Haiti’s children get a new start

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – For 12 months, they slept on dirt and rocks. For 12 months, their nighttime companions were mosquitoes, field mice and large rats that brushed their legs in the darkness. For 12 months, there was no sleeping indoors, because the outdoors may be black and full of creatures, but the indoors was haunted.

“Maybe it happens again,” they worried.

It is not happening again. Not on this night. On this night, one year after the horrific earthquake that seemed to banish all of Haiti to life in the mud, a group of children line a dormitory hallway. The building, thanks to tireless volunteers, has been freshly tiled, brightly painted, its ceilings hung with lights and ceiling fans.

But most significantly, there are beds. Dozens of them. Brand-new bunk beds made of fresh-cut wood. The kids, many of them orphans, others abandoned by parents who could not afford their care, bite their fingernails or lean innocently into the crook of each other’s bodies.

For 12 months, fear has owned their nights.

Tonight, they get their nights back.

“Are you ready?” we ask.

They nod silently.

Power dies, determination lives on

I am sometimes asked, “What’s it like in Haiti?”

Here’s one answer. You’re working in the city. You are carrying something – a bed, a plank of wood, a huge bucket of well water. A rooster cuts in front of you, and you just step over it. You don’t stop and say, “Wait. That was just a rooster I almost squashed in the middle of a city.” You step over and move on.

That’s Haiti. The odd becomes normal and the normal becomes odd. Famished dogs tiptoe like cats. Songs of prayer are heard above distant gunfire. Children sleep outside in the dirt, while their dormitory sits empty.

And two dozen volunteers from metro Detroit come to a tiny corner of this destroyed city and promise to fix it up – even though they are not from this country, have no family here, couldn’t find it on a map a year ago.

“Power’s out!” someone yelled. Drills die. Fans slow. Bodies slump. Heads shake. The electricity, for no reason – because there is never a reason – has been shut off from the city. Within minutes, a generator is launched. It rumbles like a jet engine.

“Power’s on!” someone yelled. Heads lift. Drills commence. Fans spin.

This is the third big trip for the ensemble known as the Detroit Muscle Crew, a collection of roofers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, painters – and now a medical staff – who heard about this orphanage in Haiti and were moved to come down to help.

In previous visits, they built the first running toilets, the first showers and the first kitchen the orphanage had ever seen. This four-day trip will see them nearly complete a three-room schoolhouse on the grounds, so that education will never again be interrupted the way it has been for most of the past year.

But mostly, this anniversary visit is not about new structures.

It’s about new lives.

The miracles of medicine

A first.

“Breathe like this,” the nurse says. The little girl inhales and exhales. Her vital signs are being checked, her height and weight recorded, her skin and scalp examined for disease.

This is the first medical check-up ever for 6-year-old Esterline, a bundle of toothy adorableness. Like many other kids here, she is small for her age, and like most of them, she is malnourished. Two meals a day, always the same – rice and beans – will do that to you.

But this time, four medical types – including three from the St. John Providence Health System – have come to change that. Because enough is enough. You can’t just go on year after year oblivious to your well-being.

One little boy, Marcus, is about to celebrate his third birthday. Every trip we have seen him, his nose and lips have been covered with mucus. Now, after his first examination, a simple determination is made.

“Allergies,” says Dr. Val Gokenbach, who heads the medical team.

One pill.

Twenty minutes later, his lips and nose are dry.

His mother looks on in amazement, then hugs the visitors as if she’d just witnessed a miracle.

The suffering never stops

On Jan.12, 2010, the earth shook in Haiti. One year later, the dead remain uncounted. Was it 200,000 or 300,000? No one knows. There is no measuring the wounded, the crippled or the homeless – only an estimate somewhere shy of 2 million. How many babies without mothers, fathers or siblings? No data.

It’s as if one year later, the trembled earth is still trembling. The hastily constructed tent cities in Port-au-Prince have become permanent housing. The blue tarpaulin coverings – a symbol of emergency shelter one year ago – are now as common as red-tiled roofs in Florence.

Help has come in countless trucks and tents, but money also has been wasted. Resources diverted. Aid has been politicized. There is no doubt of this. Charges of corruption are rampant. And political turmoil, a Haitian constant, is worse in the current prolonged election cycle, with piles of burning tires and random gunshots making the streets scary and the mood edgy.

I have often said you can’t save this country, but you can save a piece of it. The piece we have chosen is this little mission, on a few dusty acres in the Delmas 33 section of the city. Originally called the Caring and Sharing Mission, its founder, Detroit pastor John Hearn Sr., 84, recognized last year that the need and finances were swelling beyond control. After several months of discussion, he turned the operation over to a charitable foundation that I run, A Hole In the Roof, the name of the place was changed to the Have Faith Haiti Mission, and we dug in.

We are still digging.

Food for starving tummies

Another first.

Lunch.

At precisely noon on a sun-beaten Wednesday, a horn is sounded, and the mission kids, many barefoot, sit down on the kitchen floor, confused as to why they have been assembled. We have prepared platters of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, cups of orange juice and some trail mix.

“From now on, you’re going to eat three meals a day, OK?” they are told. The words are translated into Creole, and you can see them fall like raindrops on their faces. Some blink. Others fidget.

Three times a day?

“Never do we have something like this,” says Alain Charles, one of the mission’s directors. Like his nighttime counterpart, Yonell Ismael, Alain grew up at the mission, and now he works here, giving to the little ones what he was once given himself.

Except he never got a sandwich.

We watch the kids tear into the bread, chomping on the sticky ingredients. They are all smiles, reveling in this sudden surprise meal.

“I think they like them,” Alain says.

I try to recall my first lunch. I have no idea when it was. I can only remember expecting it, not being surprised by it.

That distinction is also how you know you are in Haiti.

Silence marks the horror

The sun darts through clouds. Slightly past 4:30 in the afternoon, the entire mission gathers in a small makeshift chapel – which also doubles as a classroom. Everyone drifts in, not just the kids, but the cook, the laundress, the teacher, all the volunteers. No one need make an announcement. You can almost hear the country coming to a halt.

At 4:53 p.m., it is silent. This is the exact moment the earth opened in Haiti one year ago, and poles fell and buildings collapsed from one end of the country to the other, crushing those inside, taking young and old without distinction.

Inside the chapel, the Have Faith Haiti Mission is gathered in a circle, everyone holding hands. Prayers are sung. Stories are recounted. Yonell remembers where he was, how he ran. Others recall jumping from windows, or dashing through doorways moments before the structures came down, or hearing screams, or seeing blood, or being enveloped in choking clouds of dust that rolled and grew as the city turned to rubble.

“We must give thanks to God that we are alive, that God saved us,” Yonell says, launching into a song of gratitude. Everyone joins in.

And I, I’m desperate for You

And I, I’m lost without You

Oh, Lord, I’m lost without You

And herein lies the small miracle of the Haitian people. That no matter how awful the tragedy, they lift themselves up, take stock of their survival, then speak to the Lord not in scolding tones for what did happen, but in grateful tones for what did not.

The dinner table

Another first.

The sun is setting, and the children are gathered outside a freshly painted dining room. Inside the dining room, something new: tables and chairs.

For as long as most of them can remember, the children have eaten by grabbing a bowl of rice and beans and finding a corner of the ground to sit in, maybe leaning against a wall.

We are introducing the concept of “the dinner table.” Once again, it needs to be explained.

“Families sit around a table, they eat together, give thanks for their food together, and talk together, right?” comes the message.

The kids look up blankly. How would they know?

“Well, that’s what we’re going to do tonight.”

With a small fanfare, the kids are escorted into the dining room and they scramble into the chairs. Bowls of a chicken dish are brought to them (part of the new healthy eating program introduced with the help of first-time visitor Emily Schwartz, a nutritionist). A prayer is offered. And then the happy instruction:

“OK, let’s eat!”

The children spoon the food. They chew carefully. But they are quiet. Too quiet. They look across the table. They swallow and proceed eating in near silence.

“What’s going on?” I whisper to one of the staff.

This is what I’m told: That the orphans don’t ever sit in chairs or at a table unless it’s school or church. And so they are acting as they would in those places. Reverential.

At a dinner table.

Their first dinner table.

And once again, Haiti gives you an education.

Thank you for making joy possible

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Michiganders contributed more than $80,000 to operate the Have Faith Haiti Mission for one year. Such generosity, in a state hampered by unemployment and a bad economy, was, for me anyhow, enough to bring tears.

So was the donation of a pickup by two Farmington Hills men, Joe Andronaco Sr. and Jr., and so was the use of a private plane to transport Muscle Crew workers and their equipment by the endlessly charitable Roger Penske and his Penske Jet staff.

But if there was one moment of this trip (the likes of which we hope to repeat four times a year: spring, summer, fall and winter), one moment that truly shook you, made you nearly fall to your knees, it was where this story began, in the dorms, outside the bedrooms, on the anniversary of the quake, where the kids were waiting and watching nervously.

“All right, come on!” we yelled.

And in they ran, to their old rooms with the new beds, gingerly at first, then faster, then squealing, screaming, then jumping into the mattresses, the low ones, the high ones. They sprawled. They flipped. They mocked sleep. They popped up. They crawled to the high beds, they dove into the low ones.

And they began to sing. Yes. Sing. And dance. I don’t know the song. I don’t know the movement. If nature gave it a title, it would be “joy.”

Unbridled. Unconcerned. Unembarrassed.

Joy.

And to see that spring back to life, one year after it had been seemingly crushed forever, was a moment not to miss. For those of you who helped make it possible in this little corner of Haiti, “thanks” is too small a word.

All I can say is when the moon came out, and the roosters went to hide, and a coolness settled over this hot country, dozens of children were finally, blissfully, back where they belonged, in their beds, sleeping, perhaps dreaming of a better future. Or at the very least, the wonders of the day that had passed. Either way, there was hope.

And hope, in Haiti, is the most precious commodity.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – For 12 months, they slept on dirt and rocks. For 12 months, their nighttime companions were mosquitoes, field mice and large rats that brushed their legs in the darkness. For 12 months, there was no sleeping indoors, because the outdoors may be black and full of creatures, but the indoors was haunted.

“Maybe it happens again,” they worried.

It is not happening again. Not on this night. On this night, one year after the horrific earthquake that seemed to banish all of Haiti to life in the mud, a group of children line a dormitory hallway. The building, thanks to tireless volunteers, has been freshly tiled, brightly painted, its ceilings hung with lights and ceiling fans.

But most significantly, there are beds. Dozens of them. Brand-new bunk beds made of fresh-cut wood. The kids, many of them orphans, others abandoned by parents who could not afford their care, bite their fingernails or lean innocently into the crook of each other’s bodies.

For 12 months, fear has owned their nights.

Tonight, they get their nights back.

“Are you ready?” we ask.

They nod silently.

Power dies, determination lives on

I am sometimes asked, “What’s it like in Haiti?”

Here’s one answer. You’re working in the city. You are carrying something – a bed, a plank of wood, a huge bucket of well water. A rooster cuts in front of you, and you just step over it. You don’t stop and say, “Wait. That was just a rooster I almost squashed in the middle of a city.” You step over and move on.

That’s Haiti. The odd becomes normal and the normal becomes odd. Famished dogs tiptoe like cats. Songs of prayer are heard above distant gunfire. Children sleep outside in the dirt, while their dormitory sits empty.

And two dozen volunteers from metro Detroit come to a tiny corner of this destroyed city and promise to fix it up – even though they are not from this country, have no family here, couldn’t find it on a map a year ago.

“Power’s out!” someone yelled. Drills die. Fans slow. Bodies slump. Heads shake. The electricity, for no reason – because there is never a reason – has been shut off from the city. Within minutes, a generator is launched. It rumbles like a jet engine.

“Power’s on!” someone yelled. Heads lift. Drills commence. Fans spin.

This is the third big trip for the ensemble known as the Detroit Muscle Crew, a collection of roofers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, painters – and now a medical staff – who heard about this orphanage in Haiti and were moved to come down to help.

In previous visits, they built the first running toilets, the first showers and the first kitchen the orphanage had ever seen. This four-day trip will see them nearly complete a three-room schoolhouse on the grounds, so that education will never again be interrupted the way it has been for most of the past year.

But mostly, this anniversary visit is not about new structures.

It’s about new lives.

The miracles of medicine

A first.

“Breathe like this,” the nurse says. The little girl inhales and exhales. Her vital signs are being checked, her height and weight recorded, her skin and scalp examined for disease.

This is the first medical check-up ever for 6-year-old Esterline, a bundle of toothy adorableness. Like many other kids here, she is small for her age, and like most of them, she is malnourished. Two meals a day, always the same – rice and beans – will do that to you.

But this time, four medical types – including three from the St. John Providence Health System – have come to change that. Because enough is enough. You can’t just go on year after year oblivious to your well-being.

One little boy, Marcus, is about to celebrate his third birthday. Every trip we have seen him, his nose and lips have been covered with mucus. Now, after his first examination, a simple determination is made.

“Allergies,” says Dr. Val Gokenbach, who heads the medical team.

One pill.

Twenty minutes later, his lips and nose are dry.

His mother looks on in amazement, then hugs the visitors as if she’d just witnessed a miracle.

The suffering never stops

On Jan.12, 2010, the earth shook in Haiti. One year later, the dead remain uncounted. Was it 200,000 or 300,000? No one knows. There is no measuring the wounded, the crippled or the homeless – only an estimate somewhere shy of 2 million. How many babies without mothers, fathers or siblings? No data.

It’s as if one year later, the trembled earth is still trembling. The hastily constructed tent cities in Port-au-Prince have become permanent housing. The blue tarpaulin coverings – a symbol of emergency shelter one year ago – are now as common as red-tiled roofs in Florence.

Help has come in countless trucks and tents, but money also has been wasted. Resources diverted. Aid has been politicized. There is no doubt of this. Charges of corruption are rampant. And political turmoil, a Haitian constant, is worse in the current prolonged election cycle, with piles of burning tires and random gunshots making the streets scary and the mood edgy.

I have often said you can’t save this country, but you can save a piece of it. The piece we have chosen is this little mission, on a few dusty acres in the Delmas 33 section of the city. Originally called the Caring and Sharing Mission, its founder, Detroit pastor John Hearn Sr., 84, recognized last year that the need and finances were swelling beyond control. After several months of discussion, he turned the operation over to a charitable foundation that I run, A Hole In the Roof, the name of the place was changed to the Have Faith Haiti Mission, and we dug in.

We are still digging.

Food for starving tummies

Another first.

Lunch.

At precisely noon on a sun-beaten Wednesday, a horn is sounded, and the mission kids, many barefoot, sit down on the kitchen floor, confused as to why they have been assembled. We have prepared platters of peanut butter and honey sandwiches, cups of orange juice and some trail mix.

“From now on, you’re going to eat three meals a day, OK?” they are told. The words are translated into Creole, and you can see them fall like raindrops on their faces. Some blink. Others fidget.

Three times a day?

“Never do we have something like this,” says Alain Charles, one of the mission’s directors. Like his nighttime counterpart, Yonell Ismael, Alain grew up at the mission, and now he works here, giving to the little ones what he was once given himself.

Except he never got a sandwich.

We watch the kids tear into the bread, chomping on the sticky ingredients. They are all smiles, reveling in this sudden surprise meal.

“I think they like them,” Alain says.

I try to recall my first lunch. I have no idea when it was. I can only remember expecting it, not being surprised by it.

That distinction is also how you know you are in Haiti.

Silence marks the horror

The sun darts through clouds. Slightly past 4:30 in the afternoon, the entire mission gathers in a small makeshift chapel – which also doubles as a classroom. Everyone drifts in, not just the kids, but the cook, the laundress, the teacher, all the volunteers. No one need make an announcement. You can almost hear the country coming to a halt.

At 4:53 p.m., it is silent. This is the exact moment the earth opened in Haiti one year ago, and poles fell and buildings collapsed from one end of the country to the other, crushing those inside, taking young and old without distinction.

Inside the chapel, the Have Faith Haiti Mission is gathered in a circle, everyone holding hands. Prayers are sung. Stories are recounted. Yonell remembers where he was, how he ran. Others recall jumping from windows, or dashing through doorways moments before the structures came down, or hearing screams, or seeing blood, or being enveloped in choking clouds of dust that rolled and grew as the city turned to rubble.

“We must give thanks to God that we are alive, that God saved us,” Yonell says, launching into a song of gratitude. Everyone joins in.

And I, I’m desperate for You

And I, I’m lost without You

Oh, Lord, I’m lost without You

And herein lies the small miracle of the Haitian people. That no matter how awful the tragedy, they lift themselves up, take stock of their survival, then speak to the Lord not in scolding tones for what did happen, but in grateful tones for what did not.

The dinner table

Another first.

The sun is setting, and the children are gathered outside a freshly painted dining room. Inside the dining room, something new: tables and chairs.

For as long as most of them can remember, the children have eaten by grabbing a bowl of rice and beans and finding a corner of the ground to sit in, maybe leaning against a wall.

We are introducing the concept of “the dinner table.” Once again, it needs to be explained.

“Families sit around a table, they eat together, give thanks for their food together, and talk together, right?” comes the message.

The kids look up blankly. How would they know?

“Well, that’s what we’re going to do tonight.”

With a small fanfare, the kids are escorted into the dining room and they scramble into the chairs. Bowls of a chicken dish are brought to them (part of the new healthy eating program introduced with the help of first-time visitor Emily Schwartz, a nutritionist). A prayer is offered. And then the happy instruction:

“OK, let’s eat!”

The children spoon the food. They chew carefully. But they are quiet. Too quiet. They look across the table. They swallow and proceed eating in near silence.

“What’s going on?” I whisper to one of the staff.

This is what I’m told: That the orphans don’t ever sit in chairs or at a table unless it’s school or church. And so they are acting as they would in those places. Reverential.

At a dinner table.

Their first dinner table.

And once again, Haiti gives you an education.

Thank you for making joy possible

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Michiganders contributed more than $80,000 to operate the Have Faith Haiti Mission for one year. Such generosity, in a state hampered by unemployment and a bad economy, was, for me anyhow, enough to bring tears.

So was the donation of a pickup by two Farmington Hills men, Joe Andronaco Sr. and Jr., and so was the use of a private plane to transport Muscle Crew workers and their equipment by the endlessly charitable Roger Penske and his Penske Jet staff.

But if there was one moment of this trip (the likes of which we hope to repeat four times a year: spring, summer, fall and winter), one moment that truly shook you, made you nearly fall to your knees, it was where this story began, in the dorms, outside the bedrooms, on the anniversary of the quake, where the kids were waiting and watching nervously.

“All right, come on!” we yelled.

And in they ran, to their old rooms with the new beds, gingerly at first, then faster, then squealing, screaming, then jumping into the mattresses, the low ones, the high ones. They sprawled. They flipped. They mocked sleep. They popped up. They crawled to the high beds, they dove into the low ones.

And they began to sing. Yes. Sing. And dance. I don’t know the song. I don’t know the movement. If nature gave it a title, it would be “joy.”

Unbridled. Unconcerned. Unembarrassed.

Joy.

And to see that spring back to life, one year after it had been seemingly crushed forever, was a moment not to miss. For those of you who helped make it possible in this little corner of Haiti, “thanks” is too small a word.

All I can say is when the moon came out, and the roosters went to hide, and a coolness settled over this hot country, dozens of children were finally, blissfully, back where they belonged, in their beds, sleeping, perhaps dreaming of a better future. Or at the very least, the wonders of the day that had passed. Either way, there was hope.

And hope, in Haiti, is the most precious commodity.

Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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