Impressions of Haiti will remain forever

Coral Gables Mayor An unexpected phone call led to my decision to participate in the volunteer relief effort in Haiti.

As the day of departure approached, the serious nature of the trip began to sink in as I was vaccinated for tetanus, diphtheria, polio, hepatitis A and B, influenza and began the oral administration of malaria tablets. The group’s leadership had “collected” an army of volunteers numbering 120 persons including people from all walks of life.

Several days before departure, we were reminded that the need was great for relief supplies. Through a fast two-day email effort using local resources like the GablesHomePage, Pat Morris’ personal outreach and Boo’s List, my wife, Jeannett, collected approximately 7,000 T-shirts for the children of Port-au-Prince. Thousands of shirts came from the students at West Lab, St. Thomas, St. Philip’s and Coral Gables Elementary schools; private businesses such as Comcast, Cotton Images T-Shirts and Baptist Health, the University of Miami and local civic organizations such as the Junior Orange Bowl, and the Orange Bowl Committees. For two days and nights boxes and bags of T-shirts showed up on our front steps — placed there by fellow Coral Gables citizens who felt the need to help.

The goal of the mission was to make base camp at the New Life Children’s Home Orphanage, which desperately needed assistance and to send teams to other needful locations. We arrived at the Port-au-Prince airport at about 2 a.m. — a situation which required everyone to erect their tents in darkness with only the illumination of flashlights. By the time we located the port-a-toilets and stretched out on the ground, the cock was crowing and the dogs barking.

On Saturday morning teams were formed to either work at the orphanage assisting with the children in the rehabilitation clinic or clearing ruble from a quake-destroyed wall or taking relief supplies to other locations impacted by the recent disaster.

Part of my day was spent with Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, Deputy Commander of SOUTHCOM and commander of the military task force in Haiti, who took me on a helicopter tour of the entire Port-au- Prince region to see the extent of the damage and destruction. We later took a motorcade tour of the busy market areas along the streets, which demonstrated that life was gradually returning to a more normal state.

The highlight of my Sunday schedule was a visit to the University of Miami “Project Medishare” Hospital (in tents on the airport grounds) with support elements from Jackson Memorial and Miami Children’s. Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Nicholas Namias, escorted me through the various wards caring for patients suffering from unhealed wounds, AIDS, tuberculosis, malnutrition, and severe earthquake related trauma. It was an incredible, overwhelming sight — but one full of hope and promise, thanks to the unselfish devotion of the medical staff to saving as many lives as possible.

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Mayor Don Slesnick is pictured with a young Haitian during his visit.

Monday, which was the scheduled last day of the trip was time well spent with the children at the orphanage — playing games, singing, distributing clothes and toys. Many hearts were broken when we had to leave these adorable youngsters who are bravely fighting disease, injuries and homelessness.

What should have been the easiest part of the mission, the return home, became our biggest challenge as the plane’s arrival was again delayed. Thank heavens for the United States Air Force. They brought us water, MRE’s and cots! The next day as the temperature reached 90 degrees our plane arrived and we returned to beautiful South Florida.

The trip was both depressing and exhilarating. The condition of Haiti, which is only in part the result of the earthquake, is deplorable as exemplified by poorly paved roads, no sewers, little electricity, limited running water, few toilet facilities and a struggling government. On the other hand, the people of Haiti have not given up in the face of such odds. They wake up every day and face their challenges with the conviction that times will get better.

We are back from the mission, but the impressions of Haiti and its people will remain a part of my life forever. “Thank you” to Peter Groverman and Armando Gutierrez Jr. for being the inspiration behind this incredible crusade. Finally, “thanks” to the people of Coral Gables for allowing me to represent you as your mayor.

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