From the moments I learned of the cataclysm in Haiti and subsequently of the loss of over 230,000 lives, among whom were several Canadians including Woodstock based Sgt. Mark Gallagher, I could think of little else.
Sgt. Gallagher's sacrifice and that of his family made this disaster personal for me and indeed for many people in Carleton County.
As I watched the news each day, tears flowed freely and frequently.
I cried for the children. I cried for the elderly who were dying in the streets. I cried for Sgt. Gallagher and his family.
I cried for a country, once responsible for the production and distribution of half the coffee on the planet and 40 per cent of the sugar used and traded by Britain and France.
I wept for this country and its citizens who have been regularly victimized and abandoned by nature and the malice and ineptitude of leaders - often with little concern for civil governance and the basic needs of the people.
Haiti was the site of the first successful slave rebellion in the world and was, in fact, the first nation on the planet to be governed by people of African descent. Haiti had promise and now Haiti was crippled beyond the imagination of even the most battle and disaster hardened witnesses of history. Think Hiroshima. Think Dresden.
Vanessa, Atillis, serendipity
On April 9, former New Brunswick Teachers Association president and current vice president of the Canadian Teachers Federation (CTF) and Carleton County native Brent Shaw and I flew into Port au Prince, Haiti on an exploratory mission for our project to build the Sgt. Mark Gallagher Memorial Vocational School in Riviere Froide.
The CTF had put me in touch with Reg Sorel, director of the Quebec based AQANU (aca-noo), 'Association pour l'avancement des Nations Unies', a non- profit volunteer run NGO that has worked on the ground in Haiti with Haitian and Canadian partners for over 35 years. (www.aqanu.org)
AQANU had made contact with an order of nuns, Les Petites Soeurs de Sainte Thérèse who were based in Riviere Froide but whose missions were located in 28 communities in Haiti.
Their work included running a home for destitute elderly Haitian women, an AIDS Hospice and a second school in Riviere Froide where 200 children with intellectual and physical disabilities were nurtured and educated.
Their primary/secondary school, once the education centre for 1300 children was flattened with the loss of 144 children, four nuns and two lay teachers. More on the nuns, the children and the school, past and future, in the next installment of my recollection and impressions of our trip to Haiti.
We boarded the Miami-to-Port au Prince flight mid-afternoon Friday. The American Airlines Flight 816 was three-quarters full with NGO volunteers, Christian Mission groups and returning Haitians.
My assigned seat had a neighbour so I found two empty seats side by side behind Brent and asked the attendant if I could move. No problem.
Across from me in my new spot was a woman, who appeared to be in her 40s, wearing hospital scrubs. She was holding a beautiful squirmy Haitian baby boy in her arms, while an older boy sat in a seat next to her.
I struck up a conversation with her and found out that she is this amazing human being who over the years has raised funds and worked with a U.S. Christian organization and Haitian Medical professionals to identify children in need of treatment unavailable in Haiti.
This woman, Vanessa Carpenter, then brings the children to the U.S. for surgery and rehabilitation and once they are ready, flies back with them to Haiti.
More than 250 children have been recipients of Vanessa's love and her love for the children is matched only by her love of God. For Vanessa, it is one and the same. Faith in action.
This baby boy, Atillis was his name, had a scar running from the right front side of his head across his scalp to the back. He was in a coma for a bit and not expected to live but was now en route home to be reunited with his parents who survived the earthquake and who were waiting for him at the airport.
The older boy, Sylvain, had been in the U.S. since last summer after an accident took his mother and left him with a right leg so mangled and twisted that it had to be rebroken and reset several times. He was now able to walk on his own with barely a noticeable limp.
An exhausted Vanessa, after a few minutes of conversation, passed Atillis across the aisle to me to allow her some movement and respite from this beautiful child of seeming perpetual motion.
I told her to sleep, which she soon did, and I held this beautiful gift from God for the rest of the flight and through customs until Vanessa was ready to reunite him with his mom and dad. Sylviain's father was also waiting for him.
Earlier, while still on AA 816, after I gave Atillis his bottle and after he fell asleep cradled in my arms, I told Vanessa about the incredible work being done in Carleton County by several church groups, health-care professional teams and community organizations that included our work on the school.
I told her that this work had been ongoing for years and that people like Dean Stephenson and Luke and Bonnie Weaver and others worked tirelessly on the ground in Haiti to ameliorate the lives of misery and desperation of so many Haitians.
I told her about the Gray children being the first to be adopted in Canada after the earthquake. I shared with her how the whole community embraced the Gray babies, two-year-old Djoulie and Darwig, who is close to one year old.
"Are they home yet? Have you seen them?" They were front page news.
They were in everyone's thoughts and prayers and when they finally arrived home, a fundraiser for the orphanage from which they were adopted was held at the Woodstock United Baptist Church, the spiritual home of the Grays and several hundred local families.
The church was full and the newly reconstituted Gray family, amid prayers and tears and songs of faith and celebration, was introduced to the world. I sat at the back and wept once more but this time with joy and reverence.
What happened next on that flight from Miami to Haiti still accelerates my emotions which have been close to the surface since I arrived home. I understand that this is common among visitors to Haiti.
I told Vanessa that the Gray children were adopted by Michelle and Tim Gray, a process that had begun much earlier, from the Three Angels Orphanage in Port au Prince. Knowing that orphanages are a growth industry in Haiti and not really expecting her to know about this organization, I nonetheless asked her if she had heard of the Three Angels Orphanage.
And this is where the transformative nature of my trip to Haiti began to unfold. Not only had she heard of it ... she founded it several years ago as an important component of her Angel's Mission in Port au Prince.
It was, so to speak, her baby. Think about the odds. Me. Miami. Random seat. Vanessa. Baby boy. Baby girls. The Grays. Woodstock. Haiti. A point in time. Convergence. Serendipity? Maybe. Vanessa would say not. I leave it to the reader.
Next week I will share with the reader my impressions of journey through the apocalyptic-like landscape of Port au Prince and introduce readers to the amazing Petites Soeurs de Sainte Thérèse.