PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – It was a small thing. A slight move of the hand. I gently pulled some money from my pocket and suddenly –
"ME! ME! MISTER! I HELPED YOU! HEY! ME! MISTER! -"
Dozens of men crashed like sea waves, arms flailing, faces contorted. Only two actually had guided us through the airport mob scene, their hands possessively pressed to our supply carts, shooing away others who tried to glom on. Then I reached for a tip Â
Now every man in Haiti seemed to demand payment. They shoved and elbowed each other, arms in our faces -"ME! HEY! I HELPED! ME!"- until we lost track of the original guys in a sea of palms and eyes and hats and sweaty shirts. I threw out some money. My colleagues scrambled into the van. Someone yelled, "Shut the doors!" The engine roared, and we jerked into motion, fists banging on the windows. It was a quick but vital lesson of Haiti after the earthquake: Even with best intentions, you will never fix everything…
But you can fix some things.
MONDAY, 4:10 P.M.
We stepped into the mud and potholes of the Caring and Sharing Mission, behind high walls on a treacherous street in a rundown section of Haiti’s capital. Children were everywhere. The youngest ones ran circles in the courtyard. The older boys carried our boxes. The older girls looked up from laundry buckets, the soapy water spilling over their bare feet.
I inhaled the sticky air, felt the strong sun already burning the back of my neck.
Then, a small thing. A slight move of the hand. Tiny fingers slipped into mine. I glanced down and saw a familiar face, a boy named Appollos, with a body too small for his six years and a smile too big for his circumstances.
He squeezed my palm.
And we were back.
Two months ago, on my first visit, we made a promise to help if money could be raised. Orphans and abandoned children were living without basic decencies of everyday life – toilets, showers, indoor kitchen – sleeping on the ground or in tents, eating two meager meals a day.
The Caring and Sharing Mission had been started three decades ago by a Detroit pastor named John Hearn, who still oversaw it with his son, John Hearn Jr. When the massive earthquake struck Jan. 12, killing hundreds of thousands, news reports first claimed the mission had been destroyed and the children were dead or gone. In truth, it miraculously survived, even as a neighboring school and church collapsed into rubble.
When I wrote the original three-part series in the Free Press about this place, readers were moved. They donated. A Hole in the Roof Foundation, a charity formed to help places of faith that house the homeless (and who isn’t homeless in Port-au-Prince these days?), collected more than the needed $70,000 to make the promised repairs.
All that remained was finding the manpower.
And that, it turned out, took no time at all. I put out the word. Someone asked someone who asked someone else. A group was assembled. Art Van Elslander, the owner of Art Van Furniture, generously donated the use of a plane for transporting bodies, tools and supplies.
And a few weeks ago, as the rainy season descended on Haiti, so did a small but truly "Detroit" ensemble of volunteers: a plumber, a roofer, a landscaper, a carpenter, a photographer, a former body shop owner, a recent college graduate and a high school kid who wanted to help.
All of them left their regular lives to come down. There was no pay. No promise of news media coverage. None had ever set foot in this country.
But they would leave a mark on it.
And it would leave one on them.
MONDAY, 7:30 P.M.
"And this here" said Herbert Studstill, the mission’s on-site director, "is the boys’ bathroom."
We were gathered around a putrid-smelling square of earth. Already the Detroiters had seen enough to keep quiet, rather than saying what they thought: "How can people live this way?" It is a common lesson for first-timers in Haiti.
"So they’re gonna clean out the septic field tomorrow?" asked Lou DeLuca, a master plumber from Detroit.
"They’re supposed to," Studstill answered. "Of course, when they say ‘supposed to’ around here…"
He shrugged. The crew shifted on their feet. They already had seen an empty alley where showers were to be built, an open space where a kitchen was to be constructed, rotting floors and walls inside a dormitory that needed to be redone. And now this: a smelly, dirt-filled square, with cinder block seats that had served as toilets.
From this, they were supposed to build bathrooms?
Remember, these men had worked on everything from basic housing to mansions in the Michigan suburbs, wiring theater rooms, landscaping fountains, roofing multi-tiered levels.
That was like Picasso now. Haiti was paint-by-numbers. "At least there’s no inspectors," I offered.
That brought a few smiles.
Night fell. The darkness was like a tent. The courtyard where the kids slept (they were still too afraid to return to the buildings) was a shadowed mass of human shapes and old mattresses. You heard soft singing. Someone snoring. One of our guys asked, "Don’t they have lights here?"
The answer was no.
TUESDAY, 6:50 A.M.
There is no cool time in a Haitian day, but the closest you come is sunrise. The crew was up early, wearing the bleary-eyed look that comes from trying to sleep in stifling heat, with barking dogs and buzzing mosquitoes determined to disrupt your night.
"We were soaking wet with sweat," Steve Adams said. "Finally we just dragged our mattresses out on the roof."
His friend, Chris Steinle, nodded. Both men are in their late 40s, both have construction backgrounds, and both became church pastors – Chris in New Baltimore, Steve in Romulus. They speak through tireless smiles, with an energy that comes from trading a conventional life for an unconventional one.
Our crew compared mosquito bites and spider sightings. We lathered with bug spray. We gulped caffeinated sodas. And then work began. Tasks were less assigned than adopted. Lou and his short-haired son, Anthony, 25, a roofer from Burton, began construction of a kitchen. Steve went to work on the dorm floors as would Johnny Keith, a high school junior from Warren De La Salle. Matt Mosher, a 28-year-old landscaper from Lake Orion, joined Chris in the toilet area, sledgehammers in hand. Alan Seaborn, a 24-year-old recent college grad who now helps run a halfway house in Romulus – well, Alan drew the grunt task.
He had to make concrete.
We had purchased a cement mixer in the U.S. and shipped it down early. It arrived 10 days before us. Unfortunately, it was now stuck in customs, as ensnared as a fly in a web.
On the first day, I spent hours in crowded government offices pursuing its release, being told that this or that paperwork needed to be completed. Officials shrugged. One read a newspaper as he spoke. Telling them the mixer was a humanitarian item made no difference. One guy, in Creole, motioned lazily to a warehouse full of shipments, "Everything here is for humanitarian."
Meanwhile, bags of cement, piles of gravel and mounds of dirt were piled high at the mission. But no mixer. What we had were shovels. And so, because you make it up as you go along in Haiti, the shirts came off, the shovels were lifted, and concrete was made the old-fashioned way: on the ground, in small piles, shoveled into wheelbarrows.
Alan – with several older kids from the mission – became a human concrete maker.
He would lose 15 pounds before the week was up.
TUESDAY, 10 P.M.
There is "tired," there is "exhausted," and then there is the dripping meltdown of a full day in the Haitian heat. By nightfall, the creep of island progress – which means nothing goes as fast as you want – was evident on the crew’s dirty faces as they crammed around a table, drinking Cokes and eating chips or cookies. It was true, there were no inspections to worry about. On the other hand, when the guys complained about the quality of bricks, they came outside and realized the bricks were being made in the driveway, by hand.
When the power went out for the electric tools, they realized the mission was operating on an old generator, because the day before we got there, a truck bashed into the electric pole outside the mission and knocked it over.
And then there were the supplies.
"Un-bleeping-believable," sighed Mark Mendelsohn, a Birmingham-based movie industry accountant who came along, in part, to photograph the efforts. He had spent all day – seven hours – in what passed for a hardware store. His face was red, his eyes were red, his whole body sagged as if drained of its juices.
"They only have one of each item," he recounted. "And you have to have a salesperson – and he writes each item that you want – and then he goes and checks to see if he has it – then he transfers it to another sheet and he totals the sheet – then he brings the sheet for the boss to look at – then you pay for your merchandise – then you take it to the counter – and when they bring it out, then they have to inspect it again…"
Clearly, this was not Home Depot.
On the other hand, we had to admire the bare-bones spirit of the 50 to 60 orphaned kids. The school-age ones helped us carry buckets. Preteens squirted glue onto tiles. Anything that needed to be carried, strung or lifted brought a rush of young faces, eager to help.
As we sat around the table, we recounted sights from the outside streets. The mountains of garbage. The tent cities that were homes to hundreds of thousands. Lou had seen an infant sitting on a pile of rubble.
"I started crying," he admitted.
Outside, you could hear the soft laugher of the kids as they prepared to sleep another night outdoors. A few Creole conversations wafted up to our ears.
"I don’t know what they’re saying here," Anthony admitted.
"Me neither," Matt added. "But they seem so…happy."
And that is the mystery – and the allure – of this place.
WEDNESDAY, 2:30 P.M.
Before we arrived, a "shower" for the kids at the mission consisted of a small bucket dipped into a larger bucket then poured over your head. Girls had no privacy from boys and vice versa.
We intended to change that. Of course, unlike in the U.S., where you tap into city pipes, pump through complex plumbing and surge water pressure strong enough to repel an animal, the mission’s showers would have to run on gravity. The higher the water tank on the roof, the better the pressure would be.
This, of course, was after the walls had been made and dried, after the drains had been put in, after the PVC pipe had been bent and run along the back wall.
"I’m kinda just making it work," Lou admitted. At 44, Lou has 10 children, five grandchildren and a full-time heating, plumbing and electrical practice. Yet the minute he saw the earthquake devastation on TV, he wanted to "jump on a plane and come help."
Now he was rigging wires and pipes and a 600-gallon water tank like something out of Rube Goldberg. The kids watched quietly from behind walls, in awe of the speed and purpose these strangers employed. Many of us had stripped off our shirts in the oppressive heat – it was over 100 degrees – and, at some point, we adopted the name the Detroit Muscle Crew, which made the kids laugh.
Around the corner, Anthony put up framework for a kitchen roof. Across the yard, Matt and Chris were swinging sledgehammers to break down the old bathroom walls. Concrete was still being mixed with shovels – and Alan was red-faced and sunburned. Steve and Johnny were on their knees laying tile in the dorms. Mark was back at the hardware store, no doubt fuming.
The Red Cross and other organizations have sent tens of millions in aid to Haiti. They would be hard pressed to account for all of it. Here at the Caring and Sharing Mission, we knew where every nail, screw and 2-by-4 was going. We still didn’t have a mixer. And so Herbert and I went out into the streets in search of someone who did.
WEDNESDAY, 8:30 P.M.
Young Appollos, the 6-year-old, had attached himself to me, hugging my leg or holding my hand wherever I went. At one point, I smeared some Nutella (a sweet hazelnut spread) on a piece of bread and gave it to him and his friends. You’d have thought I was handing out gold.
All the guys had experiences like this. They gave out cookies sent down by the Grand Traverse Pie Company. Steve gave a little girl a doll; the next day, she had sewn clothes for it. Matt stood on a second floor landing and tossed Beanie Babies we had brought with us; the kids squealed. Every one of them – every one – said "thank you."
Tonight (and every night) the kids were led in a devotional service, singing prayers and hymns, their voices high and spirited.
"They’re giving thanks," I said, remembering this from my last visit.
We listened in near disbelief, that a place this devastated – without electricity, bathrooms, nutritious food – could still find "thanks" in its vocabulary.
"I gotta hook up some lights," Lou said.
THURSDAY, 1 P.M.
Desperate times, desperate measures. We had found a man with an old cement mixer who insisted, if we hire the machine, that we hire him. So we did. He brought several workers. We hired them, too. Now the driveway was a manic scene of shovels, wheelbarrows, buckets and the howling mixer.
Meanwhile, over by the new showers, a historic moment: a 7-year-old named Kevin, who’d been helping all week to trowel cement, was chosen as the first "official" shower-taker.
He seemed baffled, looking up at the contraption. As the other kids gaped, stuffing the walkway, Kevin took off his shirt.
"Your shoes, too," I said.
He took off his shoes. He stepped inside.
"Pull the handle," I said.
He pulled the handle. And water flowed. A good steady stream, splashing his head, his shoulders. The look on his face – well, I’m not sure what Adam looked like under God’s first rainstorm, but I’m guessing it was something like that.
"Now me! Me!"
And suddenly, all the kids were in the showers, shaking their heads with soaking glee. They hugged, laughed and danced under the spraying water. And they burst into song.
Pure, joyous song.
I will never forget that sound.
THURSDAY, 8:30 P.M.
The septic company – due on Tuesday – had finally arrived.
"You need to come see this," Herbert told us.
It was dark, of course, and we couldn’t understand why a septic company, which we associate with a big truck and a long sucking hose, would arrive so late.
When we reached the bathroom area, we saw why. There stood three men, in their underwear. There was no truck. These men would go down into the waste and clean it out by hand.
Matt looked at me. I looked at Herbert, who spent his life working in Ford plants in Michigan. The smell was overwhelming. The men exhaled, ready to go. And then, they removed their underwear. Naked, they slid into the holes and began the slimy process. They did this for hours, and for a wage that would be laughable to a baby-sitter in the U.S.
"I will never – never," Matt whispered, "complain about a job again."
Later that night, we hooked up a TV screen that we had brought – running a long extension cord across the caked earth – and showed a movie to all the kids. Someone had some popcorn kernels and in an iron kettle they were heated and popped.
By this point, the kids were regularly in the arms of the Detroit Muscle Crew, grabbing our legs or jumping on our backs. We had long since stopped caring how we looked, how we smelled or how much limestone and mud was in our hair or fingernails. The rhythm of the place, the innocent laughter, the gratitude you felt for an occasional breeze or a swig of cold water, had become the norm. This, we came to realize, is how you learn to do without: by helping others who have even less.
FRIDAY, 3 P.M.
With a frantic surge of final day work, this is what the crew managed to accomplish:
There were now three working showers. There were now multiple dorm rooms that had been freshly tiled and grouted. The generator, which for years had been growling noise and coughing diesel next to where the kids ate, had been lifted and reset across the mission. The main electrical service had been revamped.
The kitchen, which had been nothing more than an open area swarmed with flies, was now several connected rooms under a roof, well-lit at night and soon to be cooled by ceiling fans.
And the bathrooms? They now had new concrete floors, new piping, cleaned septic and the first of numerous flush toilets to be behind private stalls.
"Before, when we went to the bathroom at night, it was dark, there were animals, maybe insects will bite you," a mission teenager named Dona told me. "What you did is a blessing from God."
He was talking about a toilet.
FRIDAY, 6:30 P.M.
As we prepared to board the plane, the guys paused and looked back into the Haitian sunset. Memories already were gushing, like a reunion that hadn’t even been scheduled yet.
We recalled a Haitian helper who nearly cut off his thumb but was back the next day, smiling. We relived a huge meal a young woman named Rolanda cooked for us, using one frying pan for hours to make enough.
We laughed at how the kids washed Chris’ clothes in their buckets, how they sang as they grouted floors with us, sang when they took those showers, sang, it seemed, all the time.
Oh. There was also one less of us at the airport than expected.
"I’m staying," Lou had said that morning.
The father of 10, the grandfather of five, the man with a zillion customers waiting for him back home, could not leave. He would stay four more days to help finish what we started.
There is still more to do at the Caring and Sharing Mission. The bathrooms are not quite complete. The kitchen and dorms still need work. A small school building is just starting construction. And we never did free our mixer.
There were nine of us in the Detroit Muscle Crew. We came with big plans.
But you plan, and Haiti laughs.
"I want to go back," Matt said.
"As soon as possible," echoed Chris, then Steve, then Johnny, then all of them.
And that is the thing about this devastated place. It grabs at you, like those men at the airport. It squeezes your hand, like young smiling Appollos. It draws you in. It says, "This was a tragedy, but you can make it better."
It was a small thing. A week of helping out. But in all small things there is something big as well. And that big thing now exists in the eyes of orphaned children who gaze at water surging from a showerhead and wonder when those funny men from Detroit are coming back.
It won’t be long.
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch "The Mitch Albom Show" 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch "Monday Sports Albom" 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.