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This is one assignment that will stick with them

Girls who are members Chorale Saint Louis sing during Sunday services inside Angels Light program Tabarre. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

Girls who are members of the Chorale Saint Louis sing during Sunday services inside the Angels of Light program in Tabarre. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 24, 2013 9:20PM



Donna Vickroy, reporter

You don’t pack casually for a trip to the Third World.

Excited, nervous and admittedly a bit wary, I pretty much cleared out the medicine chest and dumped it into my canvas duffel.

I was going to Haiti. A place with a long history of poverty, hunger, superstition and illness.

How do you pack for such an adventure?

Just short of two hours off the coast of Miami, Haiti might as well be a million miles from home. Average living conditions are harsh — a shack or tent or room about the size of my closet. Average lifespan is short — malnutrition, disease and crime conspire against old age. Average days likely include a power outage, a three-hour traffic backup and, for many, a desperate hunt for an evening meal.

Still, being the shallow, comfortable, disbelieving American that I can be, I asked my host, John Shattuck, a few packing questions.

Were there bugs?

Would there be showers?

Could I pack the blow dryer?

It was the last question that likely caused him to doubt his invitation. “You can bring it, but I’ve never seen anyone use one.”

Shattuck had invited us to tag along on a planned trip to the place where he delivers so many donations that originate here in the Southland. He works for free on behalf of Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos, a nonprofit organization that cares for orphans and whose network extends across nine Third World countries.

Haiti has been dear to his heart. And it has been dear to the hearts of many others in this area who have donated time, talent and stuff to help ease its suffering.

The chance to follow through on the many stories I’d written about local people pitching in was something I couldn’t pass up, even if it would mean being out of my comfort zone for the better part of a week.

Still, I threw the blow dryer in the bag, along with some Clif bars, antibacterial wipes and something called a bug hut I’d purchased at REI in Oak Brook.

It was only five days, but five days is almost an eternity for people who hail from one of the richest nations in the world. Times may be tough in the United States, but our definition of roughing it is nothing like the Haitians’.

As it turned out, our accommodations were very nice. We stayed on the grounds of St. Damien Pediatric Hospital, where doctors and do-gooders come from all over the world to volunteer their services. We met people from Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and, of course, the United States. They all shared a common goal — to heal but to also help the Haitians become self-sufficient.

We spent our days touring the remaining earthquake wreckage and the pockets of progress, taking in the sadness, the joy, the ugliness and the beauty. We passed our nights trying to make sense of it all.

It’s hard to explain the way a trip like this makes you feel. Sad? Grateful? Guilty? Outraged?

At times, it made me cry. Other times, I wanted to sing. And every day seemed to support the warning issued by volunteer Norma Lopez, that Haiti is a nation of extremes.

The Rev. Rick Frechette sums it up nicely — “If Haiti could ever get a fair shake in the world, it would be a force to be reckoned with.”

For where else will you find such resilience and such optimism amid such suffering?

Perhaps the best word to sum up Haiti’s effect on us is beholden. Both photographer Matt Marton and I came away with a sense that we would be forever beholden to affect change, even if it meant something as silly as not complaining about stupid stuff in our very indulged lives.

People in Haiti have real problems. And they aren’t likely to go away any time soon.

Neither are the images etched in my memory.

We saw mothers holding babies inside dilapidated metal huts, small orphans waving as they hung laundry well before dawn and young people trying to make a buck by selling everything from soda to rocks.

A boy with an amputated leg asked me for food at a moment when I had nothing to give. A man at the airport pleaded with me to help him replace his passport, which had been stolen by thugs. And a teenager begged, in broken English, for me to sponsor him so he could go to school.

It reduced me to tears to walk away from requests for such basic assistance.

But it seemed for every sad occasion, there was a hopeful one to provide balance. On our tour of the pediatric hospital, we looked away from the body of a tarp-wrapped deceased infant only to see nurses cleaning a newborn who was screaming his arrival.

As we were packing for the ride back to the airport, our interpreter, Antoine Jean, asked if we would come back next summer for his wedding.

He doesn’t have parents. He’d like us to stand in.

The invitation made me pause long enough to brush away a tear.

Wouldn’t miss it for the world.

To truly understand Haiti, you have to experience it, Shattuck says. You have to let it assault your senses. You have to see the juxtaposition of crumbling concrete in Port-au-Prince beneath the lush, cloud-covered hills of Kenscoff. You have to smell the wretched stench of decaying bodies near the morgue as well as the citrusy scent of freshly sliced pineapple being hawked by street vendors.

In the end, hopefully, you will be able to hear the lilt of godly hope across centuries of man-made sorrow.

For several days we held Haiti close.

And I don’t think we’ll soon let go.

Matt Marton, photographer

I was very lucky to get the opportunity to follow one of our subjects to Haiti to see where the donations that he helps ship there end up and are used. The five-day trip was an immense undertaking and photographic odyssey. In all, I took about 2,500 photographs and a few short videos. This is not the normal kind of photography I do, so I met with some friends who have traveled and photographed overseas to get some ideas on how to work in a different culture.

I was glad I did. As with all assignments, opportunities for images happen right in front of you, and I just spent most of my time reacting as I always do.

Most good photographs take themselves, as long as you are keeping your eyes open to see them happening. In Haiti, subject matter changed like the country itself ­— lots of contradictions. One minute we were in a slum with terrible living situations, the next we were at a tilapia farm or a mass burial area, and then we saw a woman lying on the side of the road near death. While shooting the photographs my emotions were in check. It did not seem to bother me that much.

Then we returned and the editing began, which is when things started getting a bit harder. As of this minute, it was two weeks ago that I was thinking about this journey of photojournalistic exploration.

I wanted to see things I never had and document them for not only our readers but myself. I wondered if I would be able to work in a foreign country with a language barrier.

The images, at two weeks old, seem like they were taken yesterday and haunt me like the Haitian music — beautiful and very sad at the same time.

This country, just short of two hours by air from Florida, is so desperately poor and devastated that I partly wish I was still there, taking more photos to show the world how much its people need help. I am left sad and haunted by what I saw.

We Americans have so much yet complain so much. Some of the images are hard to look at. They are permanently in my mind and sadden me.



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