The adventure began before it even started. 48 hours prior to my scheduled departure, Delta Airlines called to tell me that my flight had been cancelled. They offered me a full refund, but no way to get to Haiti—which is, after all, what I wanted to do. I spent a few frantic hours calling travel agents and searching online, but the earliest alternative flights I could find had me departing San Francisco three days later than I had initially planned, and returning only one day later than anticipated. What was meant to be a 10-day trip would now be a seven-day adventure. Oh well, I thought. First lesson: It’s out of my control!
But more travel obstacles remained. On Tuesday, March 23, I flew from SF to New York, then on to San Juan, Puerto Rico for an overnight. I took off Wednesday morning for Haiti with a supposedly brief stop in the Dominican Republic. Except we made it all the way to the DR, and then had American Airlines turn our plane around and fly us straight back to Puerto Rico due to an equipment malfunction.
I eventually arrived in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday afternoon around 2pm. I turned my iPhone on to send a text to my host, Alison Thompson, and my fellow volunteer traveler, Sarah, announcing that I had arrived, only to discover that the device had chosen that precise moment to stop functioning. What terrible timing!
The scene at the baggage claim gave me a taste of what lay ahead. Passengers from all arriving flights crowded around two doorways, through which Haitian ground staff shoveled suitcases like pieces of coal. Grabbing your belongings was a free-for-all, with sharp elbows flying. After waiting an hour in the scorching heat without seeing any evidence of my goods, I finally gave up and offered an airport staff member a couple of bucks if he’d find my bags, showing him my claim tickets. Miraculously, he appeared with my two suitcases (one full of donations for the camp, such as energy bars and solar phone chargers) and large tent (for me to stay in and then leave behind for the Haitians) just moments later.
As I exited the single remaining airport terminal (the others collapsed during the quake), I found Sarah waiting for me with a Haitian driver. There are few times in my life when I can remember feeling so relieved.
The driver took us on a brief tour of Port-au-Prince. We’ve all read about and seen images of the devastation caused by the January 12 earthquake, but it’s profound to witness the destruction with your own eyes. Two out of three buildings had simply disintegrated into a pile of rubble, and every corner we turned we saw another vast field of tents. On the other hand, life appeared to be “back to normal” in many ways—cars on the streets, marketplaces functioning, people going about their business.
Nevertheless, the Haitian “White House” is flat as a pancake. As is their University and most of their Ministries. Half of the population of Port-au-Prince is homeless.
My first real worry about this trip was alleviated the moment we pulled up to our camp. Enclosed within the gates of the Petionville Club, a former member’s only golf club, we had the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division guarding the area. Every individual I met in Haiti from the US military impressed me. These members of our Armed Forces were dignified, considerate, hard-working, and doing an excellent job as peacekeepers, never complaining as they toiled for 12-hour shifts under the tropical sun. They deserve our thanks and blessings.
I joined my dear friend Alison Thompson at J/P HRO, the Jenkins/Penn Haiti Relief Organization. Our camp, my home for the next week, was a collection of tents sandwiched one right up against the next, on a makeshift wooden floor with a massive tent superstructure to protect us from the rain. It had two port-a-potties, a simple kitchen made up of a few tables and a sink running off a fancy (and necessary!) water filtration system, and a couple of showers that Captain Barry, one of the camp leaders, had constructed out back. There was also a building nearby that had survived. It housed a men’s and women’s bathroom, with proper toilets and showers. The water ran maybe half the time I was there. Showering was a ridiculous delight after a day of dust, sweat, and hugs from runny-nosed kids.
I found out later from Alison and the J/P HRO website that the organization was founded by philanthropist and Bosnian refugee Diana Jenkins and Sean Penn, along with the valuable assistance of veteran relief workers Alison and Oscar, who had spent 14 months post-tsunami rebuilding a village in Sri Lanka. They had flown in just five days after the quake on a private plane with 4,000 water filters and a team of 12 doctors from New York. Their first two weeks were spent mostly distributing aid and performing amputations—with no painkiller.
Currently, J/P HRO is overseeing the 75,000-“displaced persons” tent village that has sprouted up like a mass of dandelions on the rubble-free grass of the Petionville Club golf course. J/P coordinates efforts with the other NGOs working there, including the impressive Catholic Relief Services (wonderful people, providing tents and food), Save the Children (running a child-safe area in the camp), and OxFam. In addition, under Alison’s leadership, J/P runs a hospital that has treated over 50,000 Haitians since it’s establishment and delivered 63 babies.
The Tent Village
After a simple meal of rice and chicken (what a luxury! most nights we had rice and beans) prepared by the camp chef, I slept in the tent I shared with Sarah. It was loud—the sound of one person walking on that wooden floor would wake me. And so I rose at dawn and toured the tent village with a Haitian guide and Sarah shooting photos. As we walked out of our camp, I realized that we were on the top of a hill, with a stunning view out over PAP in all its fallen glory. The tent village lay further down the slopes.
It was more orderly in the village than you might imagine. Already, after just over two months, people had created a market street where individuals displayed their wares in baskets and tubs—a few veggies, some butter and oil, bits of tires to burn as fuel, plastic bags. I caught sight of several beauty salons advertising hairdos and manicures, as well as a barbershop and a lotto stand.
From the moment I entered the unsecured area, screaming children surrounded me, jumping up and down, and grabbing hold of my hands, pants, and shirt. I nicknamed one tenacious six-year-old “Spiderman” because he wore a backpack with a cartoon image of the comic book character and clung to me like a spider to its web. I could walk at a rapid pace, cleaving crowds of children, and always, somehow, he managed to keep hold of my wrist.
The kids made me smile. They always greeted us with such joy, in spite of the unimaginable trauma and hardship they’d experience.
A Day’s Work
After a simple breakfast of oatmeal, the volunteers set about their work for the day. A bunch of the men went to build a bridge over a small stream in anticipation of the coming rains. Rainy season arrives soon to Haiti, and with it comes the threat of massive outbreaks of communicable disease. The most urgent task presently facing the nation and the NGOs involved there is getting people moved out of flood zones onto safe terrain and into proper tents (many housing structures are composed simply of pieces of fabric and tarp.) The crew of Canadian and American doctors, nurses, and EMTs who were rotating through J/P HRO for two weeks with IMAT (International Medical Assistance Team) set off for the hospital.
No one told me what to do. I wondered what I might do. I worried that I’d be useless.
Then Sarah, who had already been there for a few days, suggested that I head over to the women’s clinic, a simple tent structure set up on a grassy slope under the shade of an acacia tree. The hospital sent minor cases here—mostly vaginal infections. One of the camp leaders had secured the donation of a few hundred women’s hygiene kits from the UN. Each bucket contained a few bowls for washing, a clean towel, and some condoms. The Haitian nurses that J/P HRO had employed to run the clinic, under volunteer Julie’s watchful eye, gave hygiene/sex ed classes twice a day to approximately 60 women. These were growing increasingly popular, and competition for a ticket to participate in a session could get nasty.
Since I speak French, I found it easy to bond with the eight Haitian nurses at the women’s clinic. The first day, I helped them get supplies and shuttle people with more serious issues to the hospital. But I soon realized that I could offer counseling. Even though Haitians speak creole, about 50 percent of it is French, and the Haitians could understand everything I said. And so I ended up offering therapy in French, sometimes with the help of a Haitian translator to help me fully understand my clients. I did this for the better part of five days.
Aside from more food, medical care, and jobs, what I found the Haitians needing most was psychological attention. One in ten residents of Port-au-Prince were killed in the earthquake. One in two lost their homes. Nearly everyone is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. (You can read more about the mental health repercussions of the quake in this New York Times article.)
I don’t know how much my counseling helped, but I did see the very real effects of the trauma on people’s lives, and I felt that even just lending an ear and a shoulder to cry on probably proved valuable to most.
One afternoon, I sat down to talk with a woman who had fed her 15-day old baby a bottle of Clorox bleach in an attempt to kill him. The baby had been born just days after the earthquake. The woman was sharing a tent with her three other children, as well as her sister and her two kids. She simply didn’t see a way to support her family, or any purpose in her new child’s life. The police had arrested the women after her sister had brought her and the baby to the hospital, where, thankfully, the doctors were able to save the child’s life. But they had released the woman a few days later.
What of the woman’s three other children? After speaking with me for some time, I established that the young lady was coherent, grounded in time and place, not delusional. But she left her two-year-old lying asleep next to me without a word after our session and took off. I didn’t even know if she would return. Fortunately, she did…
I could see how desperately this woman needed mental health assistance. I searched for two days for a woman from Catholic Relief Services who gave me the name and phone number of another woman whom she said could help, but then I had to leave and couldn’t follow through. I handed the task over to a Muslim social worker from Chicago who had arrived the previous day. And so it goes. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t do more.
On my last day, a man approached me with his two year-old son in his arms. The sweet little boy appeared utterly listless, with no emotion, no response to my smiles or attempts to make him engage. His father said that the boy had been like this ever since the quake, when both his mother and brother had died. He was barely eating or sleeping. What could the father do? The desperation in his eyes made my heart cry out.
I advised the man to cuddle the boy, keep him in close physical contact as much as possible, give him extra attention, and take him to church or other places where people were full of light and spirit. Perhaps the boy would regain his will to live. I also escorted the man to the hospital and sat with him as we talked to a doctor. She said that young children can’t be placed on medications, and offered a bottle of children’s vitamins. What else could we do? There was nothing. I felt such despair.
One day, I headed out with a mobile strike unit consisting of one doctor, five nurses, a bus, and a bunch of medical supplies in a few bags. A team like this goes out from J/P HRO into the surrounding tent villages of PAP every day to offer medical care. With my French and some coaching from the medical professionals, I was able to perform triage, determining if people had serious or minor ailments. So many of them complained merely of hurting all over, headaches, stomach aches, and other mild symptoms, for which I handed over Ibuprofen and a formula for “do it yourself Gatorade” (1 liter of water with 1 tsp salt and 8 tsps sugar, shaken well). But mostly, I simply listened as they moaned about their stress and strain. They needed psychological assistance, too.
On my second day in Haiti, Alison suggested that I visit an orphanage, Hands to Live. They’d written her a letter requesting aid.
I went with Nick, a New York cameraman who’d landed in the Dominican Republic only two days after the quake and driven across the border into Haiti. His friend Mihalis, the “Anderson Cooper of Greece,” who was there with him to film a one-hour documentary for Greek public television, described Haiti as the worst conditions he’d ever seen in his 15 years of journalistic experience. Usually, Mihalis said, you at least had certain secured areas, even in a war zone. In Haiti during those early days, there were none. Journalists and NGOs on the scene had to live on the airfield, amongst planes landing, for security’s sake. There was no food and no water other than what you had brought yourself.
We arrived to the orphanage on a blazing, dusty day. The original building had been destroyed in the quake, and 17 of the children had perished. Frantzia, the spitfire of a 30 year-old “Directrice,” had moved 30 of the remaining children to a tiny square of concrete left standing in a narrow alley off a main drag of PAP. She’d had to ask other NGOs to help with the additional 20 children, whom she simply could not house and feed at the moment.
The children were busy singing a lesson when Nick and I arrived. They seemed joyful and engaged with their teachers. Frantzia took us to visit a nearby rooftop, where all 30 children were sleeping in two six-person tents on a rooftop that might collapse in an aftershock. She showed us a lot that a friend had offered to them as the new site for the orphanage, but explained that they needed money to construct a building and sanitation facilities. As it was, she didn’t know if they had enough funds to last more than another couple of weeks.
Nick and I returned the next day with a donation of six eight-person tents—at least that would help with the overcrowding at night. We also brought eight boxes each of canned peaches and pears, and a big bag full of coloring books and crayons. It didn’t feel like enough, but at least it was something.
Sunday was quiet. The Haitian staff had the day off, and most of the volunteers took it easy. We were performing small tasks, like cleaning up and doing construction, around the camp in the late afternoon heat when someone yelled, “The Cubans are coming!!!”
Moments later, a troupe of brightly colored musicians, stilt-walkers, dancers, and clowns came skipping and bouncing down the road. Most of us from J/P HRO went with them as they made their way down the hill into the tent village. They paraded through the tents in a sea of smiling children’s faces, and performed for about 30 minutes in a clearing. People were delighted.
Tears came to my eyes. Who would’ve thought that a parade could be so helpful? But it made you forget your worries for a while. It made you giggle. It made you want to live.
I was deeply moved by the power of spirituality under these trying circumstances. I visited “church” three times during my short stay. Every night at 6:30pm, hundreds of displaced persons gathered on a small hilltop in the tent village, which had been converted to a place of worship. Two towers of loudspeakers rose up on either side of an improvised stage, cordoned off with a thin string of rope. Musicians—a guitarist, bassist, and drummer—played their rowdy church music, a combination of gospel and reggae, as somewhere between three and six singers belted out hymns. All the Haitians joined in, closing their eyes, swaying, and raising their hands to God.
Pastor Sincere (yes, that is apparently his name!) delivered a sermon each time in which he thanked God and encouraged personal responsibility. He said, “Yes, we have all this aid coming in, but we must rebuild our country and our lives. We must take action.” He was doing great work in the village, too. He’d organized a citizen’s brigade to patrol for crime, and was involved with other humanitarian efforts.
On my last night there, he called me up on stage and asked me to speak. In French, I thanked the Haitians for having me—and all the volunteers—to their country. I said that while they often thanked us, we also owed them our gratitude. They taught us the beauty of a smile, the wonder of singing and dancing in the middle of devastation, the healing qualities of faith. They gave us gifts that we would carry with us for the rest of our lives.
I often find, when I travel, a deep appreciation for what we take for granted most days in America—clean water, fresh vegetables, basic protection in the form of a police force and military and functioning justice system, a sense of faith that if the world crumbles, our government will take action. Sure, our country isn’t perfect. But we are incredibly lucky in light of the conditions many other people face on a daily basis.
Haiti served as an extreme example. The government, already weak and corrupt, failed its people utterly in the weeks after the quake. President Preval didn’t even address his nation for a week. Thank heavens for the NGOs, the US military, and the UN, which have literally come to Haiti’s rescue.
But what I felt above all in Haiti was the power of love. It might sound cliché, but it’s true. The Haitians expressing their love for one another and for God. The selfless love of the volunteers, NGOs, and members of the Armed Forces for the Haitian people. And the love of life everywhere—joy and smiles and laughter in the midst of misery.
If you want to volunteer, do it. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor or a construction worker—although, especially in the early days after a major disaster, those professions are most valuable. All that matters is that you can love. Grin like the Cheshire cat. Offer a hug. Send pure, radiant beams of light out of your heart. Share your life force with others.
I returned from Haiti only seven days after landing there. It was too short a trip. I plan to return in the next few months. American Airlines flight attendants offered me free snacks to thank me on my way back to the US. I smiled at them, too, with renewed warmth and conviction, knowing, deeply knowing in my soul, that a simple but genuine smile can make someone’s day.
After my week in Haiti, this is my new life motto:
Love more, fear less.
Won’t you join me?