I was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. My family immigrated to the United States when I was three years old, and I was raised in the New York City area. We visited our friends and family in Haiti over summer vacations in the years that followed, but I had not returned in more than 30 years until just a few weeks ago, when the company I love brought me back to the country of my heart. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

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Speaking at a press conference.

I was invited to join the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour by Coca-Cola on its three-day stop in Haiti. After meeting up with the tour’s official team in Barbados, we took off for Port-au-Prince. As we landed, I was reminded how mountainous and beautiful the island nation of more than 10 million people truly is. Upon arrival, I met up with my wife and three kids (9, 7 and 3) who had never been to Haiti before, but have lived vicariously through my parents and me. I wanted them to accompany me to learn more about the culture – the people, places and traditions – that have helped shape who they are.

My kids were, of course, totally in awe of the FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour plane. They now think Coca-Cola is in the airline business and keep asking when they can fly on the Coke airline!

I met our local bottler, the Haitian Minister of Sports and other stakeholders, many of whom had heard my story. I was invited at the last minute to give brief remarks at an airport press conference, where I spoke from the heart about how great it was to be back in Haiti after such a long absence.

I did my best to take in the experience over the next few days. I loved hearing locals speak the native Haitian Creole language, and, of course, enjoying the wonderful Haitian food and music. During the drive from the airport to our hotel, we got a first-hand look at the state of the country and how people live and interact. Clearly, a lot of work has been done to rebuild Haiti following the earthquake – we saw several new hotels and buildings – but the poverty we witnessed was overwhelming.

Stevens Sainte-Rose and his kids in Haiti

On the football pitch with his three kids.

As Coca-Cola is also my heart, I asked to be taken on a market visit to get a better sense of the local trade. Street merchants and informal bazaars are everywhere, with very little branding. I couldn’t help but think about the tremendous opportunity we have to help the country through our business. Everyone I saw in Haiti deserved to have a Coca-Cola in their hand. Our business challenges there are basic – availability, affordability and quality – but difficult to tackle in a country with such a poor infrastructure.

The personal highlight of my trip came the next day when we brought the FIFA World Cup trophy to a group of 150 young Haitian football players. It was a truly special moment for me to look at the players – who were between 12 and 16 years old – and think, “I could have been any one of them.” I feel incredibly privileged to have had the opportunity to grow up, to receive my education and to build a family and career in the United States. I’ve gotten to travel all over the world and live in few different countries.

I encouraged them to dream big and to work hard. The applause I received made me incredibly proud. For these children, who see very little hope and future, hearing from someone who was born in Haiti and went on to work for one of the world’s greatest companies excited and inspired them.

And their excitement inspired me. In fact, I’m certain I gained as much as they did that day. I scored several “cool” points with my wife and kids, as well. :)

The word surreal came to mind throughout the weekend, especially during the football match that concluded our time in Port-au-Prince. My first-ever Coca-Cola experience I can remember came in the very same stadium, when I watched a match as a young child on my last visit 30 years ago. Sitting in that same spot with my wife and children – watching football in the country of my birth, thanks to Coca-Cola – was, indeed, surreal. Life comes full circle.

I’m not sure when I’ll return to Haiti, but I’m certain it will not take me another 30 years.

Stevens Sainte-Rose is senior vice president of human resources for Coca-Cola International. He is based in Brussels, Belgium.