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In Haiti there are small pockets of hope

"Why would anybody want to go to Haiti?" I was asked, "It's hopeless there." Well, we went anyway, a team of six, because of an assignment that had to be taken care of. Once the airline ticket was paid for the Rubicon had been crossed. No turning back. But, I must confess, the first impression upon arrival was "this looks hopeless."

The "hopeless" appearance comes from observing piles of earthquake rubble being moved, if at all, by shovel and wheelbarrow, tent city after tent city, each tent on a patch about 10 feet square without electricity, bathrooms, running water, privacy or even breathing room. The streets were noisy and dusty, full of holes and pits that forced vehicles to the opposite side to face or stop for oncoming traffic, disabled abandoned vehicles, the smell of diesel fuel in the air, chaotic and congested traffic, almost no traffic signs or signals. And lining the streets for miles were little open air stands selling fruit, vegetables, groceries, soda pop, water, shirts, pants, underwear, drug store supplies, hardware, most of life's necessities, like an endless flea market. Many homes not damaged by the earthquake were patch jobs and lean-tos, not built as much as scraped together. Goats and pigs could be seen rummaging through garbage piles for food. Anything that appeared substantial was mostly hidden behind walls and locked gates. The appearance and feel of extreme poverty permeated the atmosphere, along with what appeared to be a smog.

Then there was the heat and humidity. They were relentless at all hours of the day and night. The daytime temperatures were 98 to 100 degrees and nighttime lows were about 82 to 85 degrees. Humidity in the 90's. When you could get a shower, the heat and humidity were back sticking on your skin 15 minutes later. Working in the heat (painting) had you soaking wet in minutes. The heat was brutal at all times including 6:30 a.m. when we left for the airport to come home. I'm not tough enough to return to Haiti in August.

At one point I asked where I could get some postcards and postage stamps. It turns out Haiti has no postal system so you don't send postcards from Haiti.

But it's not hopeless. Not at all. The Haitian people are open and cordial. You don't have to know their language (French/Creole) to communicate. They all smile immediately and shake any hand offered. The traffic is unbelievably chaotic, but there is no American road rage. Horns were honking, but drivers were signaling "you can get ahead of me" or "let me slip in here" or "I'm honking because I'm coming around this blind corner." Somehow it all works. Courtesy seems to be the reason.

If we have 25 to 30 percent obesity in this country, it can't be more than one percent in Haiti. Part of that is undoubtedly the limit of diet, but part appears to be genetic. There are lots of lean bodies and slim legs, almost a national build and the women and children in particular are most attractive and colorful in their dress.

In six days, our team of six saw exactly four people, among the crowded thousands we passed on the streets, who were smoking cigarettes. Although I saw a cigarette billboard, cigarettes are apparently not part of the Haitian lifestyle.

Yes, I told you about a team of six with an assignment. The assignment was in a pocket of hope. A young woman from Haiti, Miquette, came to the U.S. as an exchange student and ended up staying to complete high school and even get a college degree at Concordia College in Moorhead in training as a nurse. It would have seemed natural if she had decided to stay here and live the good life.

But she didn't. She returned to Haiti where she is employed at a private school as a school nurse and biology teacher. But she has a mission: the education of Haitian children. There is no free public education in Haiti, so if a child's family can't pay tuition at a private school, the kid doesn't get to go to school and will remain uneducated without the ability to read or write and will be untrained. Then the options are extremely limited -- many become servant/slaves.

So, with the support of friends and sponsors in Minnesota and North Dakota, a non-profit TeacHaiti, LLC was formed to raise money for scholarships for Haitian children. It costs about $350 a year for one child. These kids are then placed in various private schools. But this year, TeacHaiti has leased an old house to start a school of its own in addition to the other placements. The team of six, a dedicated father, his two energetic daughters, an earnest young teacher, mother of two, an astute businessman and me, were dispatched to work with Miquette to paint and shape up the school for classes beginning this fall. Her brother, sister, cousins, nieces, nephews and friends helped. Or did we help them? They certainly know how to work.

We carried with us new and used dictionaries, school books, chalk, crayons, notebooks, pencils, paper, erasers, calculators, staplers, clipboards, uniform t-shirts and khakis and school supplies of every description -- up to 50 pounds apiece.

We saw Miquette in operation as she shopped for paint, brushes, chairs, desks, tables and general school needs. She knows and charms her people and she knows the ropes. Driven by faith and determination, there isn't much she can't do.

We visited an orphanage and helped feed the children at breakfast time then played with them. They crave attention. There will be no way to forget those children or that orphanage.

We had a little ice cream reception for TeacHaiti school kids and their parents. The families were in their very best clothes and were most grateful for educational opportunities. Lots of smiles, hand shakes, high fives, hand slaps and thank you's. For some it was the first time they'd ever tasted ice cream. Earlier, we had visited the nearby homes of two of the students. There will be no way to forget those homes either.

Was the effort hopeless? A team of six can't get much done in six days. But it's not hopeless. We were in a pocket of hope -- the education of children. Will any of those school kids turn out to be another Miquette? We hope so. We can either do a little or pass by on the other side of the road. It's like the boy who came to a beach just as the tide had gone out and left thousands of starfish on the sand to die if they couldn't be returned to the water. So he started picking them up, one at a time, and throwing them back into the sea. Somebody came along and said, "Don't you know how hopeless this is -- thousands of starfish -- you can't possibly make a difference." The boy answered by picking up another starfish and throwing it into the water. "It sure made a difference to that one," he said. That's the beach we were on.