There are a few things I don’t believe I can ever do well, despite how fiercely I may try. Credibly describing the apocalyptic destruction here is beyond my capability.
Like anyone with CNN, I had seen the images of Haiti’s destroyed presidential palace. On my 50-inch plasma screen at home, it seemed very shocking and larger than life. The tent city footage from Anderson Cooper’s broadcast tore at my heart, because conditions seemed bleak.But.
Just as a snapshot or even 5-minute video doesn’t really convey the grandeur of the Tetons in all their glory, with panoramic accuracy and cool-breeze reality, no picture or word stream will put your hand on the rubble that stretches across every threshold of an entire city.
Stunned is how you feel when you stand by a hospital that was bustling with care for hundreds of patients, up and down the corridors of five stories. When the earth shook the afternoon of January 12 for 45 seconds, five stories crumbled into one and no patient, doctor, nurse, guest or janitor escaped.
More swiftly than the World Trade Center fell, a city descended into dust.
It is not occasional, as after a tornado skips its fickle way across a landscape. You can drive for an hour through winding, potholed streets and know only crazy-kilter chaos, with rooftops skewed vertical where horizontal once made life sensical. Slabs of concrete – that once shaped walls hiding the private normalcy of parents and children playing and couples worrying over bills or making love or arguing or sleeping toward another day – shifted into tombs.
Cars and whatever was inside still lay beneath massive, broken chunks of concrete.
Where there were gutters, now there are sewers, with mounds of trashed garbage and torn jeans and mangled shoes and soggy sheets held erect by a mishmash of sticks to form a haphazard network of extended families.
On block after block after block.
That part is shocking – though not altogether new. I asked our hostess, Mirdrede, last night whether most families lived in houses before the quake. She grew very quiet and her eyes filled with tears as she nearly lost composure for the first time since we’d met.
“No,” she whispered, shaking her head sadly. “It is very difficult in this country.”
The families in the tent community we visited during our mobile-medical service yesterday agree.
“Last night, when the rains came, it was bad,” said Menard, a beautiful girl who speaks English well and drew me aside. “Everyone stood up and reached high above our heads to hold the tarp, so the water wouldn’t collapse on everything we have.”
That “everything” is meager. There are a few tents, and some mattresses – with ragged blankets carefully tucked into place as at home – lined under a great, slanting expanse of white tarp. The dirt aisles are newly swept.
“The rains came through all the cracks and poured onto the beds and our clothes,” said Menard, gesturing toward the sections where the tarps had been pinned to anything tall enough for support. “When it ended, we curled up into tiny balls to try to sleep on the dry spots. If taking pictures will help to share how we are living with others, you are welcome to take them. We need tents.”
She said she was a university student only a few weeks ago, before the earthquake shook all hope to the ground, along with nearly every structure.
“I was studying marketing and PR,” she said. “You can maybe tell from talking to me that I am no idiot. But my family has 11 people and there is only one tent.”
She proudly led me across their encampment, past the old man sleeping on a mattress and around the girl braiding another girl’s hair as she sat on the dirt, holding a jagged piece of mirror for viewing.
Menard was proud, despite the squalor, because she was leading me to meet her mother and sister, who were washing clothes in a bucket.
“If you know anyone who can use help, “said Menard, her broad eyes growing misty, “my mother has not eaten today and there will be no food tonight. You can see I speak English well and I can translate for anyone who needs it. I need to earn food for my family. They need to eat.”
As we spoke, she drew in the curious children who were peering at this stranger welcomed to their inner circle. Soon, they were laughing into the lens of my camera. It thrilled them to see themselves dancing on-screen after each shot.
This is perhaps what has struck me most during our time here. Where I would expect to find grief and anger and fierce hurt, there is laughter and welcome and a quick readiness to return my smile.
On every corner.
There is nothing I can offer to ease their big-picture plight and I’m almost embarrassed to meet their eyes as our van drives past but, every time – almost without fail – when I smile or gently lift my hand in greeting, something in their eyes lights up and they nod a smile in return.
It’s more than I can say sometimes for my own home, where most families have an arsenal of Life’s Greatest Pleasures and abundant cause for relief to have won God’s lottery.
As we sat out a table and a few chairs in Menard’s makeshift neighborhood, so that medical care could begin, a line formed. The two Haitian medical students serving as doctors finally realized that the two of us assigned to help them for the day have no medical background whatsoever.
“Tell us what to do and we will do it,” Brad and I assured them. That is how we became pharmacists.
After each patient’s diagnosis, they would pass along a sheet detailing the pills we should scoop with a spoon into tiny zip baggies. We penned directions for use on strips of tan bandaid tape and, when we ran out of that, Brad simply wrote instructions in ink directly on the bags.
By the end of the day, we had overcome most language barriers and worked out an efficient system, even as the mosquitoes swarmed around us and the relentless line of new patients wanting to catch care while it was parked in their midst.
“It is imperfect,” said our doctor-in-training, shrugging, “but it is what we have.”
He spoke for an entire nation.
I lost my Blackberry last night. It was new. As in just-bought-it-on-Friday-because-of-the-trip-to-Haiti new. I wanted something with a better camera and video, so I could share with you. I wanted life’s best, even when I had some clue I would be trekking through life’s worst.And it was wonderful. And I lost it.
And it was upsetting.
Did I mention that I lost it when leaving a pizza place? Yeah, it turns out that our interpreter knew of this place that had just opened before the earthquake and it was doing business, again. We figured we would support the local economy by briefly shaking off the horror we’d witnessed from the safe confines of our van and take a break before crashing in our tents.
The pizza may be the best I’d ever tasted. It beat the protein bars we had for breakfast and lunch. It was better than the scoops of rice I was willing to eat from the plates our Haitian hostess, Mirdrede, set out for us. (I left the salad and peas, at the advice of the health department lady who gave us our trip inoculations. I left the brown beans, for what may seem obvious reasons in a camp with backed-up toilets. But I felt ashamed as I stacked a plate still filled with food in the discard pile.) The cold, bottled Heineken was good, too. All I’d had to drink all day was water I’ve decided to trust through an instant-filter bottle contributed by a caring company to our trip. So far, so good.
Life seemed pretty light again, for the moment, and there was laughter among us as I showed the video of our team in our red HAITI shirts shoving our van up a hill it couldn’t quite top.
And then I lost my phone.
Sure, I saw the irony. I felt panicked, because it was my link to my family back home in my safe, real world and to you, my community of loving, supportive, rescue-me-by-just-walking-alongside-me friends. I felt mortified, because it was a $450 phone. Sure, it cost me significantly less as a longtime customer and, yes, even that was broken into four easy payments. And, OK, I was aware that $450 would match the typical annual income of a Haitian family.
But I sure loved that phone.
I suspected that the restaurant couldn’t find it when we called, because those two Haitian guys at the next table had been eying us closely – especially when it was time to pay and wallets surfaced. I had even looked behind us to be certain they hadn’t followed us out. If I had left my phone on the table, I just knew they would’ve scooped it up triumphantly.
I spent the evening feeling dejected. No more blogs to bring you along with us. Gone, the frequent emails to my precious daughter and son.
I was quiet as Mirdrede wove my stringy long hair into tight braids as the ruins of her university lay crushed behind us. I could add little comfort as she shared that she is the oldest child in her family and so she is the one her parents and siblings call for help. It had only been minutes since they had called, crying, to say it was raining in the streets, again, and they would be wet – all nine of them, her parents and sister and brother and his wife and three kids and a cousin – another night. Was there nothing she could do?
But what could she do, she asked me. She had told them of the tent under which we were then sitting and where they could hover. But, in the morning, the few students remaining would again gather to peer toward a different future than the one of which they had dreamed at enrollment. “We Continue,” the banner beside us asserted in Creole. Patients would again stream through the makeshift hospital that now fills the space once devoted to student parking.
Her family would be displaced once more. She is just a volunteer doctor and it is not her space to offer – but she is the first child, and so it falls to her to care for the oldest of her family down to the youngest. She tries now to keep very, very busy, so that she will not think of what life was like before. This is her life now. One moment, one footstep at a time, this. is. her. life.
I assured her that, once we reached our shipping container in the morning, her family would receive the first tent issued. I asked whether they needed food and she shrugged. Of course, there is little to go around, but everyone is getting by somehow.
The same seemed true of the haunting little boy who had sidled up to us earlier when we stood beside our parked van, waiting to gain entry into a safe compound. We were awed by the sight of our U.S. military guys nearby and their massive, air-conditioned tents and satellite dish. We were cheered to see their presence. Then this little kid appeared beside us and extended his open palm. Quickly, gratefully, we passed him a pack of crackers from the box of our cross-country snacks. Here, at last, was someone we could help, even before our official duty began. He tucked it in his pocket and continued to stand there, expectantly. We looked at each other a bit nervously. There were few snacks left in the box – and we didn’t want to begin a frenzy among the homeless Haitians across the street. They were already eying our truck and its tarp-covered mysteries. For us to dig through it for more, before we had unloaded and sorted it in safety, might invite chaos and even danger.
So we tried to gently shoo him away with his cracker reward. He gestured that he was thirsty. Again, we looked at each other. We had all encountered beggars at resort ports before and, in our experience, they won’t stop asking until you stop giving.
What WOULD Jesus do?
My teammate asked me if she should give him the remains of her water bottle, though it had little left. I nodded. He drank it and stood waiting.
For us. The team who had traveled from Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A., through countless canceled flights and obstacles and driven six hours from the Dominican Republic to help the hurting.
He was waiting for us and we were questioning how much we should give.
I wanted to scoop him up and take him with us even as we turned our backs in the hope that he would give up and wander away. I saw our Haitian driver watching and wondered what he was thinking. Probably that we’re full of sh*t with our matching church shirts and flawed, here-to-rescue-but-not-to-deeply-sacrifice hearts. I was grateful when a man with no arm came up and danced and sang after our small gift to him. That felt better. He let us feel good about ourselves. Heck, I even tossed that kid a juice box as we were told we should now enter the compound, where few beyond the wall could enter.
I was safe, again. And benevolent.
P.S. This morning, I was awakened by the same 4:30 alarm that I had set yesterday in Santo Domingo on my brand-spanking-new Blackberry Bold. It was shoved deeply inside a zippered pocket that, even when lit up by my chiming phone, I could not quickly figure out how to reach. Somehow I had missed it last night in my feverish search, before calling T-Mobile to shut down my service. I was finally able to shut it off, but somehow I can’t sleep. It is still pouring rain outside and thousand of families are huddled in feeble huts with walls fashioned from soggy sheets. It. is. their. life. now.
P.S.S. I thought I would write to you of the horrors and ugliness of what we witnessed today – instead, I have shown you my own. May God – and you, who have sent me here to do God’s bidding – forgive me. Rather than patting me on the back and assuring me that I’m still wonderful, please fervently pray with me that He will change me to live like Him. It is the only way our world will ever change.
Last P.S. The day has begun and the skies have cleared. I can tell, because the Haitians are up. Singing.
It seems it should be tougher than this:
1. God put a desire in my heart to go to Haiti.
2. I prayed that He would guide me, if my wishes reflected His, and then I expressed my desire publicly.
3. Within two days, I received an invitation to go from someone I’d never met.
4. I shared with friends and family my desire to help Haiti meet its needs.
5. My friends and family helped me reach my necessary financial goal.
6. Today, I spent the day boxing up the supplies provided by caring neighbors.
7. Monday, a generous company is providing the shipping.
8. Next Sunday, my husband and I, along with a team of eight others, will board a flight for Haiti.
9. For nearly a week, we will meet medical, physical and spiritual needs in a country that desperately needs us.
When it is God’s will, there is a way.
You don’t have to sit at home in your chair, wishing you could help.
If you can’t get the images out of your head of hundreds of thousands living in the streets and mud, left without family, food, shelter or health – if you ache to be there beside them, lifting them in any way possible from their desolation – maybe you’re in the middle of Step 1.
You’re just a prayer away from the rest.
Weatherizing our Haiti home (we will leave it in Haiti for another family’s use) in front of our USA home. Can anyone make sense of God’s lottery?
My daughter is an amazing and talented person. Last night, she opened up to me and shared that she has been resistant to my plans to go to Haiti, because she is afraid for me.
It’s true, there are risks.
She understands, because she is heading to Swasiland in Africa this July. At only 17, she, too, has a heart for those who hurt. I know her stamp on this world will be beautiful.
She designed a t-shirt to help us raise funds to help Haiti. Like her, it brings happy tears to my eyes:
Savannah’s tees can be ordered for $20/black or $15/white. All proceeds after cost go to Haiti.
I feel overwhelmed and I’m not even there, yet.
Thanks to Twitter and the Internet, I can digest #Haiti news 24/7 and, because of my fierce interest and concern, that’s exactly what I’m doing.
My daughter says I’m obsessed.
Maybe she’s right. I just can’t seem to distance myself from the Haitians’ reality – even though it’s one I have not yet personally experienced. My husband and I leave in two weeks with our team of 10 from Eagle Pointe Church in Acworth, Georgia, and even the travel part sounds grueling:
Atlanta in the wee hours of Feb. 28 to Ft. Lauderdale through customs to Port-au-Prince (at least we don’t have to make our way into the Dominican Republic, as most earlier teams did, and wend our way through 10 hours of bad roads) to whatever part of that town we will call our home for six days in a tent. All I know is there’s an orphanage there – and lives that I desperately want to help change.
Preparing to go is already a flurry. They have so many, many needs and, before we can even get around to addressing them full time, we have to think about a few of our own.
Malaria tablets. Prevention against tuberculosis – it’s rampant in Haiti. Same with Hepatitis. I’m told there’s time to booster our systems against Hepatitis A, but B? Not so much. That’s the one where you don’t want spit or blood “contaminating” you. Tetanus. Even more potential illnesses that escape me at the moment. I keep hearing something about dengue fever. Sounds frightening.
And yet I feel selfish when I fret over the “what might happen’s” of trekking to Haiti to help.
Those people – by the hundreds of thousands (and I don’t just mean numbers – I mean BREATHING, ACHING INDIVIDUALS!) – are living in filth and facing the real fear that, in just a few weeks, a fierce storm season arrives and their pieced-together shelters will likely be swept away during flooding through debris-choked streets.
That is a big fear.
So the little things, like “Will one of those mosquitoes that is munching on my kids after dark – though I’m trying to huddle them beneath me under a sheet of government-issued plastic (if even that) for shelter – cause malaria or spread fatal disease?” just gets lost in their “How will we survive this night” despair. Never mind that some of them no longer have an arm or leg. Or husband or wife or mother or father or child or sister or brother or dearest friend.
And, no, that’s not even taking into account their incessant hunger.
Or their fear for safety. Women are being raped in the night and, with husbands and brothers no longer alive for protection, there are few who will risk intervening to help each other. Children, some too young to even identify the aunts and uncles and grandparents and neighbors who might rescue them, are being spirited away and sold for slavery and worse.
Yet God is there. Haitians are gathering by the sixty thousands to sing and praise and fiercely, desperately pray. They are thronging in the streets – it is their living room now.
God is the reason I’m willing to go. His plan is always better than my own and I trust Him.
But, yeah, I’m feeling a “little” overwhelmed. I’m not sleeping much.
Neither are they.
Because I know and they know that, no matter how many protein bars or toys or sacks of rice or even tents that I can distribute, it will be a drop in the bucket. There is no handy, “Delta is ready when you are” escape for those people and they couldn’t leave their country to grasp at a better life, even if they wanted to. There is no leaving – there is only coping, without a home and without protection and without food.
There is only one thing I can offer:
Now that I know about their need, they don’t have to do it without me.
It might not solve a country’s devastation but, in a mere 14 days, I will reach in my pocket and my fist will emerge with as many protein bars as I can hold and some mother who has had nothing for perhaps days will have something in her own hand to give to her starving child.
The baby formula you send with me will fill her baby’s yearning stomach.
The coloring books and crayons you contribute will put an afternoon’s glow back into a kid’s face.
The tent you provide will mean they get to watch the rain slide in sheets down around them, instead of through their clothes and belongings and into the mud pooling in their makeshift beds.
Forget giving a box of chocolates and ridiculous roses for Valentines Day. Show your family just how grateful you are for what and who you have by sharing with someone who may literally die without you!
Trust me, love will fly at you from all corners!
I don’t know what you can give to me or others like me to send to Haiti and the people who are, yes, dying there – but, more importantly, fighting to LIVE there.
But I do know that, whatever it is, it matters.
I’ve been invited by the lead pastor of an Atlanta church to join their team in Haiti at the end of February.
I will be going.
Yes, I will pray with my family and weigh what this means. But God has placed an urgency in my heart to be there and so I will go.
Meanwhile, I’ll be volunteering with Create Your Dreams (www.createyourdreams.org) to build relationships with underprivileged children in Atlanta.
We invited a few of the kids to our rural cabin for a retreat and had a blast! I loooove to hear those kids laugh.