Life is but a series of decisions. The aggregate of those decisions will eventually determine both your character and legacy; what you meant to do, and future good intentions, are all irrelevant.
There came a time in my life when the criteria by which I made decisions transformed from mainstream interest to philanthropy focused. The series of decisions that followed ultimately landed me on a small 12-passenger plane headed to one of the most impoverished regions of world, Northwestern Haiti.
Joining me on the adventure was my husband, Jeff Bird, and my good friend, Stevi Hom. It was a full plane and our flight thus far was anything but smooth. We glared at one another as the plane jostled violently in the strong Haitian winds. There is no FAA in Haiti, so we half expected to drop from the sky at any given moment.
Just then, our plane began to descend and a loud honking sound vibrated through the cabin. My heart began to race as my eyes focused in on the large horn that was attached to the outside of the plane. I braced myself as the pilot used the horn to clear a crowded dirt road of trucks, townspeople and donkeys to create a landing strip. I began to smile in complete disbelief and thought to myself, “Welcome to Northwestern Haiti.”
Jacques, our Haitian guide, greeted us upon landing and led our team to the back of an open bed truck that had been converted into a taxi. The ride to our final destination, Northwest Haiti Christian Mission (“NWHCM”) would take about two hours. As we drove through the various towns, my heart sank. I had traveled through much of Haiti on a previous trip, but nothing had prepared me for what I found when we arrived in Saint-Louis-du-Nord. Most of the children wore large shirts or hospital gowns – no pants, nor shoes. Many of the homes were no more than makeshift shacks made from scraps such as cardboard, chipboard, and tin.
Their local market was outside and consisted of Haitians sitting on the ground in front of very sparse amounts of locally grown food. The meat in the market was rancid, covered in flies and was staggered on different levels hanging from poles in the searing sun. I was told that each day the unsold meat would be moved down a level and the price reduced. The process would repeat each day until it reached a level where the locals could afford to purchase it.
Upon arrival at NWHCM, we connected with the remainder of our team and immediately began planning. We had only six days to distribute water filtration systems and provide health education to approximately 1,000 Haitian special needs families and orphans. The water filtration systems were provided by Epic International, a philanthropy-based company founded by my husband and I only a year earlier.
In Haiti, most special needs children are either starved to death or abandoned at birth. Those who survive are highly susceptible to life-threatening diseases such as cholera. I had received a call several months earlier from NWHCM requesting that Epic International do a water filtration system distribution to the special needs community that they serve. Their representative explained that many of the children were dying needlessly from water-borne diseases.
After a few days of extensive preparation, we were ready for our first set of health education classes and water filter distributions. Before we started the day, I headed down to the Miriam Center, NWHCM’s special needs orphanage. Over the course of the prior few days we had all spent much time playing with and getting to know the orphans. I had become very attached to one special little orphan, Gilbert Senat. Gilbert is 10 years old, but he is less than three feet in height and suffers from a terminal genetic disorder. Although he is small in height, his heart is huge and full of love. Despite his medical condition and harrowing life circumstances, his eyes hold immense joy. Gilbert is one of the most compassionate people I have ever met. He considers the other orphans his family, and takes care of them as such. He has since become the face of the water crisis, and holds a special place in my heart.
After spending time with Gilbert and his orphan family, I returned to Jeff and Stevi, and we began our first health education class. Most people in Haiti cannot read and have at most a 5th grade education. Much of the population also believes in Voodoo, and consequently believes that diseases are actually curses. Our health education courses review the fundamentals of clean water use, disease, germs, contamination and cross-contamination. We used simple examples such as glitter to demonstrate how germs can spread.
During my portion of the education class, I asked if anyone had experienced cholera (a deadly water-borne disease) first-hand. I was saddened to see many hands rise into the air. I paused, choked back tears, and proceeded to ask if anyone had lost a family member or friend. Again, hands flew up into the air. I asked this at every class that we taught, and each time the feedback was the same. While distributing to one of the special needs orphanages, we were told that if we had only arrived one month earlier we could have saved two of their precious children. Cholera had hit their orphanage and the two youngest special needs children were not strong enough to fight off the disease. They passed in a matter of hours.
It was so hard to see the pain in their eyes when we addressed cholera. Conversely, it was absolutely amazing to see their eyes fill with hope as we empowered them with the knowledge and tools to protect their families and orphanages.
The six days that we spent with the beautiful people of Saint-Louis-du-Nord forever changed my life. The passion that drives me to fight the water crisis deepened, and the sense of urgency still drives me to this day. I thank God for the many people who support Epic International by purchasing our timepieces. They make our work possible, and truly save lives.