Here in Idaho, 3,000 miles away, we don’t hear much about what’s been happening in our hemisphere’s poorest nation.
Few countries have known more suffering than Haiti – earthquakes, hurricanes, grinding poverty and, most recently, violent protests that continue to claim lives.
Idahoans, long noted for their generosity, are providing assistance through a project that has been helping the people of Haiti for 25 years.
Coverage of the violence in Haiti has been scant, sporadic. Political news and disasters in the U.S. – floods, fires, Hurricane Dorian – have dominated the news cycle.
That doesn’t mean that nothing newsworthy is happening in Haiti. Protests over rising inflation, lack of basic goods and government corruption have turned streets into battle zones, claimed some 20 lives and blocked so many streets and roads that garbage is piling up even in hospitals. Overcrowded morgues have no place left for the dead.
Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center’s Project Haiti has been working to help the poor in Haiti since 1994, sending medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and volunteers. It was founded to support the work of two Catholic priests who had established a hospital and orphanage to care for abandoned children dying of AIDS.
One of them, Fr. Rick Frechette, could have had a relatively bland career as a parish priest in his native New England. Instead, he devoted his life to helping the poor in Haiti, where he has spent the last three decades. He didn’t think he could do enough for them as a priest so, working by candlelight during the country’s frequent blackouts, he became a medical doctor. He’s treated everything from broken bones to cholera, and continues to work on the front lines of the ongoing violence.
It’s been my good fortune to have interviewed Fr. Rick, as he is universally known, during two of his visits to Boise to help raise money for Project Haiti. It’s impossible to spend time with him and not feel awe for what this one man has done to ease the physical suffering and tend to the spiritual needs of thousands.
He was scheduled to speak in Boise during Project Haiti’s 25th anniversary event in September, but the turmoil in Haiti and flight cancellations caused by Hurricane Dorian forced him to cancel. Fr. Enzo Del Brocco, who works with him in Haiti, was already in the U.S. when the hurricane struck so he came to Boise instead. By interviewing him and reading email updates from Fr. Rick, I learned just how horrific things are in Haiti now.
The protests, Fr. Rick wrote, have become “incrementally worse and more destructive.
“… Port au Prince (the capital and largest city) is cut off from the provinces, and vice versa. Businesses and banks are often closed and frequently attacked. Schools have not been able to open since September. … The sick cannot get to hospitals, nor can oxygen, fuel, supplies or even doctors. … Hunger is the problem of the majority; malnutrition is rising sharply. We are on the verge of civil war”
Vehicles are smashed and burned at barricades, the barricades themselves set afire. Drinking water has to be delivered to poor areas where it’s no longer available. Fuel shortages and barricades have virtually ended basic services. It’s a challenge just to bury bodies unclaimed at the morgue and hospitals.
“We have been trying for eight days to bury the overflowing dead,” Fr. Rick wrote. At the morgue, “blood is flowing slowly out the bottom doors, full of maggots. There is not even room for a dead newborn,”
Violence is a constant threat. He and his team were attacked while burying the dead, his truck “burned to oblivion.”
Fr. Del Brocco came to Haiti to work with him in 2013, intending to stay a month or two, and has been there six years. For the first three years, he lived in a metal container box. He has masters degrees in philosophy, theology and human resources and is close to completing a doctoral degree in bioethics, the study of ethical issues arising from advances in medicine and technology.
“Technology is so advanced here in the U.S. that you almost have a ventilator for every person in a hospital,” he said. “In Haiti, a hospital might have one or two. How do you use what limited resources you have? The toughest choices aren’t between right and wrong but between two things that are right.”
He himself has been hospitalized twice during his time in Haiti, once with an intestinal disease and once with malaria.
“I was fortunate in that I lived behind a hospital with doctors and nurses and medicine. I see children who come to the hospital with the same things I had and they don’t make it. By the time their mothers walk to the hospital with them, it’s too late. … In Haiti, people see their children die every day.”
Even with all they have had to endure – the deaths, the violence, the suffering – the people he helps continue to be an inspiration to him:
“From the very beginning, I’ve felt the love of the Haitian people. And they have a positive sense of pride. No matter how poor they are, they take care of themselves and their children. You see people coming out of shacks made of metal sheets, always clean and looking nice. When they take their kids to the hospital, they dress up. They have such a sense of dignity.”
Despite one natural or manmade disaster after another, Fr. Rick and his co-workers have made remarkable progress:
“A lot has been achieved and is being achieved, much of it due to Fr. Rick’s vision of how to build a mission,” Fr. Del Brocco said. “Two hospitals have been built. We have oncology and heart surgery. Heart surgery in an environment like that! We have high level urological laser surgeries.
“Thirty-one schools have been built. We have tilapia farms, chicken farms, our own pharmacy, a bakery and a tailor shop to make uniforms for the school children. We have a vocational school that teaches nursing, plumbing, carpentry and other skills.”
Saint Alphonsus’s Project Haiti has been an integral part of the progress.
“Donations help us manage all the problems,” Fr. Rick wrote. “Our strength is solid infrastructure. Project Haiti has been essential to that for 25 years.”
With Thanksgiving approaching and all that we have to be grateful for in one of the world’s richest nations, you might want to consider helping those in one of the poorest. Donations, large or small, may be sent to: Saint Alphonsus Project Haiti, Attention: Debbie Hamilton, 1055 N Curtis Rd., Boise, ID 83706
A funny thing has happened every time I’ve interviewed Fr. Rick, and now Fr. Del Brocco. I leave feeling that, compared with their selflessness and all that they have accomplished, I’ve never done anything worth mentioning in my entire life.
Their lives are guided by words worth sharing:
“We live with death every day in Haiti,” Fr. Del Brocco said. “It makes you realize your life is short, and you have to spend each minute the best you can. You can’t waste it. It’s one shot.”
Or, as Fr. Rick put it, “You have a limited number of heartbeats in your life; it is a finite number. And you have a limited number of steps you’re going to take in your life; it is a finite number, and it can be calculated. The question is, what is your heart beating for, and where are your steps taking you?”
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.