Wednesday, March 24, 2010
William Lowry and the Relief Foundation
Five years ago, a group of 45 students from the University of Miami jumped into action in response to Hurricane Katrina and the massive destruction it caused for the people of New Orleans and throughout Mississippi. Led by Peter Groverman and Armando Gutierrez, this cadre of social entrepreneurs gathered huge amounts of medical supplies and other needed items and headed off into Mississippi to bring compassion and hope to their fellow Americans. This experience and the camaraderie that formed as a result have impacted all of their lives. They would never be the same and they all wondered if they would ever have that experience again.
Five years later, when the earthquake shook Haiti, causing history’s worst natural disaster, they began to text each other asking the question. “Are we going to Haiti?” As more and more asked the question, the same leadership team looked at each other and said “Why wouldn’t we?” It was the same “out-of-the-box” thinking that had prevailed before. As the word got out, they realized their numbers had significantly grown. They quickly amassed 130 people – enough to fill a 737. Beyond that a waiting list of 300 quickly formed. They would call themselves the Relief Foundation and they were ready to go make something happen!
They quickly contacted Clean the World to ask us to partner with them and guide them through the many tangles of traveling oversees. We agreed to help, and so the journey began. We scheduled our Caribbean Director, Pastor Brutus, Lori Kaminski, and myself William Lowry Director of Global Development to go and represent Clean the World. Our mission would be to assist in establishing two post-op hospitals: one for children and one for adults.
One of the many glaring needs in Haiti is the need for postoperative care. Nearly 300,000 people have died as a direct result of the earthquake. There are still bodies to be uncovered. Nearly 200,000 people need postoperative care. There are still 100,000 people who are injured and need operations. Some will be permanently disabled because surgery was delayed. After surgery, patients need continued care for at least a few days. Because of limited space in the hospitals and the urgent needs of other surgery patients, these patients, who now have no home and no one to care for them, are turned out to the streets. They are struggling to survive through the post-op period without care or medications. As a result, infections or disease break out and their lives become threatened during recovery. This is especially true for the children. So many children have been orphaned by the deaths caused in the earthquake. These children are injured, lost and alone. Hundreds upon hundreds!
On Friday, February 19, we all met at the Miami airport. We loaded the plane with supplies, medical supplies, and medicines and headed off to Port au Prince, Haiti. The compound where we would be staying was an orphanage and school called World Harvest Mission. The orphanage there is called New Life Children’s Home. We put up 150 tents of varying sizes, stored the medical supplies, went over plans for Saturday’s work and caught a little sleep. Everyone was so energized by being there, that I’m not sure many slept.
On Saturday morning, the 25 doctors who came with us went to work at the Medishare hospital. (The University of Miami currently provides the largest hospital in Haiti and is called Medishare.) The mayor of Coral Gables, Don Sleznick, came on the trip with us, and had made arrangements with General P.K. Keen, Deputy Commander of U.S. Southern Command, to stop by. After his visit, work began.
Teams began to remove rubble from damaged buildings, run programs for the 350 children in the orphanage, work in the makeshift post-op hospital for children, take supplies out to the streets of Carrefour, and assess the grounds for placement of tents. We made a trip further in town, to assess another school and orphanage run by Evangelistic World Outreach. They provide schooling and housing for over 2500 children. We planned to bring a team there on the next day.
The damage to buildings is truly beyond imagination. At World Harvest Mission, there are walls around the compound that have fallen. Several buildings have been damaged and need repair, and some dorms have become unsafe. Children are sleeping in tents. Some are scared (as so many are) of sleeping in a building. At EWO, the entire back half of the main structure has collapsed. We heard stories of near death moments as people were in places they normally would not have been at the time of the quake and were therefore spared. Three large classrooms and storage areas were completely destroyed. Moving through the city of Port au Prince, virtually every building we saw was either totally collapsed, severely damaged, or has large cracks and is waiting for the next severe tremor to cause it to come down. Government buildings are utterly destroyed. The Justice Department building, Communications building, Department of Finance building, and the Presidential palace are devastated. They are merely piles of concrete and steel rubble. Several buildings are poised to slide into the streets of PAP at any moment because the front support has collapsed and the building waits at an angle as though sitting on a hill. A crowd of two or three thousand stands outside of the palace on a daily basis looking in disbelief at the palace, once Haiti’s most beautiful building and the pride of their nationality. For us in America, it would be like seeing the White House destroyed.
Haitian street preachers are their pleading with Haitians to turn from voodoo. There are prayer vigils being held throughout the day. Pictures and videos on news broadcasts can never tell the true picture of devastation that has happened in this country’s capital.
On Sunday morning at 4:00 a.m. a loud sound caused several of us to wake up. We later discovered that a tremor of 4.7 had hit 20 miles from where we were. A few more buildings collapsed in town. This was one time I was grateful to be in a tent. We started early on Sunday. We began by watching the children worship and sing songs. It was awesome to see these children who were missing legs or arms or eyes, many on crutches, and most missing parents sing happily and joyfully as though they had everything. Two independent film crews made the journey with us to prepare documentaries. As we took a team to work at EWO, a film crew who works with Telemundo came to document the work being done in town.
Within a block of EWO was another school. On the day of the earthquake the school building had collapsed. All but four of the children had died under the building. The headmaster was said to have been in the top room and was not killed but was trapped. Over a period of several hours, he had maneuvered his way between concrete and steel and managed to free himself. In the process, every piece of clothing he had been wearing was ripped off and he was full of scrapes and injuries. Unclothed and scarred, he survived.
As the film crew went to film there and in other areas in the neighborhood, they came across a building that had collapsed on a child whose skeletal legs could still be seen outside in the rubble. These are the scenes of Haiti as this nation continues to pick itself up and move forward.
We spent the day removing rubble and preparing the grounds for rebuilding. Like most of Haiti, there is no equipment to move large amounts of rubble. We worked with pitch axes, shovels, buckets, rice bags, and wheel barrels. The team was fully aware of the value of their effort and time and worked long and hard. We received a visit from Dr. Colonel Gary Morsch of Heart to Heart International, who is currently establishing clinics throughout the city of Port au Prince. He also visited the World Harvest Mission to assess involvement with the hospital there. We then gathered for dinner back at World Harvest Mission and shared the many stories of the day’s events.
As we moved into Monday, our return plans began to fall apart. Our scheduled departure time of 1:00 p.m. was moved to 6:00 p.m. We took advantage of the extra time and continued to work on our mission activities. We then proceeded to the airport to depart. Upon arrival at the airport, we were informed that our flight had been rescheduled again for 8:30 p.m. This was compounded by the fact that the lights on the runway at the airport were apparently not working. Our plane and a 737 for Medishare circled above the airport for nearly two hours and finally had to leave for fuel in the Dominican Republic. We would be staying at the airport on the tarmac for the night.
We spread out and lay down on the pavement with our bags under our heads. After about an hour, the U.S. military, who was in full operation at the airport, brought over pallets of water and MRE’s and placed them in front of us. Five or six fully armored personnel stood guard over us throughout the night. We experienced what our soldiers experience and were able to eat after having missed lunch and dinner. Then they brought out 400 brand new cots. So our group, the Medishare group, and an AirFrance group all had cots to sleep on. Over half of the airport had been damaged by the quake. The other half had been inspected by engineers and determined to be safe. A few people stayed in this section, but most of us stayed outside (we had heard there was a lot of seismic activity). Sure enough, at about 1:30 a.m. another 4.7 tremor hit. It caused a lot more damage in downtown and sent people scurrying out of the airport to spend the rest of the night on the tarmac. We were proud to sleep under the stars and under the watchful eye of the U.S. Military protecting us and keeping us safe.
The next morning we had to wait for a slot to open for our planes to land. Finally by afternoon we received word that the plane had taken off from the DR and we would be going home. We arrived safely with the eyes and lives of the children we had seen on our hearts and minds. The work in Haiti seems almost overwhelming. But we can all make a difference. We will schedule trips for the future, trips that you may want to be a part of. It is so important that we not forget Haiti as time passes from the initial quake. Watching Haitians remove the destruction one stone at a time, reminds us all that every little bit we do day in and day out combined with what everyone else does, begins to transform this beautiful island of resilient people.
Please help us help Haiti. You can make a contribution and mark it for Haiti. You can plan to go on a trip and work with us in Haiti. Send an email and let us know. Pray for the people of Haiti. Lead a soap drive. Help us connect to those who can help us do more.