Thursday, June 30, 2011

Back in Haiti again

Father Sadoni and Sonya with one of each size
of The Red Thread's All Terrain wheelchairs

If it seems like we just left Haiti and are back again, you are absolutely right. Four days after we returned to the states following our trip in early June, our shipment of wheelchairs finally released from customs and Haiti's international port. So what could we do other than organize another trip back to one of our favorite countries? So that's what we did.

Two team members, Steve and Sonya, arrived yesterday afternoon. After Sonya gave Steve a quick lesson in "Haiti 101", they spent the night at the hotel only to wake up, ready for work.

A mountain of cardboard awaited the two when they arrived at St. Vincent’s old site this morning. Boxes upon boxes, each containing a single All Terrain wheelchair, took up most of the space in the hot dusty room.

Boxes and boxes of wheelchairs

The team of workers tasked with the assembly was: 

  • Steve, who facilitated the manufacture of our All Terrain wheelchair, Rotarian (District 6110; district and international levels), and MSNI ambassador
  • Sonya, The Red Thread Promise Vice President
  • Ronald, St. Vincent’s Supervisor
  • Beloge, a journeyman brace shop worker
  • Fedelin, a brace shop apprentice
We tugged on gloves and wrestled with facemasks and set to work on un-boxing and putting together the chairs, teaching the brace shop workers in the process. They were both very adept and helpful with a great sense of humor.

Four different size wheelchairs were included in the shipment so we set out to find one of each. In order to complete this seemingly simple task, we organized the shipment, creating “zones” for each of the four sizes. Due to spatial constraints, the casual observer might have thought that we were trying to work a life-sized Rubik’s Cube, moving one box here, another box there, only to move the first box again. But in the end, we were successful, sweaty and proud of the newly organized space.

Steve (foreground) and the brace shop workers organizing the shipment

First on the assembly line was a 12” chair, one for a kindergarten-sized child or smaller—so tiny, one might almost label it “cute” if indeed a wheelchair can be called cute.

Steve and the brace shop workers examined every facet of the chair for damage during shipping. They tightened the front casters, checked to make sure the wheels were “true” (straight), mounted the seat cushion and gave the entire wheelchair a thorough inspection before it received a “thumbs up”. The final action was to apply one of our stickers, honoring the those who donated toward the shipment.

Tightening the casters on the first wheelchair

Examining every detail

The finishing touch!

The first completed wheelchair

The team then repeated this process for every chair that was assembled, over and over. It was like a well-oiled machine. Notes were made on ones that incurred slight damage in shipping and we jotted down ideas for improving the packing method. But, wow, was it fantastic to see all those red chairs!

Also put together were two of the three specialty chairs that were included in the shipment. These are completely different styles of wheelchairs for people with unique disabilities. One has the ability to recline completely, with a detachable headrest extension for someone needing to sleep in the chair while one of the others is like a tricycle, with three wheels. We felt that the best way for St. Vincent’s to determine if they could use these types of wheelchairs was to provide one of each for them to test.

One of the specialty wheelchairs

The chair fully reclined

Following the completion of the assembly for the day, we each selected a wheelchair to take to St. Vincent’s school and dormitory location. What a spectacle we must have been, pushing bright red, empty wheelchairs down the rubble-strewn road! People were staring at us from all directions, but we were all smiles.

Tomorrow we will distribute the chairs to all St. Vincent’s children and assemble more. We will also be teaching the brace shop workers how to fix the chairs, using the boxes full of repair and replacement parts provided. All in a day’s work in Haiti.

From left to right: 12" and 14" kid-size chairs;
16" and 18" adult-size wheelchairs

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Small black crosses

The cross at the top of the hill can be seen from quite a distance

One of the most incredibly emotional times of the week was our brief trip to St. Christophe.

About 45 minutes outside of Port-au-Prince in the sparsely populated wasteland of Titanyen, a small insignificant arrow points from the main road down a gravel path to our destination. Located on the edge of a mountain, facing the coast is St. Christophe.

For those who may not be familiar with the area, it is one of the mass graves outside Port-au-Prince. Its’ hills house thousands and thousands of bodies, all earthquake victims. We were told by our driver that at least 35 large truckloads of bodies were dumped at this site.

The entire group was silent as we slowly walked through the enormous cemetery. It was incredibly peaceful and equally painful at the same time as we all considered the immense loss of life that this area housed.

It was virtually impossible not to compare this sacred ground to Arlington Cemetery, with its rows of straight, perfectly cut stone monuments honoring the dead. However, this had a different feeling. Hundreds of simple wooden crosses, painted solid black, are planted in a large flat area at the base of a hill. After 17 months, fairly straight rows of the makeshift headstones cover the ground, some standing upright, while others lie on the ground, collapsed by weather or the weight of small wreaths.

Several large crosses were positioned at various points in the area. One was painted with purple morning glories contained a small placard that read:

January 12, 2010
Remember those who have traveled before us.

Sally reading the inscription on the cross

The clouds and light drizzle of the afternoon added to the somber atmosphere that enveloped us. But the most striking moment was when we were moving back into the van, preparing to leave. The cameramen were still shooting when we heard a soft beautiful voice. Strains of Amazing Grace were coming from behind us.

Those of us in the car scrambled out to see the source of the song: it was our driver and security man, Newton. He stood at the edge of the crosses singing out across the grave in Kreyol, touching everyone’s heart with his soulful lament.

It was one of those moments that couldn’t have been scripted any better.

Newton, our driver and soloist at St. Christophe

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The story behind the video

Bob, the director from be productions

Al, the cinematographer from barking cat pictures

So, let’s just start off by saying that The Red Thread Promise did not set out to make a video about our work this year. We’ve been too busy with our day-to-day humanitarian activities and always tight budgets to even consider such a thing. However, in early 2011, that silken red thread of destiny was revealed again when Sonya (TRTP VP) connected to a really interesting man named Bob and the rest, as they say, is history.

During a small job in which the two worked together, Sonya mentioned that she wanted to wrap things up before her first trip to Haiti in February. And the door to conversation opened.

It was evident from Bob’s first question that he was interested in our work. Of our 2 hour meeting that day, only about 45 min related to the job – the rest focused on The Red Thread, specifically about what we do in Haiti. And of course, Sonya did what she does best, which was talk it up! From The Red Thread’s agenda for the first trip (see our posts in Feb – March, 2011), to TRTP’s overall mission, objectives and goals and everything in between.

Sonya wasn’t even in the parking lot after the meeting before she was on the phone to Kathy explaining the extraordinary phenomenon that had just transpired – a relatively simple business meeting had the potential to turn into a professional video promoting awareness of TRTP and our work. We couldn’t believe that someone of Bob’s talent would be interested in our little grassroots organization. But something struck a chord with him and he grasped that red thread.

After a few more calls and meetings, it was a done deal—we were going to Haiti with a camera crew to shoot the video! Bob recruited a fantastic cinematographer, Al, who has been such an asset to our team. The two of them have more years of experience making commercials and films than we can count. (Pinch me, is this really happening?)

Yet here we are, getting ready to hop on our return flight to Miami after spending the week together in Haiti. We shot from dawn till dusk, in the sunshine as well as the driving rain, no makeup, no hairdryers, covered in sweat – this is the real deal folks. There were tons of laughs, definitely some tears as we choked up talking about the kids, some moments of frustration since none of our team had ever been in front of a camera before. Need we say more?

Of course we will. In next post. Whenever we can get internet service again. Signing out from Haiti. Back to the US we come.

Surprise, surprise, SUPPLIES!

Kathy (left) unpacking the supplies for the blind school

A blind giving a math lesson using the new materials

As is customary for our trips to Haiti, we came bearing supplies and ready to work.

Whenever possible, we try to give the supplies directly to those who will be using them as it is such a joy to see their reactions. On Wednesday we unpacked the box of materials for the blind school in the presence of several sight-impaired teachers and students. To see the teacher’s face light up when he realized that not only did we bring the math materials he needed, but that we provided all 25 sets as requested, warmed our hearts. He was so grateful that he immediately stood up, shook Kathy’s hand and thanked us. He shared that it was his dream for each student to have this important learning material and that we had made that dream come true. He was so happy that we even received an impromptu demonstration.

Kathy explaining the use of the truing stand to John Robert

Some weeks before our trip, we received word that the clubfoot clinic was in need of a baby scale to weigh the tiny patients. A Montessori elementary school in Columbus, Ohio held a read-a-thon where students accepted pledges from friends and family for every page they read one special day at school. The class exceeded their own needs for the fundraiser and named The Red Thread Promise as one of its’ beneficiaries for the overage. A group of twenty-six 4th, 5th and 6th graders donated the funds to purchase the baby scale as well as a truing stand (for use in keeping wheelchair wheels straight and round). Our youngest supporters never cease to amaze us with their compassion!

Various pharmaceuticals, personal items (including soap, hand sanitizer, toothbrushes, toothpaste) as well as a new printer and computer for the blind school were donated by an Episcopal church in Seattle, Washington. Two of the church’s deacons even traveled with us to deliver everything by hand, tour St. Vincent's and interact with the children.

We were also able to order and hand-carry in some additional materials for the blind school that could not be purchased in Haiti, including such basic items as dual tape recorders.

While these supplies may not be fancy or glamorous, they mean the world to students and educators merely 1.5 hours from Florida, on the small island of Hispanola, in the country of Haiti, in the city of Port-au-Prince, at St. Vincent’s Center for Handicapped Children. We are honored to help in any way we can and can continue to do so thanks to your support.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Camp Jake update

Potential camp grounds in Montrois

Monday’s excursion led us out of PAP to Montrois to scout the area as a potential site for Camp Jake, the first summer camp for St. Vincent's orphaned students. Six team members piled into the van and headed out for the long drive from the urban jungle of Port-au-Prince into the countryside and along the coast.

When we arrived at our destination, we first explored the property on foot. We noted various buildings dotting the grounds: several dormitories, a small yellow chapel, the kitchen and dining area and small dwellings for the staff.There were several flat areas scattered between the buildings that might be well utilized for games, cookouts and other outdoor activities. But, as with much of Haiti there were also plenty of rough areas that might pose challenges for sight-impaired and non-ambulatory children.

The dining hall

The beach was rocky but lovely, the surf gently crashing on the small shore. Sea urchins, snails of every color and other oceanic life speckled the smooth stones. However, the dropoff to the beach was very steep causing concerned about accessibility for the children.

The coast of Haiti in Montrois

Kathy and Tom discussing the rocky drop off to the beach

During our time there, we had the opportunity to meet with Fr. Sadoni to discuss the details of the camp. Some of our shared goals include giving the children experiences they would not otherwise have during their summer months at St. Vincent’s such as swimming, various sports, jewelry making, manicures, watching movies, extended food choices, art and music.

Tom (left) outside one of the dormitories

While the seminary was indeed inviting, much work would need to be done in the two short months till the first camp before we could safely utilize the area. We felt the need to explore other options that might be more conducive to our vision for Camp Jake. Tom, camp director, began researching alternate locations to determine what was the best fit for these exceptional children.

We are thrilled to share that he has found the perfect spot for the first camp! It is approximately 1.5 hours away from St. Vincent’s—taking the children out of the city will be a treat in and of itself. The property is secure and boasts small cabins that sleep multiple children in each one. There is ample space for crafts and indoor activities as well as a pool, and tennis and volleyball courts where the children can explore and learn new sports.
(Where are the photos of this new area? Sadly, they are on Tom's lost phone somewhere in US customs.)

Our next step is to gather extensive information about each camper so that we can tailor our programming and volunteers to match their individual needs. We will be meeting with Fr. Sadoni today to get this vital information.

We will share more details as the camp unfolds for the summer of 2011 and look to you for financial support to make this a success.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

JoJo's artwork (again!)

For anyone interested in supporting St. Vincent's, we are again selling some of JoJo's artwork. You can read more about JoJo here. Below are some of the pieces currently for sale and the associated prices. (Please note that shipping is not included. All sizes are approximate - we did not have a ruler or tape measure to take true measurements.)

Please email or message The Red Thread Promise on Facebook if you are interested in any of the paintings. A portion of the purchase price goes to JoJo and a portion directly to St. Vincent's for food and other immediate necessities.

We hope you enjoy his artwork as much as we do!

Market women 1 - medium (10 x 12"ish) - $50

Market women 2 - medium (10 x 12"ish) - $50

Market women 3 - small (8 x 10"ish) - $25

Market women 4 - medium (10 x 12"ish) - $50

Market women 5 - medium (10 x 12"ish) - $50

Earthquake 1 - large (36 x 24ish) - $400 US

Earthquake 1 - large (24 x 36ish) - $400 US