Written by Rachel Revehl
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti breaks your heart and never returns all the pieces.
That’s what moves Southwest Floridians to continue reaching out to the downtrodden nation, even when frustrations mount and it sometimes seems their labor has done little to impact the widespread troubles.
“Haiti will get stuck on you, especially if you’re a person who has a heart,” said Dr. Stephen Schroering of Lehigh Acres, health director for the New Life Children’s Home in Port-au-Prince.
For all its miseries, hope is revealed in a child’s face aglow in a classroom; a mother’s beaming pride stepping into her new home for the first time; a man’s gratitude for the chance to walk again.
Success is measured not in the many miles left to traverse, but in the small steps already taken.
Hannah Chapman Pelle stared, wide-eyed.
The jagged roads jostled everyone crammed into a beaten Honda. She watched as boisterous vendors wedged into every spare inch on the street crowded with unwashed cars, while men spilled out the open backs of taxis, called “tap-taps,” intricately painted with rainbow swirls of colors featuring pop stars or religious figures. On one is the verse from Jeremiah 11:29: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Splayed on the muddy ground were patches packed with plantains still on the vine, papaya and grapefruit. The trenches along the road were littered with trash, scavanged by bone-thin dogs and streaming human waste. Diesel fuel and black smoke billowing from burning refuse hung heavy in the air and stung her nose, but was laced with the sweet aroma of smoked chicken.
Broken pipes flooded some areas downtown in ankle-deep, green-and-brown water, which most sloshed right through.
Stereos blasted Cuban salsa, gospel and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Shoeless children, seeing fair-skinned faces, rushed to the open window, jogging alongside, smiling broadly and holding out their dust-caked hands for $1, shouting “Blan! Blan!” the Creole word for “white.”
Welcome to Port-au-Prince.
For Pelle, the Fort Myers-McGregor Kiwanis Club president, it was her first glimpse of Haiti. She traveled with Cape Coral Kiwanis Club president Sam Huber to visit Bon Samaritan Orphanage in Croix-des-Bouquets, just outside the capital, where they hope to establish a partnership to provide medicine, food and, someday, funding for education for the 100 children.
Pelle and Huber lugged suitcases stuffed with 300 pounds of over-the-counter medicines – Tylenol, cough syrup and ointment for rashes – precious in a place with little access to health care.
The orphanage is run by Madam Paul St. Vilus, mother of Lehigh Acres resident Nicole Reyes, who came with her fiance, Jean-Claude Sime. For years, Reyes, a debt counselor, has carried the financial burden.
“The earthquake was so devastating in so many ways, but one thing it did was shed light on what has been going on all along,” Reyes said. “We’ve gotten more help over the last year than any other.”
The first floor of the concrete home had been splintered with cracks, and the exterior wall came crashing down. Both are now repaired. Gardens with banana trees, peppers and papayas flourish in the side yard where there were once muck puddles. There’s still no clean water or electricity, but an outhouse is now in the back corner of the yard.
When the rusted iron gate swung open, squeaky voices from under a blue tarp belted hymns. Most were freshly bathed and dressed, but staff knew to expect visitors, so Reyes speculated some was for show.
Under another tarp, a dozen babies squirmed on a stained blanket, dime-sized flies swarming their faces. Pelle gravitated.
As she cradled a tiny, malnourished girl in a bright white ruffled dress, tears began to brim. She couldn’t stop them.
“I don’t know what I expected, but this is all so overwhelming,” she said between sobs. “My kids get mad if they don’t get the right color ring pop, and these children have nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
Sime tried to comfort her.
“You have to know you can’t save this whole country, but you can save this place, we can make it better for these kids, right here,” he said. “We will put good seeds in the ground and watch them grow to be productive citizens of Haiti.”
The immediate challenge, though, is keeping them alive. Less than a week later, 25 were sick with cholera.
Scourge of cholera
Cholera has killed 3,000 in Haiti since it began its ruthless spread late last year.
A bacterial infection, it stems from ingesting contaminated water or food. It’s preventable and curable. If untreated, it’s deadly in hours.
Considering Haiti’s living conditions, Schroering’s only surprised it didn’t hit sooner.
In the isolated mountains of Pestel, where two Haitian doctors scramble to care for 80,000 people, cholera is rampant. Two weeks ago, Schroering emergency-ordered 1,000 tablets of ciprofloxacin, a powerful antibiotic, and arranged for it to be flown in by helicopter. That batch could save 500 lives.
He’s kept the illness at bay at the New Life Children’s Home, where he partners with director Miriam Frederick of Lake Worth, a nurse who has a 34-year attachment to the country. Water from the cistern is purified. The children constantly wash their hands, as does everyone who enters the gate.
Many children there suffer from disabilities such as hydrocephalus, or fluid on the brain, and cerebral palsy. Their families either reject them or can’t handle the demands of their care. New Life has accepted dozens more since the earthquake.
One morning two weeks ago, Huber, of the Cape Kiwanis Club, was impatiently waiting for his ride, which was on “Haiti time,” always at least 30 minutes late. There was a rap at the gate, and outside, a couple with a 4-month-old girl, head swollen with severe hydrocephalus and spotted by painful bedsores. In broken English the man told Huber he would throw “it” in the trash if he wouldn’t take her. She had no name. It wasn’t Huber’s decision to make; he was only staying there. He said guards initially refused the demands, insisting they only take true orphans. Huber said the man then laid the girl on the ground and shuffled away.
Stunned, Huber scooped the wiggling girl and carried her inside. The couple turned and followed him. Frederick was called. Huber offered to pay $150 monthly to fund her care. Frederick agreed, but gave Huber another responsibility — give her a name. He did: Sarah.
For children such as she, Frederick has partnered with Schroering of Lehigh Regional Hospital to bring them to the U.S. for life-saving treatments unavailable in Haiti. He first traveled there, reluctantly, in 2008 at Frederick’s request.
“I knew there would be terrible things I was going to see, and there is a lack of hope in these babies’ eyes that is almost paralyzing,” he said. “But how can you look at them and say, ‘I’m not coming back?’ I know I wouldn’t be able to say that to children who can’t smile or laugh. Otherwise, where are they going to go for help?”
Frederick likens the earthquake to a funeral.
“When someone dies, people rush to help, but the hardest time for a widow is when everyone leaves,” she said. “The spotlight is off, but it’s not over — Haiti is anything but over.”
The winding road to St.-Marc, an hour north of Port-au-Prince, is pocked by monster potholes and muddy ruts that for years have kept drivers on edge and frequently stranded and sweaty after breaking down.
But a sapphire sea adorns one side and lush, tropical foliage the other. Here, the air is crisp.
On this trip was Josias Toussaint, 36, a former Fort Myers resident deported seven years ago after his visa expired. After the earthquake, he, his wife and three young daughters took shelter in a tent for three grueling months. He survived on money his family sent until he could sell property to buy a house in Port-au-Prince. In a small garden outside his new home are sprouts of cherries, avocados and aloe.
On this day, he was visiting the Ebeneezer Academy in St.-Marc, founded and funded by his brother, the Rev. Joseph Gabriel of Fort Myers. It’s held in an old Voodoo temple. Painted priests with searing stares framed in startling yellow peer from the back wall. Administrators have been meaning to paint over it.
Half the students must stand, squeezed shoulder to shoulder, wiping beaded brows and straining to hear the teacher’s math lesson above the din.
“It’s not much, but for some, it’s the only school they can afford,” Toussaint said. “We got some help with it after the earthquake, but sometimes we don’t have enough to pay the teachers.”
Up the steep, craggy hillside, past sugar cane fields and across from a thick forest of palms is the Mary Austin School, funded by Harold Hanson, president of Missionary Enterprises International in Fort Myers. He connected with the school through a Haitian employee of the Shell Point retirement community in south Fort Myers.
The school’s director, Angelo Eugene, oversees the 750 students. Before the quake, 1,000 attended, but parents have been terrified to send their children into a concrete building. For those who remain, Hanson ensures a daily serving of rice and beans. For some, it’s their only meal. Each stops to bow their head in thanks.
Hanson confesses headaches trying to ship food and other supplies. Containers sat in port for six-week stretches while workers tried to extort money, he said. Wheels must always be greased with cash. But he won’t give up.
“It’s not right, but what am I going to do?” he said. “Let the children go hungry?”
That and raising enough money to pay the teachers, an annual total of $22,000 a year, are his greatest challenges.
“Education is the only way Haiti will ever rise up out of this mess,” Hanson said. “We do our little part, but sometimes, it doesn’t feel like enough.”
Teams from the Sanibel Rotary Club and Sanibel Community Church have come during the last year to help rebuild the school, not affected by the earthquake but in poor condition.
One of those was Dan Budd. He and his wife, Bridget Stone-Budd, were so moved by Haiti, they decided to adopt.