- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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The images are inescapably horrific, grainy glimpses at death, despair and devastation of still untold magnitude in the wake of an earthquake that leveled large swaths of Haiti, including the near complete destruction of the capital city of Port-au-Prince, early on the evening of Jan. 12.
Courtney Alexander's heart goes out to those in Haiti when she sees the pictures. She has watched the around-the-clock coverage on cable television and sifted through the firsthand accounts and updates online from news sites to Facebook.
For many, the nightmare landscape is an initial introduction to the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. For Alexander, it was a place and a people she had just recently experienced firsthand.
Three weeks before the earthquake, Alexander and LSU soccer teammate Natalie Ieyoub returned from a weeklong mission to Haiti. They got their first look at what was already an impoverished nation even then in dire need of the most basic necessities -- food, sanitation, shelter -- but also a populace with abundant perseverance.
"The country as a whole is so beautiful, and the people are so beautiful," Alexander said. "I was only there for a week, and I completely fell in love with the place. Like the moment I was back on U.S. soil, I wanted to be back on Haitian soil. I wanted to be back there.
"It's just a place that steals a piece of your heart, and you can't let it go."
Her trip the week before Christmas came about through the work of Lespwa Worldwide, a Christian nonprofit organization founded in 2006 by a group of college students, including a friend of Alexander's. One of some 6,000 NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that send humanitarian aid to Haiti, Lespwa Worldwide helps operate a school and orphanage in the village of Messailler, about 30 miles north of Port-au-Prince along a bumpy dirt highway.
"Haiti is chaos," Alexander said of her initial impression of the country, garnered almost a month before the 7.0 earthquake devastated the island nation and left tens of thousands dead.
"It's shocking to see little kids picking up trash and chewing on it," she said of her personal experience in Messailler. "And you're like, 'That's not food; why are you eating that?' And the thing was, like, we don't know if the snack we gave at vacation Bible school was the only food that kid was getting for the day."
The visitors' days consisted of shoring up a flood wall damaged in what was then the most recent natural disaster to hit the area, organizing clothing donations, running a Bible school and preparing the orphanage for a wave of new arrivals. But it was the time with the children, particularly the orphans on site, that most hit home.
"The kids just wanted human touch so bad," Alexander said. "Like here in America, any kid would, like, squirm sitting on your lap. But there, if you're just sitting down, watching something, they'll just come up, not even say a word, and just come and sit on your lap and stay there for hours. It's just crazy because all they want is love."
From what Alexander said she has been able to gather, the orphans were safely outside any buildings during the earthquake, in the care of another church group in Messailler for a short-term mission similar to that of the LSU players.
The staff was also all accounted for, and those from the United States, including Alexander's friend, have since been among the expatriates evacuated by the U.S. State Department, which estimates at 45,000 the number of U.S. citizens in Haiti at the time of the quake.
Messailler was not spared the deadly toll now apparent in the capital city to the south, and Alexander can only wonder about other faces she encountered during her stay.
"Other than [the orphans and the staff], I don't know about, like, the village kids that we met and their families at all," Alexander said. "I'm just hoping that they're OK."
Months earlier and a world removed from Haiti's problems, Alexander was a key part of one of the most successful LSU soccer teams in the history of the program.
A transfer from Southeast Missouri State who sat out the 2008 season, Alexander started all 24 of the team's games in her first season on the field for the Tigers. Primarily an outside back, she helped a defense that allowed just 18 goals and served as the backbone of a team that won the SEC West, advanced to the final of the conference tournament for the first time and came within a penalty shootout of advancing to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.
But for all that drama at the highest level of the college game, played out in new cleats on manicured fields with all needs attended to, the most memorable games she played last year came on a small dirt-and-gravel pitch in Messailler.
Work done for the day, soccer games broke out on the makeshift field with no nets in the goals and no markings for out of bounds. It was always Haitians against foreigners in a country that, unlike the Dominican Republic, its neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, is first and foremost soccer-mad. As Alexander tells it, the locals had never lost to a short-term mission group -- certainly not one with girls, whose soccer credentials were questioned.
But one day, after a draw in the first game, the locals canceled a game against a neighboring town to reassert their bragging rights. Only this time they lost, leading to the normal round of excuses about absent players familiar to any grudge match.
"It was another way we could bond with them is by playing soccer," Alexander said as she recounted stories of balls drilled into crowds, players chasing play over and around construction materials bordering the field and her own embarrassing tumbles as she adjusted to a field that didn't allow for quite the same change of direction as in the SEC.
The current scenes out of Haiti show devastation on an almost unimaginable scale, people placed into impossible situations, frantically searching, digging and too often burying loved ones. A soccer game, any soccer game, is entirely inconsequential against such a backdrop. But it is also familiar. The soccer games that Alexander remembers playing during her trip could have taken place in Rochester, N.Y., as easily as Haiti.
The earthquake's unbearable toll is heartbreaking, the scenes now unfolding agonizing. But as Alexander discovered among people unaware of the impending peril, Haiti's plight predated the current crisis and will carry on long after our collective attention turns elsewhere.
Our hearts go out to Haiti. But a part of Alexander's will remain there awaiting her return.
"The people there are amazing," Alexander said. "Haiti just holds a piece of your heart. I will always have a heart for Haiti and always want to go back there and help those people."
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.