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Sgt. Mark Gallgher Vocational School

Not God's action, but man's inaction; In the second of three installments, high school teacher Richard Blaquiere - a founding member of Woodstock Coalition of Care which plans to build the Sgt. Mark Gallagher Memorial Vocation School in Haiti - says nothing prepares you for Haiti

In last week's installment I shared my story of my travel partner, Brent Shaw, and I meeting a real life angel of mercy.

Vanessa Carpenter of Salem Virginia, was returning to Haiti to reunite two children with their families after the little ones were treated for life- threatening injuries in the U.S.

Vanessa, or Mama V as she was known by the flight attendant and those on the ground, founded the Three Angels Orphanage, the Port au Prince facility from which the Gray family in Northampton adopted their Haitian children, Djoulie and Darwig.

This week's installment picks up where I left off last week, in the air approaching the airport in Port au Prince where Atillis and Sylvian were to be reunited with their families.

As we began our descent - with Attilis still in my arms and now somewhat awake - Brent and I were both getting our first impressions of the country so recently ripped apart by the forces of nature.

We both exclaimed our surprise at how mountainous Haiti was - in fact three- quarters of Haiti is 600 feet above sea level and the word Haiti itself means "mountains."

Our landing was smooth and we were quickly shuttled to what now passes as the arrival terminal at the Toussaint d'Ouverture airport. It is, in fact, a converted hangar completely abuzz with a cacophony of languages and smells, smiles and tears.

Mama V began to experience motion sickness about 30 minutes before landing, so, as we prepared to disembark, Brent grabbed her carry-on luggage and kept an eye on Sylvian and I continued on with Attilis.

As soon as we entered the "terminal" Vanessa was met by a Haitian man who shepherded us through the line, bypassing the other passengers. Two other men took our baggage tags and excavated our belongings from a mountain of luggage in the middle of the floor.

People know Mama V!

Vanessa's assistant, a young attractive high-energy American nurse by the name of Kez, found us and - after hugging Vanessa and informing her that Atillis' and Sylvians families were waiting excitedly outside the door - she reached out for the now wide awake Atillis.

I kissed him and passed him over. He was one step closer to his mommy and daddy.

Chance encounters are not so rare as to create a mythology around them each and every time they occur. We all have them if we do any travelling at all. Life is! But some encounters appear to transcend coincidence and take on deeper, more profound meanings.

As one who struggles with his faith and who makes no claims to know what to expect, other than unconditional love, from God or what God expects of me, I rarely assign fault or favour with God for the actions of humans and nature. Life is!

This one shook me, however, and I have chosen to believe that meeting Vanessa in such a manner was a sign that the work our Carleton County Committee was about to embark upon was an expression and extension of God's love for all who suffer.

As well, on a personal level, it is an opportunity for me to, as the songs says, "get right with Jesus." Quite selfish, actually, if you think about it.

As we exited the airport the first person we saw was our AQANU partner, Reg Sorel, pointing a camera straight at us. Not far behind him was a blue-habited nun I knew to be one of les Petite Soeurs de Sainte Thérèse de l'Enfant Jésus who would be our hosts and guides for the weekend.

The heat and humidity was stifling. Accompanying Reg and Sr. Gisele was our driver, a Haitian man working with AQANU on a land management program in the countryside surrounding Riviere Froide.

As we walked to the truck we were swarmed by men and boys offering to carry our luggage. We had been told to resist their entreaties and Reg and the sister were quite blunt in telling them to back off. Not rude but quite direct. We modeled their actions.

Upon turning the corner of the fence which runs along the side of the walk leading to the street and protects the people in line into the airport, we were immediately confronted with the effects of the earthquake.

There were still piles of rubble, albeit small given our proximity to the airport, on the sides of the street. Buildings visible from the airport appeared to be wafered and crushed and the extent of the devastation became obscenely evident after we climbed into the truck and began the journey through Port au Prince to our home for the weekend, Riviere Froide.

Nothing really prepares you for the experience of being on the ground in Haiti. That holds true for those who visited the country before the earthquake and even more so after the quake, which saw close to 300,000 human beings swallowed up by the actions of nature or crushed by the inactions and neglect of humans.

The earthquake may have been an inappropriately defined "act of God" but the extent of the devastation was not of God's actions but rather of man's inactions in failing to build Haiti in a manner that reflected a respect for the people and a healthy fear of the forces of nature.

Earthquakes of equal or greater intensity have occurred in Chile and Mexico since Jan/ 12 but none have wrought the devastation equal to that visited upon the people of Haiti.

We drove past tent cities inhabited by tens of thousands of displaced persons most of whom were mourning family members and friends lost in the quake.

Everyone, including our nuns, suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There was no electricity, no running water and no garbage pickup. There was no ambulance service. The police, with the help of the U.N., had begun to restore some sense of order to the city during the day but their task was overwhelming and no one even suggested venturing out on those mean streets at night.

Armed guards were everywhere. Food was being distributed at centres throughout the city and we were told that some line-ups had as many as 30,000 people waiting patiently, many overnight, for the food they'd need to survive.

I understand that NGOs were asked by the central government to stop the distribution of free food last week so Haitians would not become overly dependent on foreign aid. This will be a death sentence for tens of thousands of innocent people who have no homes, no addresses, no jobs, nothing!

The primary thoroughfare leading from the airport was fairly clear but it was when we turned off the main road and began to make our way to Riviere Froide that we became witness to a poverty and misery so intense and pervasive that it took our breaths away.

There was a smell that was a mixture of food, garbage, smoke and rotting corpses still buried in the rubble. The side streets were barely passable. They would not have been wide before Jan. 12 but now tens of thousands of people, with their goats and pigs, roosters and chickens, lived literally on or just off the streets.

Life and the need to sustain it was evident everywhere, however. Thousands of people were lined along the roads selling coconuts, mangoes, bananas and even Coca-Cola. Those buildings that had not collapsed were largely uninhabitable and those deemed safe were empty because people were terrified of what might still happen.

Our driver could have trained demolition derby contestants at the Woodstock Old Home Week. There was only one direction and that was forward, and two speeds; fast and faster. Stop signs were not for stopping but rather were cues to lay on the horn as a warning to those pedestrians and vehicles who approached from around corners at intersections we were speeding towards.

Understanding right-of-way was simple. He/she who gets to a position first or who appears to have no inclination to slow down or stop, owns that spot. Think of a game of chicken with drivers, pedestrians and livestock all cognizant of the one rule of the game and that rule being that there were no rules.

On the way up to our destination we were too caught up in the images that spread out before us to be afraid. I cannot say the same for the return trip. These recollections are from our trip to the site of the proposed Sgt. Mark Gallagher Memorial Vocational School and of our return trip early Monday morning.

Sr. Gisele, at first quiet, asked the driver to give us a tour of some of the more devastated areas of Port au Prince, as well as of the landmarks that helped define the city.

Our first stop was at a compound with a church and seminary where only months earlier the routine of training young priests, assisting with the poor and attending mass were the order of the day. The buildings still stood but the roof had collapsed on the church and the fire escape ladder on the side of the seminary dangled crookedly down suggesting that the building had been shaken and stirred but had somehow remained mostly vertical.

Not so lucky were many of the other structures in the area.

We then drove to the presidential palace, once a source of great pride for the people of Haiti and now destined for demolition. It was built between 1914- 1921 and was a work of great architectural beauty. We stood outside the fence that surrounds the palace, across the way from another tent city of indeterminate numbers with people teeming in the streets and on the sidewalks.

For the Haitian people, losing the palace was the equivalent of our parliament buildings being destroyed or the White House for the Americans. Too, too sad.

We climbed back into the truck and headed in the direction of the mountains and the ascent to Riviere Froide. There was no let up in the destruction we saw. No decongestion in the streets. No gardens. No windows even. Just people doing their best to survive in the midst of so much death and destruction.

Evidence of the deep faith of the Haitian people was everywhere. Haitians are 80 per cent Roman Catholic with the remaining 20 per cent being shared among Baptists, Pentecostals and various Protestant denominations, a scattering of Jews and others.

I had heard that Voodoo was widespread but I saw no evidence of it. One person did tell me it was present in significant numbers but if I were looking for Voodoo dolls and other Hollywood depictions of this ancient African religion, I'd be disappointed. He explained that Voodoo was integrated into the mainstream (by our standards) religions much like the First Nations people of Canada have merged their traditional religious practices into their Western belief systems.

We had a few chuckles as we passed the Mercy of Jesus Hardware Store and the Thanks to God Loto Ticket Outlet. The multi-coloured buses and trucks that passed for public transport were covered with religious supplications and phrases. God loves you and God is good were the central themes of the public faith of the Haitian people.

With all of our help, Haiti will rise and maybe even be stronger than ever. But that is far down the road and we need to begin somewhere and we need to begin immediately. Help us build the Sgt. Mark Gallagher Memorial Vocational School in Riviere Froide. Have a fundraiser at your office, at your school, in your home, in your church or even your book club.

Carleton County Cares about Haiti. Contact me at Richard.Blaquiere@NBEd.NB. Ca or call me before 8 p.m. at 328-4868 most evenings. Next week will be the third and final installment of my memories and reflections of our whirlwind trip to Haiti. Thanks for staying with me.

Read Part 3 >>