot afford to send their kids to school, so the children are left to hang out on the street.

"When they do grow up, they don't have a lot to look forward to," Graham said. "We're down there trying to give them hope."

Lana Smith expressed confidence in Elder. She called him a "kind and caring" person.

"His day job is what pays the bills, but the after-hours work fills his heart," Smith said.

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