Don't Forget Haiti

Don't Forget Haiti

Article posted in General on 14 July 2010| comments
audience: National Publication | last updated: 18 May 2011


Has it been only six months since the devastating earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti? If you live there, it might seem like a lifetime. In this article, PGDC editor Marc Hoffman recounts his first-hand experiences in Haiti last February and reminds us all to not forget.

By Marc D. Hoffman

As the editor of the Planned Giving Design Center, I mostly find myself reporting on the world of philanthropy from the comfort of an office. However, when I received a unique invitation to help fly relief missions in Haiti last February, I felt honored for the opportunity, humbled by the people I met, and inspired by the young people who accompanied us.

Although this story was written shortly after returning home, we just didn't feel comfortable posting it right away. The national media was awash with stories about Haiti. What good would one more story do? So we decided to wait six months until the catastrophe had faded from the daily news cycle and publish it as a reminder that Haiti and the heroes who are on the ground there still need our help.

* * * * *

“From a distance, the world looks blue and green…” So goes the opening line from Julie Gold’s 1990 Grammy winning Song of the Year. But as I viewed parts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti from the co-pilot’s seat of a friend’s airplane after the devastating earthquake that struck on January 13th, the world looked more like a smoldering ashtray.

A Call for Help

Patrick McCall and I have been friends since childhood. A family law attorney for the past 28 years in Orange County, California, Pat’s weekends are usually spent far above the courthouse in his Pilatus PC-12, a 10-passenger turboprop that is renowned for its combination of speed, load carrying capacity, and short-field takeoff and landing capabilities.

Shortly after the 7.0 magnitude quake devastated Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, an email went out from the Pilatus Owners and Pilots Association asking owners to volunteer their aircraft to fly relief missions into affected areas of Haiti. As we would learn, the entire country had been affected.

With four of Pat’s kids (Brittany, Brianne, Alana and Grant) ranging in age from 16 to 25, family friend Karyn Shelly and her 13-year-old daughter Danielle, we set out on February 11th from John Wayne airport in Southern California for the 3,000 mile flight. Following an overnight layover in Fort Lauderdale, we picked up John Dunkle, a New Hampshire businessman who Pat had met in Haiti two weeks earlier. Yes, this was Pat’s second humanitarian trip in as many weeks (but that’s another story).

In 1998, John started, the world’s largest Porsche enthusiast’s website. While visiting Haiti and being so affected by the need, John came home to tell his wife they were starting an orphanage in the village of Les Cayes ("lay-ki"). The result is Project Rennwish, a charitable organization dedicated to changing the lives of Haitian children and families in need by providing food, shelter, clothing, education, and medical assistance.

Upon landing in Port-au-Prince, John, Karyn and our five young people climbed into the back of John’s pickup truck for the four-hour drive through the most devastated parts of the country to the Rennwish orphanage. There they would spend the weekend helping families, distributing relief supplies and planting vegetable gardens.

After saying our goodbyes and with the airplane empty, Pat and I then flew 120 miles east to Santiago International Airport in the neighboring Dominican Republic. Santiago would serve as our base from which we would fly missions for the next three days on behalf of G.O. Ministries, a Kentucky-based Christian organization that has been working in Haiti and the Dominican Republic since 1994. Upon landing, we taxied up to the cargo terminal where Ken George, a member of G.O. Ministries’ field staff, and who would coordinate our efforts, met us.

Our missions would consist of flying food, water, and medicine into remote areas of Haiti and rotating medical teams and relief workers back out.

But why would remote areas need help when the capitol city of Port-au-Prince was the epicenter?

To place things in perspective, the Republic of Haiti occupies the western one-third of the island of Hispaniola. At 10,714 square miles, Haiti is slightly smaller than Maryland. With seven million residents, Haiti is one of the most densely populated countries on earth. There are 700 people per square mile in Haiti.

Because much of Port-au-Prince had been leveled and thrown into immediate chaos, hundreds of thousands of its two million residents fled into the countryside in search of food, water, shelter and medical care. To make matters worse, prior to the earthquake, most of the supplies the balance of the country relied on were distributed through Port-au-Prince. With many roads now impassible due to massive landslides, many small towns and villages were cut off from their lifelines and soon surpassed their humanitarian breaking point. By the time we arrived the disaster had reached every corner of the country.

Flying in Haiti

Flying in Haiti following the earthquake was unlike any I've experienced. Although Port-au-Prince was technically controlled airspace that required aircraft traveling through it to communicate with air traffic controllers, our calls were frequently ignored. Furthermore, attempting to file an instrument flight plan was, as the Borg say, "futile."

After leaving Dominican airspace, we used our own instruments to navigate Haiti. Fortunately, the PC-12 is equipped with the most sophisticated avionics available and is much like operating a video game. So with a combination of GPS, terrain and collision avoidance systems, satellite weather, talking with other pilots and good old scud running (i.e., flying low below the clouds), we found all of our destinations safely.

Our first mission took us to the seaside town of Port-de-Paix, which lies 90 miles to the north of Port-au-Prince. By car it is a grueling 10-hour drive that resembles the Baja 1000 off-road race. By air, we covered the distance in 17 minutes.

Port-de-Paix’s dirt runway also serves as a main road with people and livestock casually moving to the sides as we touched down during a light rain. As we taxied up to the empty ramp a pickup truck full of young men rolled up along side. The door opened and out stepped Daniel Lashbrook, a young American missionary whose family has lived and operated an orphanage and adoption home in Port-de-Paix for the past 13 years. Daniel would be the first of the many heroes we would meet during our brief stay.

The Lashbrooks are a humble family who live with and as the people live, which exposes them to the same malaria and dengue fever that affects those they serve.

As soon the engine was shut down and the cargo door opened, the young men formed a bucket brigade and the food and supplies quickly found their way onto the truck.

“A dozen new orphaned children continue to arrive every day,” Daniel told us. “We were able to adopt out 41 last week but we just can’t keep up right now,” he lamented. But through it all, Daniel’s smile and resolute faith were always present. An aid worker later told us that Haiti’s previous orphan population of 300,000 was now estimated to have surpassed one million!

A Failed State?

If Haiti was considered a failed state prior to the earthquake, it was certainly a collapsed state afterwards. Those familiar with the history of Haiti know it to be a country of political strife and corruption. Prior to the earthquake, the unemployment rate was 70 percent and illiteracy rate 50 percent. The United Nations recently named the shantytown slum of Cite Soleil in Port-au-Prince as “the most dangerous place on Earth,” with the only authority being the 30 or so heavily armed gangs. The average life expectancy of a Haitian is 49.2 years.

The small town of Pignon ("pin-yone") lies in the rolling highlands 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince. Prior to the earthquake its population was 30,000. When we visited it had swollen to 100,000. It was there we met a young man who while helping unload the plane apologized for his lack of front teeth. Himself a refugee from Port-au-Prince, he told us that when the quake hit, he looked up and was hit by falling debris from his ceiling. His sister who was sitting next to him did not survive. Suddenly, the reality of the pain and suffering these people have experienced was sinking in. Many other stories shared by the medical teams we met are simply too graphic to be retold here.

Food In, People Out

A typical load of cargo from Santo Domingo would consist of 3,000 pounds of rice, red beans, canned sardines, pasta, cornmeal, family food packs and bottled water.

No amount of food or medicine would be of any benefit if it was commandeered and hoarded by local gangs or political power brokers. To combat this problem, we flew into small airports that had been secured by U.N. peacekeeping forces. In the southern seaside village of Jacmel, the normally uncontrolled airport had been secured by Canadian naval forces that established a makeshift control tower to coordinate air traffic, provide ramp safety and security, and assist in unloading aircraft.

Supplies were delivered directly to credentialed missionaries, orphanage operators, social and medical workers many of whom have occupied these communities for years before the earthquake.

In Jacmel we met another hero, Sarah Wallace, a young Canadian woman who at the age of 24 established Olive Tree Projects to support her work as a midwife. Her goal? To reduce Haiti’s 80 percent infant mortality rate by providing prenatal, nutritional, birthing, and postnatal care to all mothers in her area for a total cost of $120 per child. That sounded like a good price until we learned the average Haitian earns $0.66 per day or only $240 per year. Sarah was pleased to report that her organization “is a California-based 501(c)(3) organization.” She was also applying for charitable status in Canada.

During our 30-minute flight back to Santiago to pick up a co-worker, Sarah enthusiastically reported she now has three employees and joked that she has human resource problems and needs to buy a book on “Management for Dummies.” The greatest need in Haiti from Sarah’s perspective is planning education and birth control.

Sarah’s thoughts later echoed through my mind as our kids told us about a mother who had begged them to take two of her eleven children with us because she simply could not feed them all.

A Methodist missionary told us that many Haitian mothers feed their children a mixture of mud and salt just to curb their hunger. Less than 4 percent of Haiti’s forests remain, the balance having been deforested and used as cooking fuel, sold off for charcoal, and used for reparations to France after Haitian slaves threw off the yoke of French colonialism in 1803. And with the forests went the topsoil. Haiti has no natural resources and only a fraction of its land remains arable. We didn’t need to look on the map to know when we crossed the border into the Dominican.

Rebuilding Haiti

“Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.”                                                            - Lao Tzu

In researching this story we found Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), a nonprofit group that builds composting toilets in rural communities to return organic matter and fertility back to the Haitian soil.

Despite what appears to defy all odds of survival, the Haitian people we met remained resilient and hopeful and thankful. The churches of Les Cayes were overflowing with parents and children in their one Sunday best outfit singing songs of praise and thanks that resonated throughout the village.

Although our group worked with smaller organizations and individuals, at the other end of the philanthropic spectrum are large organizations that have had a footprint in Haiti for decades.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church has been present in Haiti since 1903. The church provides healthcare and education at a level that rivals the Haitian government itself.

With entire hospitals destroyed, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sent a team of doctors and medical supplies to Haiti immediately following the quake to establish a temporary medical center in a Church meetinghouse in Port-au-Prince that had been left undamaged.

With over 300 staff members on the ground before the earthquake, Food for the Poor has completed over 464 projects in Haiti since 1996 with 222 more currently underway. These include thirty-five tilapia ponds that help inland villages provide for their own protein needs, 124 fresh water wells, and numerous animal husbandry projects that teach villages how to raise goats, cattle and chickens. Food for the Poor also provides funding and assistance to many smaller organizations throughout the country.

These are but a snapshot of the individuals, organizations and projects that are helping Haiti in the near-term and aim to help Haiti help itself in the long-term. If I left your organization out, please forgive me. One wonders what Haiti would be like without these organizations and humanitarians, or if Haiti would be at all.

Continuing Challenges

Medical professionals with whom we spoke cautioned that averting epidemic disease would be the next immediate challenge. With the start of rainy season beginning in March, with many of the 230,000 dead still unrecovered, and with over one million homeless, the prospect of insect and waterborne diseases such as typhoid, malaria and dengue fever threatened to make portions of Port-au-Prince uninhabitable.

Who To Help?

With so many organizations lending a hand and the need seemingly endless, how does one choose an organization to support? Based on my personal observations, I would simply ask prospective donees about their presence and accomplishments in Haiti prior to the earthquake. Organizations with an existing presence have the infrastructure, staff, political, cultural understanding and linguistic abilities (Creole is the common language) in place to best deliver the resources Haiti needs.

What do Haitians want? Although humanitarian aid is needed desperately in the short-term, one aid worker told us the people don’t want gifts of food in perpetuity. “To do so would be to collapse the local farming economies that do exist and perpetuate the high costs for imported food and energy.” Gasoline costs $15US per gallon in Haiti. A local woman simply said, “We need jobs.”


When we picked up Karyn and the kids at the conclusion of our long weekend, the back of the airplane was quiet. Our young people seemed to be at a loss for words as they reflected on all they had experienced and what to share with us first. They had distributed food, comforted and encouraged children and their parents, planted vegetable gardens and most importantly had let this small village know they weren’t alone. The village had also given them something as well; an appreciation for the blessings in their own lives and a sense of responsibility to give something back.

As for Pat and me, we had flown 25 legs over the weekend and delivered 35,000 pounds of food and supplies. It was just a drop in the bucket.

From my perspective as a gift planner, I was amazed and encouraged by John, Daniel, and Sarah who were not only the chief cook and bottle washers of their respective organizations, they were also their own development and compliance officers. How could they keep so many balls in the air? I concluded they must all have the hearts of marathon runners.

We asked all whom we ferried, "Is there is hope for Haiti?" Perhaps a group of medical professionals we flew from Jacmel after caring for the people there for two weeks answered that question best.

* * * * *


While completing this report I was planning on closing with another sentimental line from Julie Gold's song; however; I was pleased to learn the youngest of our group, 13-year-old Danielle Tomczak had done something far more meaningful. So turn up the volume on your computer, click here and remember, "Don't forget Haiti."

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