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Following the trail of help to Haiti

ABOUT THE SERIES

On the second anniversary of the 2010 earthquake, Sun-Times Media journalists Donna Vickroy and Matt Marton follow the trail of goods, money and compassion from the Southland to Port-au-Prince.

Beginning with content for Feb. 19, we’ll be telling the stories of the people of Haiti, along with the stories of local residents who have stepped up to help a country in desperate need.

FOR FEB. 19

◆ An overview of why we went and who we met in Haiti.

◆ The gruesome task of burying the dead.

◆ Teen gets crash course in medical field.

FOR FEB. 20

The slums of Haiti are a dangerous place to live — or visit — as we found out. But one man from Frankfort is doing his best to make it a better place.

FOR FEB. 21

Not all is bad in Port-au-Prince. Tent fields have been cleared, there’s a new hospital and a fish farm will help provide food and financial resources.

FOR FEB. 22

A big reason Haiti survives challenges and setbacks is its resilience, its ability to find optimism amid so much hardship.

FOR FEB. 23

There were signs that Rick Frechette would enter the clergy, but nothing to indicate he’d end up ministering to people in one of the harshest areas of the world.

FOR FEB. 24

Since the earthquake, people in the Southland have been eager to help. It’s easy to understand why. Haiti has a way of staying in your heart.

FOR FEB. 26

We can see signs of progress. But why isn’t there more?

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Updated: January 24, 2013 7:57PM



We went to Haiti to see for ourselves.

On Jan. 12, 2010, a massive earthquake leveled much of Port-au-Prince. For the capital city, already battling economic and social challenges, the result was utter devastation.

The earthquake’s massive destruction gave way to deplorable living conditions, a surge in deadly disease and, perhaps the most heartbreaking, a skyrocketing number of abandoned and orphaned children.

Since that fateful day, we’ve been reporting on local efforts to alleviate the suffering.

People from throughout the Southland have donated tools, shoes and saxophones. They have congregated in church basements to make girls’ dresses, Velcro diapers and burial cloths for more than 26,000 of Haiti’s unclaimed dead.

They have shipped school buses, building supplies and hospital beds, as well as sending letters, cards and money.

With the second anniversary of the catastrophe upon us, we felt it was time to find out if all this local compassion was translating into results. Was it really making a difference?

Local humanitarians

Through her nonprofit Share Your Soles, Mona Purdy, of Worth, has collected and distributed thousands of pairs of shoes in remote areas of Haiti. Through their church, Sue and Ken Gross, of Orland Park, have organized mission trips to Jeremie, Haiti, where volunteers who pay their own transport work to build houses and schools. After learning about their plight in homeschool, 6-year-old Calei Clark, of Lockport, collected hundreds of pairs of shoes to send over to Haiti. Elizabeth Wisnasky, of Tinley Park, organizes burial pall workshops at churches across the region, from Downers Grove to Northwest Indiana.

And last month, the community of Richton Park capped months of planning and fundraising when it shipped a bus full of school supplies, bunk beds and other necessities to Haiti.

Professionals, including local doctors and dentists, have also donated their talents during trips of mercy.

Among the most dedicated south suburbanites working to help Haiti has been John Shattuck, a Frankfort businessman who is responsible for shipping more than $16 million in aid. On behalf of Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos, Shattuck has collected and shipped 22 cargo containers of goods, most of them since the quake.

Like many, Shattuck was helping well before the disaster. Like many, he is in it for the long haul.

Making it happen

Shattuck works on his time, out of his pocket, to assess needs and, somehow, meet them. He is the international representative for NPH, a 59-year-old nonprofit that services mostly orphans in nine Third-World countries. He also is on the board of NPH’s Midwest funding arm in the United States, Friends of the Orphans.

His efforts are concentrated on meeting the organization’s material needs, and, sometimes, its emotional ones.

Everyone who works in the Haiti branch of NPH knows Shattuck. He is the man who gets them what they need to do their work, whether that is treating patients, educating children or building new homes for slum dwellers.

Shattuck has a reputation for filling even the most unexpected requests. Sometimes he’s surprised even himself.

“I’ll get a request, somebody needs a sewing machine. I’ll say, ‘Where am I going to get a sewing machine?’ And then, suddenly somebody donates 17 of them, all commercial. And then I go, ‘Now what am I going to do with 17 sewing machines?’ And then a week later another guy calls and says, ‘Hey I have a plant, I can give you eight tons of fabric. Just like that — we’ve met the need and are developing a new vocational program for making school uniforms. It’s providential.”

From his base in the Southland, Shattuck works logistic miracles, networking with donors and suppliers and then arranging shipment. He has seen the cost of a cargo container rise from $1,700 to $3,700 in the past two years, simply because of increasing demand. Add to that $5,000 in shipping fees and Shattuck now finds himself doing some serious fundraising to keep the goods flowing. Sometimes local companies will underwrite a shipment.

He gets help from Children of Abraham, an Indiana-based organization that ships medical supplies to needy countries around the world. Shattuck sits on the board. COA provides him warehouse space in Munster, Ind., as well as hospital beds and medical supplies.

‘That is Haiti’

We’ve reported on these efforts repeatedly. And each time, readers have responded with offers of help.

It was time to follow that trail of support, to see where the donations end up.

So we accompanied Shattuck to Haiti for five days. We checked out locations where local items have been sent. We hoped to find donated clothing being worn, donated xylophones being played and donated desks being sat in.

We didn’t expect to come back with an emotionally stirring insight into a people who have suffered far more than their share of despair, and who, despite all the madness, continue to endear themselves to just about everyone who visits.

“That is Haiti,” explained Norma Lopez, an Argentinian volunteer who works at St. Helene’s orphanage in Kenscoff. “It is intense, contradictory. And it captures your heart.”

A violent history

Haiti was the first black Republic. For more than a century, the colony of St. Domingue supplied France with sugar, rum, coffee and cotton — all grown and manufactured on the backs of slaves. At the end of the 18th century, the height of slavery, there were a half-million West African slaves working on the island. In 1791, they revolted.

Prophetically resourceful, they used a network of congo drums to organize and overthrow the French. But if they thought that ousting Napoleon’s regime would bring them freedom and democracy, that dream was short-lived. Many of the country’s leaders, including Catholic priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, betrayed them. Corruption, theft and fear have kept the people of Haiti enslaved in poverty for centuries. Today, Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Throw in a consuming number of natural disasters and there you have it — a nation of extremes.

Finding hope in despair

Life for most Haitians is equal parts sadness, struggle and, amazingly, hope, something that is hard for an indulged American to comprehend.

The Rev. Rick Frechette, regional director of NPH, Caribbean, explains. He says in some ways the people of Haiti are better off than Americans.

“In the U.S., people have so much, and yet they’re so unhappy. Haitians have so little, and yet they’re so joyful.”

Frechette, a priest of the Passion order who enrolled in medical school after he realized the Haitians needed a doctor as much as a clergyman, oversees St. Damien Pediatric Hospital, just outside Port-au-Prince, as well as St. Helene orphanage at Kenscoff.

The hope comes from the advancements the Haitians have made. Americans may look at an employed Haitian working, say in the X-ray room, and not be impressed. But, Frechette says, considering that this Haitian had to pull himself from the muck, the progress is considerable, enough to perpetuate optimism.

You witness this optimism firsthand when you walk through the tent cities, miserable places where people live side-by-side, their physical safety and worldly possessions protected only by a metal hut or plastic tarp or scraps of festering cardboard. You wonder how they sleep at night, how they bathe, how they prepare meals and, mostly, how they get out of bed in the morning knowing this is their existence.

And yet, when they see you in your Merrell shoes, with your expensive camera and your prescription sunglasses, they grin and say, “Bon jour.”

But it’s not all smiles and good wishes. We are mindful that a week prior to our visit a missionary from Ohio was gunned down and robbed outside a Port-au-Prince bank. Life in Haiti can easily become death.

It is the children who are too often caught in the crossfire. And yet, when they see visitors, they run to them, their bare feet flitting across broken glass, garbage and stones. Some ask for food or money. Most, though, simply want to hold your hand, to kiss your face, to just touch you. Their lives may be in shambles, but their spirit is intact. Like children everywhere, they want to show you their home. They have no idea that doing so will bring tears to your eyes and shame to your heart.

As if the orphan population is not high enough, given how many adults were killed in the earthquake, many mothers and fathers deny parentage because they know an orphanage will make sure their child is fed and protected from the diseases and gangs that run rampant in the slums.

St. Helene, the orphanage started by NPH 25 years ago, is perpetually at capacity. So is Angels of Light, a live-in program for children whose parents are too challenged to care for them. Both facilities, as well as St. Damien in Tabarre, are part of a growing NPH Haiti network that is following the mission begun by Catholic priest William Wasson in Mexico back in the 1950s.

St. Damien is where our journey begins.



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