Kristie Vaval speaks three languages, plays multiple instruments, is majoring in Music Performance with a specialization in recorder, and hopes to attend Juilliard for graduate work…but she’s hesitant to share those details.
It’s not that she’s shy about who she is and what she’s come through, it’s that she cares more about serving others than shining in the spotlight…whether performing her music on stage or helping guests at Chick-fil-A.
The humility and grace she shows when sharing about her gifts and accomplishments is a discipline she also applies when speaking of her journey to 144 Fulton Street, a caution only earned by difficult trials.
Her restraint is understandable. The story isn’t easy to share.
Growing up in Haiti, the oldest of four siblings, Kristie was blessed by parents who modeled hospitality and service by pastoring their local church, directing schools and orphanages, and always feeding those in need.
It was their love and character that sustained and carried Kristie through one of the most devastating natural disasters of the 21st century. While the world watched via screens, the Vaval family experienced firsthand the catastrophic earthquake that ripped through Haiti in 2010.
She was thirteen, hanging out in the church office on the second floor. Their mom was back at the house, their dad working in southern Haiti at an orphanage.
“The room started shaking, and I remember thinking ‘I need to get out…it is not safe.’”
With no railings on the staircase, she struggled to safely come down the steps as the wall of the church folded over and collapsed in front of her. She escaped to the lawn and into a surreal scene: their town covered in smoke, people running into the courtyard weeping, and children covered in dust and blood.
Survivors gathered on the church property, stunned and broken, huddling together for a sense of comfort.
“All we could do was pray…money couldn’t help anyone. If you had food, you didn’t even want to eat, you were too traumatized. Even people who usually practiced witchcraft were praying to God.”
Separated from her family, she listened for news of her two younger brothers, Jean-Mark and Moise Jr., who were both back at their school. Smoke and dust coated everything, and rumors spread through the crowd of possible tsunamis striking the coast where their church was located.
Her sister, aunt, cousins, and some church folk decided to walk towards higher ground in the mountains. They endured through the night, feeling constant aftershocks, and not knowing whether their parents or brothers lived.
“It humbled us so much, seeing how fragile life is…our church was gone, we were on the streets, with nothing but bedsheets. We couldn’t sleep. The tension grew and grew, it was getting hard to breathe.”
The next day they walked from the church to her house, the people guiding them using shortcuts to avoid seeing the worst of the death in their community.
“It was so graphic seeing bodies in wheelbarrows…it was overwhelming, to see so much human life, just gone like that, thousands and thousands of people. I still don’t understand.”
They made it back to their home, mom was safe, and not too long after their arrival dad showed up healthy as well, but the two brothers were still missing.
“My parents in that moment,” she pauses, “watching them have faith and trust…conversing about preparing themselves for whatever the news might be about their sons…I couldn’t even process that conversation in the moment—I only had hope that my brothers were fine.”
Because the aftershocks made their house unsafe, their family sat amidst the ashes, smoke, and chaos to wait for any news of the boys.
The youngest of the brothers, six year old Moise Jr., finally appeared, running towards them…
The eight year old was nowhere to be seen. The family members erupted with the same question…
“Where is Jean-Mark?”
“Where is Jean-Mark?”
“Where is Jean-Mark?”
Moise Jr. had no answer. He left a terrible nightmare behind him. The entire school had collapsed on him. Caught in the rubble by his belt, he unbuckled himself and escaped, but few did, and no one could account for the whereabouts of all the students.
Kristie vividly remembers her dad standing on the rubble of the church, promising God that no matter what the outcome was, he would give glory to God.
With resources scarce and infrastructure ruined, their city soon became unsafe so they fled to the countryside, searching in camps for signs of John Mark. Her mom even traveled to the Dominican Republic to look for him.
The school eventually reached out to them about a body they found in a school uniform, and they needed her to come and help out with identification.
It was their brother and son.
The family rallied together to grieve Jean-Mark, but also held a celebration for him, that he was found and no longer lost.
Kristie takes her time to find the right words to capture the horrors of the ordeal without making it sound sensational, but also to communicate clearly the courage and strength of her family.
“The one big thing I learned: You need to value the lives around you…an experience like this gives you compassion, to understand life in a new way. Even if I only have a few seconds with people, I want them to know they are loved. Here at CFA when I serve guests, it’s not for a paycheck, it’s not an obligation…it’s from my heart: I want them to know they are loved. It is sincere.”
It’s a sincerity forged by her family, her faith, and the sorrows she’s faced. Guests at Chick-fil-A Fulton Street can tell Kristie means it when she greets them or sends them on their way with a smile and a blessing. The lessons and character of her past are finding fertile soil in downtown Manhattan, and new meaningful relationships to navigate life with…
“People say it’s much more than a job, and it’s true. As an employee you get to feel more like a family, you get cared for…we sit together, laugh and cry together, and celebrate together. When there needs to be a correction, we do it, but with love. I’m cared for here. I can be myself at CFA because I feel loved.”