Jewish World Review Jan. 24, 2011 / 19 Shevat, 5771
Haiti Teaches Us Lessons in Life
By Mitch Albom
"We are afraid," they would tell you. "Maybe it happens again."
It is not happening again. Not on this night. On this night, one year after the horrific earthquake that altered
But most significantly -- there are beds. Dozens of them. Brand new bunk beds made of freshly cut wood. The kids, many of them orphans, others abandoned by parents who could not afford their care, stand in the hallway biting their fingers or leaning innocently into the crook of each other's bodies.
For 12 months, fear has owned their nights.
Tonight, they get their nights back.
"Are you ready?" we ask.
They nod silently.
How do you know you are in
That's how you know you are in
And when two dozen volunteers from greater
That's when you know you are in
"Power's out!" someone yells. Drills die. Fans slow. Bodies slump. Heads shake. The electricity, for no reason -- because there is never a reason -- has been shut off from the city. Within minutes, a generator is launched. It rumbles like a jet engine.
"Power's up!" someone yells. Heads lift. Drills commence. Fans spin.
This is the third big trip for the ensemble known as The Detroit Muscle Crew, a collection of roofers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers, masons, painters and other volunteers who heard about this orphanage in
In previous visits, they built the first running toilets, the first showers and the first kitchen the orphanage had ever seen. This trip will see them nearly complete a three-room schoolhouse, on the grounds, so that education will never again be interrupted the way it has been for most of the past year.
But this trip, this anniversary visit, is not about new structures.
It is about new lives.
"Breathe like this," the nurse says. The little girl inhales and exhales. Her vital signs are being checked, her height and weight recorded, her skin and scalp examined for disease.
This is the first medical check-up ever for 6-year-old
But this time, four medical types -- three nurse practitioners, one nutritionist -- have come to change that. Because enough is enough. You can't just go on year after year oblivious to your health. We don't. And the mantra is, "If we don't, why do they have to?"
One little boy, Marcus, is about to celebrate his third birthday. Every trip we have seen him, his nose and lips have been covered with mucus. Now, after his first examination, a simple determination is made.
"Allergies," says Dr.
Twenty minutes later, his lips and nose are dry.
His mother looks on in amazement, then hugs the visitors as if she'd just witnessed a miracle.
It's as if one year later, a trembled earth is still trembling. The hastily constructed "tent cities" in
Help has come in countless trucks and tents, but money also has been wasted. Resources diverted. Aid has been politicized. There is no doubt of this. Charges of corruption are rampant. Political turmoil, a Haitian constant, is worse in the current prolonged election cycle, and piles of burning tires and random gunshots make the streets scary and the mood edgy.
I have often said you can't save this country, but you can save a piece of it. The piece we have chosen is this little mission, on a few dusty acres in the Delmas 33 section of the city. Originally called
We are still digging.
At precisely noon on a sun-beaten Wednesday, a horn is sounded, and the mission kids, many barefoot, sit down on the kitchen floor, confused as to why they have been assembled. We have prepared platters of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cups of orange juice, and some trail mix.
"From now on, you're going to eat three meals a day, OK?" they are told. The words are translated into Creole, and you can see them fall like raindrops on their faces. Some blink. Others fidget.
Three times a day?
"Never do we have something like this," says
"I think they like them," he says. We watch the kids tear into the sandwiches, chomping on the sticky ingredients. They are all smiles, reveling in this sudden surprise meal.
I try to think about my first lunch. I have no idea when it was. I can only remember expecting it, not being surprised by it.
That distinction is also how you know you are in
The sun darts through clouds. Slightly past 4:30 in the afternoon, the entire mission gathers in a small makeshift chapel -- which also doubles as a classroom. Everyone drifts in, not just the kids, but the cook, the laundress, the teacher, all the volunteers. No one need make an announcement. You can almost hear the country coming to a halt.
Inside the chapel, the
"We must give thanks to G0d that we are alive, that G0d saved us," Yonell says, launching into a song of gratitude.
And I, I'm desperate
And I, I'm lost without You
Oh, Lord, I'm lost without You
And herein lies the small miracle of the Haitian people. That no matter how awful the tragedy, they lift themselves up, take stock of their survival, then speak to the Lord not in scolding tones for what did happen, but in grateful tones for what did not.
The sun is setting, and the children are gathered outside a freshly painted dining room. Inside the dining room, something new: tables and chairs.
For as long as most of them can remember, the kids have eaten by grabbing a bowl of rice and beans and finding a corner of the ground to sit in, maybe leaning against a wall.
We are introducing the concept of "the dinner table." Once again, it needs to be explained.
"Families sit around a table, they eat together, give thanks for their food together, and talk together, right?" comes the message.
The kids look up blankly. How would they know?
"Well, that's what we're going to do tonight."
With a small fanfare, the kids are escorted into the dining room and they scramble into the chairs. Bowls of a chicken dish are brought to them (part of the new healthy eating program introduced with the help of first-time visitor
"OK, let's eat!"
The children spoon the food. The chew carefully. But they are quiet. Too quiet. They look across the table. They swallow and proceed eating in near silence.
"What's going on?" I whisper to one of the staff.
And I am told an answer: That these kids don't ever sit in chairs or at a table unless its school or church. And so they are acting as they would in those places. Reverential.
At a dinner table.
Their first dinner table.
And once again,
Last month, Michiganders contributed more than
So was the donation of a truck by two men,
But if there was one moment of this trip (the likes of which we hope to repeat four times a year: spring, summer, fall and winter), one moment that truly shook you, made you nearly fall to your knees, it was where this story began, in the dorms, outside the bedrooms, on the anniversary of the quake, where the kids were waiting and watching nervously.
"All right, come on!"
And in they ran, to their old rooms with the new beds, gingerly at first, then faster, then squealing, screaming, then jumping into the mattresses, the low ones, the high ones. They sprawled. They flipped. They mocked sleep. They popped up. They crawled to the high beds, they dove into the low ones.
And they began to sing. Yes. Sing. And dance. I don't know the song. I don't know the movement. If nature gave it a title, it would be "joy."
Unbridled. Unconcerned. Unembarrassed.
And to see that spring back to life, one year after it had been seemingly crushed forever, was a moment not to miss. For those of you who helped make it possible in this little corner of
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