The earthquake that devastated Haiti last year, killing more than 300,000 people and leaving 1.3 million homeless, claimed a spiritual casualty as well:
A church in Port-au-Prince that was built with help from a congregation in Zephyrhills.
So Pastor James Owens and members of the Love Worth Sharing International mission raised money last year to help the Haitians rebuild their sanctuary at Good Shepherd. They visited the impoverished nation last month to see the new church and start planning to rebuild the Good Shepherd school, which also collapsed in the magnitude 7 earthquake.
"(They're) just such a kind-hearted and sweet people that you just want to be there to help them," said Owens, who runs the mission program out of First Congregational Church of Zephyrhills.
Wooden benches, crafted by Zephyrhills church members and assembled by the Haitians, will provide the seating. The mission also provided money for a new stove so the Haitian congregation can cook, and is teaching the community how to raise some food themselves.
The mission has supported Haiti's Good Shepherd congregation for more than a decade, and Owens said people can see the impact their assistance makes. Children getting worm medication no longer have swollen bellies. And every month the mission wires money to Haiti for food. The children's hair, once tinged red because of malnutrition, is turning dark again.
"To see the results over the year, it's an encouragement to continue what you do," Owens said.
Zephyrhills church member Connie Kindred helps collect donations to send to Haiti. Clothing, soap and flip-flops in various sizes fill a large storage container.
"There's a multitude of things that go in that container, things that will help them just to live," she said.
The latest trip to Haiti, from March 7-11, was Owens' 15th visit. His interest in the country began in 1998 after he met a Haitian pastor at a conference and went down to see his work. He was drawn to the gentleness and warmth of the people he met there, and started slowly trying to help in any way he could — first by building a church, a food program and a school.
He said people there struggle to find work and make money to meet their daily needs. There are not enough government schools, he said, and most people don't have the money to send their children to private school.
"We just saw the need … providing education and raising up a Christian generation that has just been racked by one disaster after another," he said.
The mission provides funding and supplies for the school at Good Shepherd. The next step is to build a new schoolhouse. For months now, classes have been held in the church sanctuary.
"Right now people come in at 4 a.m. to pray, and school starts at 8 a.m.," Owens said.
The others who made last month's trip to Haiti were Owens' wife, Cindy, and mission members Jim Lafrinere and Ross Thompson.
This was Thompson's second trip to Haiti. He's also been to Cambodia.
He said he fell in love with the people of Haiti.
"I realized on this trip that they love me, too," he said, holding back tears. "They just don't have anything that they can depend on day to day, and they know that they can depend on us."
The mission provides someone who consistently prays for them, comes to them, provides financial support.
"You think you're helping, and you are," Thompson said, but you also "receive a huge blessing of your own."
For others who are unsure of whether a mission trip is for them, he said, "If they believe it's God's call in life, they should trust God and go."
Owens had asked Thompson to join the church board, and his first trip in October was required. The last one was by choice.
"Wild horses couldn't keep me away now," Thompson said.