The terrible earthquake that struck Haiti the afternoon of January 12, 2010 will not soon be forgotten by anyone on the island of Hispaniola, by the relatives of the 400,000 dead and injured, or by those who live their lives while considering the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”(Gen 4:9)
Immediately after the earthquake the Knights of Columbus mobilized to provide aid to the people of Haiti. The Global Wheelchair Mission was blessed to receive sponsorship from the Supreme Council for 1,000 brand new wheelchairs to be sent to Port au Prince. At the same time, Wheelchair Sunday parish drives were being held at churches in California, Florida, Arizona and Oregon to sponsor an additional 1,000 wheelchairs, 1,000 pairs of crutches, 1,000 canes and 2,000 backpacks for school children who had no way to carry their books to school after losing everything in their homes.
On April 26th a team of 26 people set out by bus from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic for an 8 hour journey. The destination was Port au Prince, Haiti. Knights from the U.S., Canada and the Dominican Republic were onboard, including the California State Chaplain Msgr. Nestor Rebong, the State Deputy from the Dominican Republic and past state deputies from Saskatchewan and Florida. Their purpose was to deliver wheelchairs to needy patients at the University of Miami Medishare Hospital when Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, Supreme Advocate John Marrella, Supreme Director Dennis Stoddard and Florida State Deputy Doug Murray flew in the next day for the distribution.
After visiting the M.A.S.H. style tent hospital near the Port au Prince airport, the team traveled to a makeshift orphanage created by a local pastor to care for approximately 30 children who had each lost both parents in the earthquake. There was no running water or electricity, there was not even a finished house, but the team camped out under the stars with the enthusiastic embrace of all the children present. A meal was cooked by flashlight under the stars on open fires and beds consisted of a few cots, a few mattresses and lots of cardboard wheelchair boxes laid out on the ground. It was a warm and beautiful night. Songs could be heard from the Haitians in the tent city just a half mile down the road. Our surrounding elements were identical to theirs, but they had lost everything, and were still singing.
As first light arrived around 5:00 am so did the kids who could not wait to spend more time with their new friends. The team cooked breakfast for everyone, including all of the children, wheelchairs were loaded onto a truck, and it left for the hospital compound 90 minutes away. The team saw much more on the way back into town in the light of day. Among these were many collapsed houses and the national soccer stadium where the World Cup team had been training – all of whom died in the earthquake. Collapsed walls, tent cities, desperate men, women and children, tent cities, big smiles and waves as we went by, and still more tent cities. The sheer magnitude of the loss in these people’s lives was clearly coming into view the further we drove.
Arriving at the hospital around 10:00 am the team had a chance to meet the wheelchair recipients. Big smiles, warm hugs and endless gratitude came from them to us. As each person came out of the tents in their new wheelchairs they were so thankful. Each person was asked what the first thing was they were going to do with their new wheelchair, and each one answered, “First I want to go to church to thank God for my life, for your generosity and to ask Him to bless you so you can continue to bless more people.” The words changed a bit from person to person, but the sentiment was identical. These were wonderful, prayerful people who could not be more sincere.
Violette St. Germain is a 27 year old girl who was in her home cooking dinner when the earthquake hit. The house collapsed, killing her 5 siblings and trapping her under the rubble for 4 days. She lost part of her left leg to gangrene because rescuers just left her on the side of the road once she was freed. They were sure she would die, so she did not receive medical care for several more days. But Violette had no intention of dying. She had lost her dad just one week before the earthquake and knew she had to be there for her mom. Now all of her siblings were dead, and only her mom remained because she was not in the house when it hit. Buried under tons of concrete Violette knew she would survive. She said that just before the rescuers got to her house she heard angels singing. She knew her prayers had been answered and there was a purpose for her life to continue. After reaching the hospital she saw people getting wheelchairs but she could not get one. So she prayed to God, “Please let more white people come to give me a wheelchair, and that is exactly what happened. I got my wheelchair, I am thanking God and I am very happy.”
The Supreme Knight and his delegation arrived at the hospital compound. They visited the crowded tents with hundreds of people being treated for their injuries. The reality of the situation was difficult to absorb but the dedication and care being demonstrated by all of the hospital volunteers was inspiring.
Supreme Knight Anderson spoke to the people under the tent who had just received their new wheelchairs and told them in part, “Perhaps this earthquake signaled the end of an old era and the beginning of a new one. An era where the people of the region can be brought closer together. Some of us who read the bible remember one of the earliest expressions from the book of Genesis. Am I my brother’s keeper? The answer today must be the same as in the pages of the bible. We must be our brother’s keeper, and we must be able to offer each other a helping hand.”
As he shook the hand of each wheelchair recipient, the Supreme Knight heard very grateful thank you’s. Jeremy said, “Thank you to God first, and then thank you to you.” Cecilia told him that with the help of God she will someday be able to pay back his kindness. Just moments later the Supreme Knight said, “What makes such a deep impression is that when you look into the eyes of these people, you don’t see despair. You see suffering, but you also see hope!” When asked about the dedication of the Knights to saving and improving so many lives, he said, “The unique contribution that Christians make is the understanding that life is sacred at every stage of its development, and regardless of its condition. All of us rejoice at the tremendous efforts to rescue and help these people. Why? Because their lives have such value!”
The following day a distribution of 80 wheelchairs was conducted in Santo Domingo. The HHS Foundation serves as our distribution partner in the Dominican Republic and Haiti and was able to identify many Dominican citizens who were in Haiti during the earthquake and were now in great need of wheelchairs.
Msgr. Nestor Rebong reflected on the experience in Haiti the previous day, “What I will never forget is the look in their eyes. A sense of hope, and they are able to smile. It does not take much for them to be happy and thankful for God’s blessings.”
Probably the greatest impact on every participant of the wheelchair distribution in Haiti was the obvious resiliency of spirit that each one of the wheelchair recipients possessed. Here are people who have been horribly beaten by a corrupt government and deplorable living conditions for years, then an apocalyptic earthquake kills and injures hundreds of thousands, makes over a million people homeless with only the most meager of provisions to survive, and these people are still vibrant, hopeful, smiling, happy, singing, prayerful, and sincerely grateful for our gestures of help and friendship. Thanking God was the first thing we heard from every person. And as should we be thankful for lessons learned from people so blessed by the appreciation of God’s love, through the kindness of our brothers, our keepers, in His name.