In a world where the news is immediate and generally bad, it becomes difficult to believe and accept that good things happen every day. Regrettably, we often see past the good and fixate on the bad. This post is about the good.
Going to Haiti, or anywhere you volunteer, you feel important. You are generally recognized and appreciated for your efforts, and your head swells a bit. Perhaps, just perhaps. You go there to get something, to give something, to have an experience, to redeem, to enrich, to contribute. You have something to give, you have something to offer to the problem. Whatever.
When I leave Haiti, I feel smaller, less important, but fulfilled and somehow enriched by the experience to the point that it invigorates me again. But still, I always feel smaller. I feel smaller because I am reminded of how small my contribution is. I don’t mean insignificant or unimportant – I mean small. The need is so vast, and I can only do what I can do. It is wildly overwhelming.
There are people, both Haitians and Americans, who are the unsung, who manage to do a lot of good with their time. I wanted to talk about them in the third part of this blog. These people do all sorts of good every day, working to help and improve the lives of the people who are in the greatest need, and not just in Haiti, but in the States as well.
Gil Irwin, Peter Dirr, and Ken Kornetsky are three pivotal doctors/volunteers/administrators who make things happen in the US from an administrative perspective. They are all actively involved in the program and have spent countless hours helping people through the clinic.
Here is a link to the Medical Missionaries site to learn more about it.
So, a guy rolls up to me on day one in Haiti last year in a wheel chair, with one leg, paraplegic, two college degrees, one of which is a law degree, speaking four languages, who is unlike anyone you have ever known.
“Junior”, as he is known, is the clinic administrator. He basically wakes up every day to total chaos all around him at the clinic. Given all that, he remains a kind, calm, observant, and patient man. He is absolutely not what you think when you first meet him. He carries an air of confidence and even invokes a little fear around the compound. He is good at what he does.
I first met him in Haiti, then in the states, and then again in Haiti. He broke his back falling out of a banana tree when he was young. He went to school, got his education, and became affiliated with the clinic by being a patient first.
What I like the most about Junior is that he is perpetually grateful for everything around him. Like, all the time, man. Wow. I love the aura he puts off to the world.
Doctor Vincent is the on-site medical director. He is a Haitian, a general practitioner, and basically lives in the compound 24/7. He has a serious addiction – clothes! Last year we made him a wall-hung clothing rod to handle his obsession. Sick bastard!
The staff that lives at the clinic have small dorm rooms. These rooms don’t have dressers for clothes. I am not being critical about the organization, or their priorities. I understand that most of the dollars go to the medical care, and not the “luxuries” we take for granted. So, I have tried to improve their situation by making a bookcase here, or finding a trunk for them from over there, or adding some hooks on the wall as needed. I do it because I can, and they are extremely grateful, which makes me feel small and complete. This is how it should be, but it does not make the equation always equitable.
The reality for the clinic is that if there is room on a shipping container bound for Thomassique, medical items will always win. The other sad truth is that when these containers get “inspected”, many of these “luxury” items are stolen outright, so it is almost impossible to get things shipped there like durable goods.
I like Dr. Vincent. He is very private, but on Super Bowl Sunday, many of us were desperate to see the game. The Doctor has a few private amenities, one of which is Haitian TV. He opened up his 10′ x 12′ dorm room to a dozen football fans to watch the game. It was pretty cozy, but memorable. (Note – the downside was that we never got to see the American commercials!)
There is an entire support staff for the clinic. Many of the staff pull dual duties, like Wilna, pictured below. She is the main cook for the clinic, feeding the staff daily, as well as a mid-wife for the clinic. She has a beaming and always-pleasant disposition. She is funny, smart, talented, and while she speaks absolutely not a stitch of English, we communicated well enough. While we were there, I watched her work, as I am interested in different cooking methods. She was there from about 5:00 am ’til about 8:00 pm every day, making 6 meals a day (three each for the staff and the surgical team).
There is a midwife on call 24/7 at the clinic, along with nursing staff and at least one doctor. The largest problem the clinic faces with respect to emergency services is that there is no transportation to get people to other medical facilities for critical care. This place is pretty isolated from other parts of Haiti. Thomassique is in an area called the Central Plateau, 20 miles from the Dominican Republic border, and about 1 1/2 hours to the nearest city.
There is a local doctor in the Warrenton area, Dr. Dave Snyder. He is an orthopedic surgeon. He goes to Haiti regularly. He has committed himself to the improvement of kids for the last decade or two in the States. He runs a place in Rixeyville, VA called Verdun Adventure Bound. Its purpose is to encourage and inspire teenage kids. In the Warrenton and Culpeper areas, he is very well known. Doc Snyder is a pretty cool guy to get to know. He tells great stories about the military, famous people he has met, people of valor, children of inspiration, and his wife Bambi. Now, any man married forever to a woman named Bambi must be doing something right. Being around Doc Snyder makes you feel like you can do more; and then you do. He is that good.
There were 9 nurses on this trip, all with different specialties. I have a photo of two, Joan and Ron. They are friends of mine outside of work and Haiti. They have both been on this trip several times. They are good at what they do, knowing how to improvise, which is critical down there. Many more nurses dedicate their time to the clinic who I wish I had photos of, like Donna, who has been many, many times.
Every year the mission elects “fellows”. These fellows are college students who dedicate a year in Haiti, contributing to the work of the mission, which includes things like water purification education, feeding the very poor, general care and welfare, acting as translators, and pretty much whatever else is needed. It is an extremely hard immersion, and I am certain no one can adequately prepare for it. I got to know the three fellows below pretty well last year. I thought they were all very interesting, and dynamic in their own individual ways.
Only once a year does a fully-assembled surgical team go to Haiti. Dr. Penna does the planning of the trips. Each year, typically, three surgeons of various specialties come to Haiti, but generally they include an urologist, a general surgeon, sometimes an OBGYN or an orthopedic specialist, and always an anesthesiologist. To put it in perspective, the arrangement this year was for 18 people with their carry-on luggage, and 32 additional pieces of luggage (that is 50 pieces total), transportation from Port-Au-Prince, cooks, translators, assorted other help, etc. Dr. Penna does an amazing job with it all.
Regarding the surgical doctors, I can only say that I was very impressed by how hard and long they all worked. I enjoyed working with all of them. I have to assume that the high stress and long hours make them different after work. They were all very funny and\animated after hours. I had a genuine interest in all of them.
Jeremy Mercier, known in Haitian as Mercier Jeremya, acts as one of the translators for the doctors when the surgical team is in Haiti. Otherwise, he is busy operating an orphanage he started after the earthquake of 2010. Jeremy is a very soft-spoken man, small in stature (like many Haitians from the lack of nutrition), but terribly committed and vigilant to his cause of helping the children. His orphanage is in the nearest large city, a place called Hinche.
Joan, the nurse pictured above, has since asked to put together assorted donations for the orphanage. Now, this is all simple stuff. I donated a bunch of items from my house that I didn’t need. There are 42 children now, 22 boys and 20 girls, ages 4 – 18. They need clothes, shoes, sheets, and towels that can be from the closet or the thrift store. Other items are school supplies, soccer balls (and pumps), musical instruments, and used computers.
I am not sure how this will work, though I know the shipments are more secure now, as they will go to Florida and be flown over on a chartered flight. Jeremy will have someone pick up packages in Port-Au-Prince direct. If anyone is interested, I will make arrangements to get items to Joan. She will get them shipped down. Anyone can reach me at email@example.com to discuss this.
A bit of honesty. I have always felt that taking care of those closest to you, in the States, was first and foremost. “Take care of your own,” as it were. It is how I was raised, and I was never taught to think in a more global way. Add to that point that there are so many people and causes out there looking for assistance, it is all terribly confusing and intimidating, to the point of paralysis, at least for me.
Last year, I decided to take a chance and give about $100 in cash and items (from around the house and the dollar store) to the orphanage. I had visited the place last year, and had a real sense of what was happening there, and what the needs were. The items were received about three weeks after I got back to the States. Almost a year later, meeting Jeremy at the airport, the first thing he says to me is ‘Thank you for your thoughtful gifts to the children.’ This is a person I can get my head around. Someone who juggles 42 kids, along with various side jobs, who not only remembers a small contribution, but takes the time to thank that person – this is someone I want to know.
There is an online charity site that is set up for his orphanage. It is honest, safe, and secure. If you are interested:
Finally, I debated if I should get so personal, but in for a penny, right? These blogs are personal. They are my conversations to people interested in design, fashion, and sometimes life. I hope they reach you and move you, otherwise, what is the point. That said, I promise to get back to woodworking and design again in my next post.
Doctor Penna is more than a great administrator, she is also my girlfriend, for lack of a better word. In Haiti, at the compound and in the community, she is well known, and perhaps even feared a little. She is very tough, and at 5’1″ tall, she holds a presence. She is respected, focused, competent, generous. This is the sort of person needed to get the surgical job done. She opened my eyes to a whole new world of ‘need’, and I am a better person for it. This has all happened just because she asked.
As I struggle with my personal issues in my role in the business, my struggle to be a pescatarian, my aging parents, my body, health, future, and my overall confidence that it will all be okay in the end, I remind myself that no one gets out of this place alive, and we need to sleep well at the end of the day knowing we took care of all the things we needed to take care of today. This trip to Haiti reminded me – it is really not about me, but all the people surrounding me. It is those individuals for whom I serve. I am satisfied being small and full.