Friends Saving Lives in Haiti

With Haiti at its greatest need, Friends of the Children of Haiti found itself suddenly paralyzed.

The Peoria-based organization could not do what it does best: provide medical care for citizens of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. A January 12th earthquake—at 7.0 magnitude, the most deadly and destructive in the country's 206-year history—had turned the already crippled country into chaos.

Three million people—a third of the country—were affected by the quake. About 230,000 people died, 300,000 had been injured and 1,000,000 had been left homeless. A quarter-million residential and 30,000 commercial buildings had collapsed or were severely damaged.

The quake had disrupted communication systems, transport facilities, hospitals and electrical networks, hampering international rescue and aid efforts. Morgues overflowed. Mass graves proliferated. Supplies, medical care and sanitation became scarce. Delays in aid prompted angry appeals from aid workers and survivors. Looting and violence broke out.

Still, Friends sought to do its part. Its seaside clinic in the village of Cyvadier remained in solid shape, thanks to the foresight of reinforced construction. Whereas many neighboring buildings collapsed, the clinic stood strong.

It also stood empty of medical personnel. All commercial flights had been canceled shortly after the quake. The U.S. military took control over the airspace, making it a military-only zone. Friends' 22-volunteer team was stranded in America.

In the meantime, devastation surrounded the clinic. In Jacmel—with 40,000 residents, the biggest nearby city—half of the buildings sustained damage. At least 3,000 people had died there, with many more suffering injuries.

Thanks to previous shipments and teams, the clinic was stocked with medicine and supplies. All that was needed was the team.

It was the most critical moment in Friends' 25-year history. As scores of relief agencies worldwide languished in America for a lack of transportation, could Friends somehow finagle their way into Haiti?

Peoria Extends a Hand
Friends of the Children of Haiti began with a guilty conscience. In the late 1970s, Dick Hammond, president of the George J. Rothan Millwork Co. on Peoria's south side, took a Caribbean cruise with his wife, Barb. The ship briefly docked in Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, then, as now, a fetid mess of existence.

Rotting, smoldering trash filled crumbled streets choked with dented cars and thick exhaust. Stooped, sick peasants sat unbothered as they tried to sell fruits and secondhand goods. Children ran half-naked, bright eyes unaware of the short, impoverished life awaiting them.

The Bartonville couple could not understand why a luxury cruise would mar the trip with such blight. Back home, the images of squalor kept flashing to mind.

A couple of years later, after reading about relief efforts in Haiti, Dick Hammond decided to help out. In 1985, he convinced a handful of volunteers to pay their own way and drag a small cache of donated medicine to the southern peninsula. In two weeks, they saw 500 patients, a modest but promising start that slowly gained momentum over the next several years.

In 1990, Hammond incorporated the group, creating a not-for-profit organization run by a 10-member board of volunteer directors. The new outfit was dubbed Friends of the Children of Haiti. Though the group’s mission is to treat patients of any age, the name reflects its special concern for the youngest Haitians, in part out of the hope that healthier kids might bring a better tomorrow to Haiti.

By 1993, the yearly trek included 20 volunteers, including doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, plus non-medical support personnel who assisted in cooking, crowd control and other tasks. That year, the mission saw perhaps 4,000 patients, treated with medicine mostly donated, but $7,000 worth bought from fledgling fundraising efforts.

By the numbers, the mission had reached a new level of success. Yet lingering difficulties underscored growth limitations.

Friends had to set up its mobile clinic wherever it could: a concrete-block dispensary, maybe in an aging church—whoever might give permission. Sometimes, they would have to change sites within the same trip, adding confusion and disrupting continuity. Plus, the dispensaries and churches left no room for boarding. So at the end of every day, team volunteers would have to waste precious time collecting equipment and medicine before schlepping back to wherever they would be staying.

Once, the team wandered a mile up a mountain to serve a remote village that had never seen visiting doctors—a noble effort, yet one marked with a dearth of running water. Volunteers took showers, such as they were, by filling empty intravenous bags with creek water and dumping it over their heads. On the joyful final day of the effort, as a truck took volunteers down the mountain, a wheel popped off and nearly sent the group plunging over a cliff. Volunteers had to trudge several miles to the nearest town—not exactly a fond last impression of the trip.

Such difficulties made recruiting a challenge. Only the hardiest would return for second visits, and the hardships were costing the organization the services of talented people. The board of directors brainstormed for solutions, but kept coming back to the same idea: a permanent clinic.

That would require money. A quarter-million dollars. Hammond needed big numbers. And he found them: Hosting bingo games at halls. Golf tourneys. Cocktail gatherings. Whatever would pull in volunteers and donors.

Meanwhile, the group found a piece of land: about 16 acres of oceanfront property, with access to the main hard road through the area. The land's four owners dickered with Hammond until they agreed on a price of $39,000.

The problem: The land was, essentially, worthless. Mammoth, sharp boulders jutted from the seashore, over which grew an endless tangle of trees and shrubs. It didn't look fit for a shanty, let alone a medical clinic.

''A lot of churches send down people to build clinics and churches,'' Hammond said. ''And they might have a Haitian or two help out. But here, what we've done is let the Haitians build it. They're proud of it.''

Dozens of laborers would be paid the equivalent of seven American dollars a day—double the typical working wage in Haiti, providing a much-needed economic boost to the workers and their families. An army of laborers marched over the property; wielding nothing more than machetes, they cleared every inch of unnecessary brush, leaving only fruit trees standing. Next, they used sledgehammers to bash the sharp boulders to manageable size. ''You could feel the rocks almost cut through your shoes,'' Hammond said.

Some rocks proved too formidable, so Hammond smooth-talked a nearby government road crew to dump its extra dirt atop the rocks. The crew's Caterpillar Inc. tractors (the company sells equipment in Port-au-Prince) shaped a dirt road to the clinic and left the rocks harmlessly hidden below a new layer of earth.

Then Hammond's Haitian work force started on the structure, molding and drying concrete blocks on site. As laborers stacked the blocks three stories high, other workers used boulder-chipped rocks to form a thick fence around the clinic and grounds.

Its lower floor provides exam rooms and a pharmacy; the second floor has a kitchen and dining room, plus sleeping quarters filled with cots; and the top floor has more cots. The top two floors also feature working showers and flushing toilets, amenities rarely seen anywhere in Haiti.

That clinic is beloved by the residents of Cyvadier, especially the men who built the clinic. Their pride has prompted many to bring trees and plants to beautify the grounds, and to keep a close eye on their investment. ''The people in Cyvadier feel they're better off now,'' local resident Belony Pitard said after the clinic opened. "When they go to other places, other people talk about what we have here.''

Over the past decade, work at the clinic has increased to six visiting teams a year, serving 15,000+ patients who otherwise would have no healthcare. It was those people Friends thought of first upon hearing news of the January earthquake.

With lines of transportation and communication compromised, many relief workers were stranded in America. Could Friends somehow push through the logjam and get to the desperate country?

“We Have to Be Here”
With all commercial flights canceled, Friends' 22 volunteers—from central Illinois, Iowa, Florida, South Carolina, Washington state and California—would be stranded in Florida. A charter flight was considered, but the $78,000 price was too costly. Meanwhile, the group made contacts with all conceivable inroads to alternative transportation, including the U.S. State Department, Transportation Department, the Air National Guard, U.S. Coast Guard and federal lawmakers. No go.

Soon, though, a break happened—not in America, but in Haiti.

CARE—Corporate Aviation Responding in Emergencies—had started flying special charters into Haiti with high-priority cargo, chiefly emergency medical personnel and supplies. CARE is a group of volunteers from the business aviation community that coordinates donated aircraft for critical transport during disasters.

Some of those flights went directly to Jacmel, near the FOTCOH clinic. There, locals receiving the flights at the airstrip told CARE pilots about the clinic, commenting that volunteers might not be able to get to Haiti. Pilots relayed the information to CARE coordinators, who at the same time began fielding calls from Friends, seeking flights.

CARE told Friends to get on stand-by. The team scrambled to get to Fort Lauderdale, bringing with them 2,000 pounds of emergency medical supplies, a portion of a $100,000 earthquake relief donation from OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. The first seven team members went out on three charters directly to Jacmel on January 19th. The remaining 15 team members went out on charters the next day.

The clinic would treat 2,300+ patients, many suffering injuries from the quake.

Eleven-year-old Charles LaFond was visiting a friend's home in Port-au-Prince with Charles' brother, father and mother. Suddenly, the earth shook, flattening the three-story building they were in. From the rubble, little Charles pulled out his mother, Rose Iris, 41. He could not get to his younger brother or his father, who died beneath the debris.

But Rose Iris remained in precarious shape—and intense pain. Rescue workers in the capital city had reattached a severed ear without anesthesia. Leg and foot fractures remained untreated.

Her loved ones believed her best chance at survival loomed far away, at the Friends of the Children of Haiti clinic. So, they helped her make the long trip over treacherous mountain roads. At the clinic, our medical personnel determined that the ear sutures had become infected, and the limb injuries had worsened. Carried in, she walked out on crutches to stay with relatives in nearby Jacmel.

Twin babies came in weighing only three pounds. Their mother had given birth to the preemies in Jacmel just two days after the quake and was still suffering from dangerous hypertension. Our team kept the infants warm and alive with an ersatz incubator made of a poncho, aluminum window trim, foil and exam lamps. The team watched them all night, and by morning the infants had improved.

After the dust from the earthquake had cleared, Taina Mentor, 5, was alive, but her left hand was crushed, so her mother brought her to the clinic. A surgeon examined her injuries and set her for surgery. What falling concrete had destroyed, Dr. Garron Lukas hoped to restore. The earthquake had prompted numerous amputations elsewhere, but Friends desperately tries to avoid that drastic option. And things were going well as Taina was prepped for surgery. A surgeon worked to repair the hand and Taina arrived in recovery, tended by her mother.

"We have to be here," said Sue Behrens of East Peoria, co-leader of the January medical team and director of the emergency department and trauma services at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. "These people depend on us. They have no other medical care. There's a lot of work to do—there's always a lot of work to do—but as always, we'll keep at it."

Friends’ annual budget is now approaching $1 million, when the value of donated professional services is included. In time, with more funding, Friends would like to expand the clinic's scope and size to staff the clinic 24/7, 365 days a year.

The organization depends on help from the community. Besides OSF, the group partners with the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Peoria (UICOMP), which offers a clinical rotation for medical residents with Friends and credit for its medical students who participate at the Friends clinic. Simantel has donated creative services and marketing expertise to focus Friends' fundraising efforts. Air-Land Transport provides office and warehouse space and transportation of medical supplies.

Meantime, Friends' program services have increased and so has its collaboration with other nonprofits. It continues to expand its child-sponsorship program, which provides financial support for nearly 300 Haitian children and their families. It has also launched a new nutritional program for kids with “Medika Mamba,” a peanut-butter-like food rich in nutrients developed by the St. Louis-based nonprofit Meds & Food for Kids. And, most recently, it has provided factory space on its land in Haiti to FilterPure, a Chicago area-based nonprofit which is creating cheap water filters for Haitians.

For all these reasons, the future looks challenging yet hopeful for Friends, says the group's executive director, Eric Behrens.

“Doing business in Haiti has always been challenging,” says Behrens. “You have to be self-sufficient to sustain your business there because basic infrastructure doesn’t exist and supply chains for essential goods and services are inconsistent. The earthquake has made this situation even worse, which has further crippled government institutions and many business entities.”

And now the need for Friends’ services has never been greater. More than one million people remain homeless and highly susceptible to infectious disease due to poor living conditions. Food is scarce and prices are high, often beyond reach for the largely destitute population.

“Many Haitians are just struggling day-to-day to survive,” says Behrens. “And their country is still highly vulnerable—perhaps only a hurricane away from another crisis.”

"We've been here for 25 years, and we're not going anywhere," he says. "We provide a wide range of services—everything from well-baby checks to major surgical procedures." We know our job and do it well. We'll keep doing it, as long as we have the support from Peoria and elsewhere—from people who know that every dollar contributed can mean another life saved." iBi

Phil Luciano is a columnist for the Peoria Journal Star. He has made multiple trips to Haiti with Friends of the Children of Haiti and served on its board of directors. More information is available at fotcoh.org.

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