Volunteer Vacations - Haiti

ItalicStory by Andrea Whitaker - airline employee
Photo courtesy of Scott Davis

If you're interested in any way, in helping the homeless, street children of Haiti, you may want to read Andrea Whitaker's moving account of her journey to Haiti as a volunteer, before and after the recent destructive Haitian earthquake.

I met Andrea several years ago while we both participated as volunteers in a mission that delivered aid to orphanages in Cambodia. Since then, Andrea has continued with her volunteer efforts to help around the world, most recently, with a charitable organization she has recently formed to help the children of Haiti - www.HaitianDreams.org

Please read on and see what Andrea has to say about Haiti. Also, visit her website for more information on how you too can help. Click here.

November 11, 2009

Departure on a Scouting Mission to BoldPort au Prince -

The idea of a "scouting mission" to Haiti developed after seeing an article in the St. Petersburg Times about the wonderful work of Aaron Jackson's organization "Planting Peace".

Aaron and his Haitian connections currently manage 4 orphanages and a school in Port au Prince. Their organization has been nationally recognized for their "Stomp The Worm" project, an effort to de-worm the entire country of Haiti. We met Aaron for dinner a week before our "mission" and were impressed by his quiet, humble, and well-researched approach.

Aaron has also attracted the attention of CNN (a 2007 CNN Hero), The Discovery Channel, and Hollywood (Rainn Wilson of "The Office"). He was our inspiration for this great adventure. As we emerged through customs into the "unknown Haiti" (currently on the US State Department list of places to avoid!), "Jackson-The-Porter" greeted us with a huge smile and a handshake with his one arm.

He safely escorted us to our van and driver (plus one bodyguard), provided by the guest house we had randomly chosen from the Lonely Planet guidebook. St. Joseph's Home for Boys Guest House: "You've never stayed anywhere like this before, a guesthouse also operating as a highly regarded home for ex-street boys, and a fantastic Haitian experience." We soon realized that the guidebook description was a huge understatement...it was an oasis in the midst of chaos!

Our first day in Haiti was spent with John Dieubon, the "Planting Peace" co-founder with Aaron Jackson and a local Haitian man who does the hard work on the front lines in Port au Prince. John gave us a tour of the 4 orphanages he manages, as well as the "Ayiti Papillon Academy", the local school they've recently started.

Each of the orphanages is home to only 7 or 8 children, in an attempt to keep them small and "family-like". Home #2 also serves as "De-Worming Central", where large shipments of de-worming medication are distributed to various aid organizations, who then hand it out to the Haitian people along with valuable health information (communicated in the local French Creole language).

John's projects are funded partially by Planting Peace, but also sponsored by churches, synagogues, and various other donors. He is committed to helping these children and is especially committed to Home #4, the home for orphans with AIDS. John also shared with us his dreams of future expansion: a self-contained "community" where they could grow their own food, and an internet-based project (Haitian investment consulting company) to give the kids training for "real life" outside the walls of the orphanage.

After the eye-opening day with John, we returned to our guest house and de-briefed over a cold Prestige beer on our rooftop lanai. We gazed out at the sweeping views of mountains and sea, soaking in the natural beauty of the island mixed with the extreme poverty, and our Plan "A" quickly morphed into Plan "B" as we realized how little we really knew about the needs of the Haitian people.

The following days were spent becoming fully embraced by our guest house, The St. Joseph's Family, headed by Michael Geilenfeld. Michael is a former Brother in Mother Teresa's order and has worked with abandoned children in Vietnam, Cambodia, Calcutta, and El Salvador. In 1985 he left the church to follow his dreams of helping street children in Haiti.

The original "St. Joseph's Home For Boys" has now evolved into "The St. Joseph's Family" consisting of "St. Joseph's Home for Boys" in Port au Prince (and our guest house), "Wings of Hope" located in Fermathe just outside of Port au Prince, and "Trinity House" for street boys in Jacmel, located about 3 hours south of Port au Prince on the coast.

We were fortunate enough to spend time at all of "The St. Joseph's Family" homes. From the rooftop of Trinity House in Jacmel, Michael pointed out all the surrounding land they own and his vision for future expansion and unlimited opportunities for growth and progress. We had arrived in Haiti on our "scouting mission" with open minds, an open schedule, and a few very vague ideas that were quickly proven to be "really bad ideas".

As we learned more about the needs of the Haitian people, the original Plan A eventually morphed into one idea that we just couldn't ignore: starting our own charitable organization (501c3) to raise funds, raise awareness, and hopefully help Michael Geilenfeld and John Dieubon continue to make a difference in Haiti through the children. They have dreams, and we "the dreamers" have now created "HaitianDreams.org". ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------\line

Haiti Post-Earthquake (April 10-16)

My original return flight to Haiti was scheduled for January 25th...and then, it was rescheduled with Spirit Airlines five times over the next month before it was finally cancelled. Finally, on April 10th, I was able to return to witness the devastation of Haiti in person.

As we begun our final approach into Port au Prince, blue tents and tarps were visible for miles and miles. Reality hits me hard.

 The tarmac is full of relief supplies that haven't yet made it to the people in need. The Brazilian Air Force and a NATO plane are preparing for departure of yet another relief mission.

We deplane onto a jetway (an improvement over the last time!)...and then we are herded into a bus headed toward the makeshift "temporary" customs and immigration area. The original airport building is still in a state of disrepair. 

Emerging through the doors after clearing customs (and after successfully answering the question on the form "address while in Haiti"....hmmm, in a tent next to what used to be 91 Delmas?")...chaos...and in the midst a the chaos the friendly, smiling face of Michael! I now felt like I was home.

Michael Geilenfeld is the founder of The St. Joseph's Family, a home for former street children. Many of these children, previously, were restaveks (child slaves). Michael spent the last 25 years creating the masterpiece and the oasis that was St. Joe's, and watched as it crumbled on January 12th in the earthquake. Fortunately none of the children died during the quake, however Bill Nathan was severely injured after jumping from the 7th story of the building and landing on the neighbor's roof. He was airlifted to the US for medical treatment and is now back at St. Joe's, helping clear the rubble.

One Guest, Ben Larson (an American Seminary student), was killed in the collapse of the building.

 Two days prior to my arrival, Michael relocated part of the family to the house across a small courtyard that withstood the earthquake. We spent many days cleaning the remains of earthquake dust, rubble, dirt, and grime....trying to make the house into a "home" that would house teams of volunteers who would help in the rebuilding. We also spent days clearing rubble from the 3 floors that remain of the crumbled St. Joe's, hoping to clear a path to help the demolition team. (The children are sleeping in tents on the patio, still too nervous to sleep inside.)

A couple from St. Louis arrived a few days before me....John ("John Electric") is a "Mr. Fix-It". He's attempting to restore the electricity and the plumbing to the new house. Linda is a doctor and the official "feng-shui" interior decorator for the new home. I become the designated "maid"...dusting, mopping, cleaning...preparing the new home for the demo team from Raleigh scheduled to arrive soon.

Peter (an author from Canada) and I also team up to remove rubble. We're all grateful to be here and to finally be doing something useful and productive, even as minor as dusting the shelves of a new home. We use the "bucket-shower" method (and handi-wipes) and depend on our flashlights after dark. The accommodations are very primitive, but they feel like a huge step above living in the tent cities, so we feel fortunate. 

The day after my arrival I'm invited on a road-trip to Jacmel, site of one of three homes in the St. Joseph's Family. The trip will bring 4 of the older boys back to St. Joe's to help with the re- construction. The home in Jacmel was undamaged by the earthquake and has been hosting the Port au Prince boys since January. Four of them are finally coming home. Jacmel is about 25 miles from Port au Prince, and the trip takes 3 hours each way.

The roads have been cleared of most rubble by the Canadian military, but they're still in rough shape and it's a grueling (but worthwhile) trip. 

 On the return trip from Jacmel, we are joined by Theresa from Tanzania...an amazing woman, originally from the US who runs an orphanage in Tanzania. She was inspired to travel to Haiti to help in some way, and her organization ("Make A Difference") will now be funding the computer lab and school at the school in Jacmel.

We all spend the evening back in Port au Prince debriefing on the back patio over bottles of red wine. I find myself surrounded by amazing and inspiring people....and feel like a bit of a "humanitarian fraud" with a lot to learn! 

 The following day the Minnesotan's arrive. (Being originally from Minnesota, I'm mildly curious about these characters!) Once again, they prove to be amazing people. They are also inspiring, well-connnected and well-intentioned characters. Joe and John ("MN John"), both have a 25-year history of trips to Haiti, while Chad is on his first mission. Joe and John have strong connections to St. Joe's plus friends in Port au Prince. They've come to Haiti to check up on all of their connections. 

Wednesday's plan is to meet with another of my Haitian friends (another "John" known as "John Haiti"), however the entire city of Port au Prince has run out of gas. John-Haiti is stuck. John (MN), Chad, their Haitian friends and I decide to rent a tap-tap (local transport that fortunately runs on diesel!). We use it to take a road-trip to view an agriculture project John has been working on for 10 years. We jump into the back of the truck and drive into a National Geographic movie scene as we leave the city and travel into the villages where few foreigners explore.

We drive through a river, we navigate mud-clogged roads, we dodge cows and sheep and wave at mostly-naked children playing outside their mud-hut homes. It's an amazing adventure. When we arrive at the "agriculture project", we find 3 very big papaya trees and a few stalks of corn barely surviving. The locals are hoping the rainy season will improve their "crops". 

On our last night in Port au Prince, we take "Joe'sTour". We visit back alleys where Joe's friends live in tiny one-room "homes" - one small room per family - homes that miraculously, are still standing after the quake. Joe also introduces us to Kevin, another MN character who is in Haiti working on a clean-water project. Curiously, I had been reading an article about him in the MN paper a few months before I came to Haiti and was excited to meet him. He joins us on his motorcycle on a dark side street and while the MN men go in the dark to the neighborhood tent-camp, to search for more of Joe's friends, I jump on the back of the bike and Kevin and I end up at a small bar frequented mostly by foreign aid workers. I'm guessing a tall blonde like me would not have blended well into the night to partake in the search.

I feel lucky for the time spent in the bar. In an attempt to keep this brief... I'm omitting an important part about a Raleigh demo team that had one of their members end up being airlifted to Tampa with a broken pelvis while they were trying to demolish rubble in St. Joes...but that's another story....

Please visit www.HaitianDreams.org for frequent updates and more information.

HaitianDreams.org Co-Founders:

Andrea Whitaker has worked in the aviation industry for 25 years, exploring the world and visiting over 40 countries, with a fondness for remote and developing countries. Her interest in humanitarian causes evolved after a 24-hour layover in Calcutta in 2001 while returning from a Himalayan trek in a remote area of Sikkim. Scott Davis has been a well-respected photographer for 30 years, working mainly in the Washington DC and South Florida areas. Also an avid world-traveler (with a fondness for Africa), the co-founders met while on humanitarian mission trip to Cambodia in 2003.


Post a Comment

www.postcardsfromtheair.com's Fan Box