The House of Life: Chapter 7

This is my fifth mission with FOTCOH.

I continue to be impressed by the beauty of the country and of the people of Haiti. 

I am not a small person who can easily be lost in a crowd and often I see the recognition in the eyes of patients as they approach me. This trip I am working in triage so I take their vital signs and look for any serious conditions that would require immediate treatment. Immediate treatment is a relative term here, of course. In the states, working as a paramedic, I would take many of these patients to the hospital within minutes of onset of their symptoms, but here immediate means they are taken to a provider after they have travelled for hours to get here, then waited in line for their turn.

At home if our prescriptions aren’t ready by the time we have the rest of our shopping done, we feel as though we have waiting a long time. Here it takes a day of travel to get medications. If we have side effects to a medication that we don’t like, it’s OK—there is probably another choice on the shelf. If you don’t like the side effects here, there is nothing else.

Many ask me why I spend my money, time, and efforts to come to Haiti. It is easy to understand if you have been here. We are not going to fix Haiti’s problems at the clinic. But we will help people while we are here. We will not cure many of them. We will however give many another birthday.

Is it worth the financial hardship imposed by coming here? Just look into the eyes of one of our patients that would not be around today without our help and you will understand.

 To those who got nothing under the Christmas tree this year from me, Merry Christmas. This is where the money went.

-Tim, Paramedic

January 2014

 

 

*

 

 Friends of the Children of Haiti was officially established in 1991. Barb came up with the name, and both she and Dick thought it was fitting—they felt it was inclusive of not only the children of Haiti, but all of God’s children, which reflected their desire to help all Haitian people. Dick continued the regular yearly medical missions at the Sea of Love—now as the Friends of the Children of Haiti Medical Mission Team.

Establishing the new organization in the United States had not been too difficult, but Dick and Barb didn’t have any idea how to go about building a clinic in Haiti. Neither of them had a clue about the laws of purchasing property, let alone how to buy building supplies, or the logistics of hiring a construction crew. They didn’t know how much it would cost to build a clinic. And, what’s more, they didn’t actually have the funds to do any of it.

Barb had been busy fundraising for the medical missions for over ten years, but to support this more ambitious project, they would have to come up with new ways to raise larger amounts of money. Barb continued with bake sales and yard sales at St. Anthony’s Church as she always had. Both she and Dick talked to anyone and everyone they could about their plan. As they had so many times in the past, they spoke with friends and family about their intentions, as well as church members and volunteers, but this time the idea was grander than ever before.

Mostly people wished Dick and Barb luck when hearing they wanted to build a clinic, but it was hard to tell if anyone actually believed that they could pull off something so big. Some people went a step further and asked them how they planned on making it happen, which they had expected. Dick and Barb were honest, admitting they weren’t exactly sure how they were going to do it. But they knew that no matter what, they were going to do everything according to Haitian standards, from working with the government, to hiring Haitian workers. Every part of the process was going to be done the Haitian way.

One day, seemingly out of nowhere, it became apparent that people were not only listening, but they believed in Barb and Dick’s plan. On a Saturday afternoon, Barb happened to be absent from a garage sale fundraiser that she almost always participated in. A friend of Barb’s who was working the sale called to tell her that someone had left behind a manila envelope. It had “FOTCOH” written on the front and she wasn’t sure what it was, but she thought it might be a small contribution of some sort. Barb drove over to her house and together they opened the envelope. Inside they found $6,000 in cash.

 

*

 

Barb and Dick never would have guessed that the answer to how they were going to build a clinic would show up in the form of bingo.

Dick was at work one day, talking with an employee about his and Barb’s plan, when it was suggested that bingo was a great way to raise funds to get the project off the ground. Hosting bingo was inexpensive, but the return was huge, and people loved to participate because they could end up receiving a big payout if they won. Later that evening, at home, Dick talked with Barb about the prospect of hosting bingo, and they both agreed it sounded like it could work. But since their organization was so new, and not many people in the community were familiar with the name yet, they figured it would be smart to partner with another organization to get people to participate. And naturally, their first thought was to partner with St. Anthony’s Church.

Dick and Barb met with the church staff. They explained that with the help of St. Anthony’s, they could all make bingo night a popular fundraiser, and both organizations could benefit greatly. Dick and Barb even offered to be in charge of finding volunteers to run bingo night to sweeten the deal. All the money made would be split. St. Anthony’s agreed to the new fundraising venture, and, soon after, Dick and Barb found a bingo hall available in Peoria. The owner rented the hall out seven nights a week to seven different groups. Any money brought in after the rental fee was paid, the groups were allowed to keep. Dick and Barb were assigned Saturday nights, where they remained the entire time they hosted bingo.

Barb organized four different volunteer teams, made up mostly of members of the St. Anthony’s congregation. Each team took one week at a time, so no one had to work more than once a month. Barb was the exception—she worked bingo every Saturday night. Dick, Barb, and the volunteers ran bingo every week of the year without missing a single week for nine straight years—a total of 468 bingo nights. Bingo was so successful that Dick and Barb raised enough money not only to purchase property in Haiti, but also to pay for the construction of the entire FOTCOH clinic.

 

*

A person cannot own property in Haiti without being a legal resident. And the legal process in the county is slow at best—Dick was told it would take about two years, and he would have to hire a lawyer in Haiti to file the paperwork for him.

Because it would be such a lengthy process to get his residency, Dick only wanted to become a Haitian resident if he was sure he could find a piece of property he wanted to purchase. With the help of Belony, he began his search for land. As the team continued to work at the Sea of Love each year, Dick kept up his routine of arriving in Haiti a week early, to give him a chance to check out any property Belony had found. Dick had no real expectations for what he was going to find. He knew he wanted to continue to keep the medical team close to St. Dominic’s Parish, so they could continue to treat the same patients as always, but he wasn’t looking at a particular location. He wasn’t looking for a certain size of land either. Other than being sufficient to build on, he was mostly interested in finding an owner who was willing to offer him a good price.

 

Since Dick’s workload was bigger than ever before, and he knew it would keep growing, he needed additional assistance when he was in Haiti. Belony was fine with day-to-day tasks, but he was usually on his own schedule and would disappear here and there, having a lot of jobs around town. Dick needed someone who could fully dedicate themselves to the clinic plan.

 

Belony knew of a guy who he thought would be great for the job. His name was Jean Michel Cyprian. Jean Michel was from Jacmel. In his mid-thirties, he was broad-shouldered, with a thick chest and a soft face. Deeply involved with the Mormon Church, he taught kindergarten, and he spoke English well. Jean Michel was enthralled by Dick’s plan to build a clinic from the first moment he heard about it—he loved what it would mean for the Haitian people and that made him enthusiastic about working with Dick. Dick was impressed with Jean Michel’s interest, and he liked his personality. Jean Michel seemed kind and energetic, and, importantly, he seemed honest, so Dick offered him the position. Once Jean Michel was hired on, he joined Belony in looking for property.

 

Buying property in Haiti is not easy, even with help from locals like Belony and Jean Michel. Dick knew it was going to be risky and nothing like buying property in the United States. Many foreigners that try to buy land think it happens quickly, or that they can speed it up for themselves, which doesn’t always turn out well. Many times, foreigners don’t want to miss the opportunity to buy land for a good price. So to make a fast purchase, they put the property in a Haitian citizen’s name and then go about getting their own residency. Unfortunately, people get cheated this way if they don’t have a contract with their Haitian partner.

 

Land is also in high demand in and around Jacmel. Jacmel has better security, access to water, and more reliable electricity than many other parts of the country. In more recent years, when the main highway leading in and out of town was paved, an emergence of foreigners came in to buy property, making the availability of land for sale limited. Succession also makes purchasing land in Haiti difficult. Land owned by a person who passes away is divided among their children evenly. Because of this, larger pieces of land don’t tend to be owned by one person or even one family, making it hard for a price to be agreed upon. If a piece of property is considerable in size, all of a sudden thirty or forty people could get involved with the sale.

The first time Belony and Jean Michel found a piece of property that was sufficient, the process began straightforwardly enough. They searched out the families who owned the land and got them together to see if they could agree on a sale price. The families came up with a quote, and Jean Michel and Belony relayed it to Dick. The deal sounded good to him, and he accepted. But, then, things got complicated. The families changed their minds (having possibly spoken to other family members living in the United States who suggested they were selling for too little), and suddenly they thought the property was actually worth more. When they came back to Dick with a much higher price, he refused to accept the second quote. And this didn’t just happen once—it happened three times.

Dick was incredibly frustrated. Jean Michel and Belony were devoting a lot of time to locating the property owners just to have a deal fall through in the end. And Dick wasn’t getting as many offers as he thought he would. The limited options made the laborious bargaining even more tedious. Every time it seemed like the search was moving forward, it fell back again.

Two years into their search, Belony and Jean Michel found a piece of land on the coast between Jacmel and the Hotel Cyvadier that seemed promising. The property was around 50 Haitian acres in size, or roughly sixteen US acres. Every bit of the property was completely covered in rocks, trees, and overgrown brush. When Dick saw it for the first time, one word came to his mind—jungle. It was such a mess that although the ocean was close enough to the property that he could hear the waves crashing, he couldn’t get through the thicket to see it.

Three Haitians families owned the piece of land. Belony and Jean Michel worked to get the families to communicate with one another regarding the sale. It took a few weeks, but they finally came up with a price. Even before Dick heard it, he told Belony and Jean Michel to let them know that if he accepted the price, it would be the only price that he would consider, no exceptions. The families understood. They quoted 39,000 US dollars. Dick thought it was fair, and agreed to purchase the property. He had few feelings about the piece of land at first—he was simply satisfied that the sale had required the least amount of negotiating.

Because of the success of bingo, Dick and Barb had the money in place to buy the property. The search was finally over. They were ecstatic. But to finalize the purchase, they had to have a Haitian resident sign for it. Dick asked Jean Michel to purchase the property on his behalf, with the understanding that he would sign it back over to Dick when he got his residency. In the time he had been working with Jean Michel, Dick had come to trust him like no other. He knew Jean Michel wouldn’t cheat him out of the property. He was one of the most honest men Dick had ever met, and he was personally invested in his job—he wanted to see the clinic completed just as much as Dick did.

And the trust was worth something. Since Dick was not comfortable building on the property until it was in his name, the property sat untouched for two years while Dick waited for the paperwork to be finalized. When Dick finally received his Haitian residency, Jean Michel signed the property into Dick’s name immediately. It was now time to start planning the construction of the clinic.

In a strange coincidence, the property Dick bought had been partially owned by Belony’s father-in-law, Esperidon. After the clinic was built, Esperidon was hired as the groundskeeper. Dick and Barb even built him a house to live in on the property.

 

*

 

Before anything else could be done with the property, the first order of business was to find water, and then dig a well. Belony told Dick he thought there would be water to be found, but there was no way to know ahead of time whether or not this was true. It had been another risky move, but Dick had gone ahead and made the purchase without being sure of a clean water source. And without water, Dick would own one large piece of overgrown land that would become worthless to him. He was nervous, but he had to have faith that there would be water—he and Barb had come too far to not be confident that it would work out.

Belony brought in a water-witcher, a local Haitian man who used a dowsing rod to search for water underground. If he found water on the property, they would not only know that they could officially build on the land, but where the water was would determine where the clinic would be built on the property. The water-witcher dug into the earth slowly, sometimes only digging as little as a foot into the ground with each day. At the end of every workday that he did not find water, Dick got a little more anxious. Finally, after three weeks of digging and thirty-two feet below the surface, he hit water. Dick was overjoyed.

The next day, Belony and Jean Michel hired a small team of Haitian men to dig the water-witcher’s hole into a proper well. Without machinery for digging, the well was dug by hand. Dick remembered looking down into the hole and seeing jagged rocks sticking out all over that the workers had to tediously maneuver around. After the men finished the well, the first thing Dick had them do was put a concrete cap on it, to ensure the water would not become contaminated.

After achieving a few significant milestones toward their plan to build a clinic, it was time for Dick to head home. He was going back to Bartonville to finish up his last year of work before retirement. After more than fifteen years of visiting for short periods, Dick would soon be spending most of his time in Haiti.

That year, in 1997, Dick and Barb sold their share of their business to Dick’s business partner, and Barb’s cousin, George. The following year, on October 14, 1998, Dick retired. Within one week, he left for Haiti. He had just turned sixty-two years old.

 

*

 

Dick had initially planned to stay at the Hotel Cyvadier whenever he was in Haiti while the clinic was under construction. The hotel was in a great location, just a twenty-minute walk to the property. But Dick often had visitors, like Jean Michel, Belony, or other Haitian workers, come to the hotel to discuss the construction plans, and it always seemed as though they conveniently managed to show up whenever it was time for a meal. Dick didn’t like to eat in front of his guests without asking them to join him, and before he knew it, it was getting costly to stay at the hotel.

Dick decided to seek out a different living situation. He had noticed a house that was under construction right behind the Hotel Cyvadier, just outside of the hotel gates. The house belonged to a woman who planned to move in as soon as it was completed—an American named Linda from Indiana, who had come to Haiti to teach. Her house was large, and it was almost exactly the same distance from the hotel to the clinic as Dick had already become accustomed to traveling. After she moved in, Dick introduced himself and asked if he could rent a room. Linda agreed, and although Dick was sacrificing a bit of privacy, the inexpensive rent went a long way in making the construction of the clinic more affordable.

After settling into Linda’s house, Dick got busy focusing on the construction plans. But there was one major obstacle. The dirt road that led to the property off the main highway was much too narrow. Houses had been built so tightly clustered against the road, it would be impossible for a large construction truck to turn onto it. The property was too far away to walk material down from the highway—about a kilometer—not to mention most of the material would be much too heavy for anyone to carry. Dick had to have better access—he needed a new road.

Together, Dick, Belony, and Jean Michel surveyed the property and laid out a map of where an ideal road would exist. Off the main highway sat an empty piece of land, perfect for creating a large entrance to a new road, and only about a quarter of a mile from the original road. The entrance was between a small store, owned by a Haitian man named Son Son, and a house. The space between the two buildings was wide enough to allow room for sizable vehicles to enter.

The easy part was deciding where the road should go—the difficult part was going to be finding out who owned the property. Dick guessed since it was a long stretch of land, multiple families would have to get involved. He was nervous that this could be a major setback to construction. Even if Jean Michel and Belony could locate all the property owners, it wasn’t guaranteed they would agree on a price to sell.

Belony and Jean Michel got to work locating the owners. Within just a few weeks, a short amount of time considering the undertaking, they had located the twelve families that owned the land. To try to speed up the process this time, instead of waiting to hear a quote, Dick made the first offer. Surprisingly, the families agreed to Dick’s offer, with no negotiating, and they were willing to sell right away. And, since he was a resident of Haiti now, he could put the property in his name at signing. Even today, Dick feels exalted recalling how simple purchasing the road was—by far, the easiest part of any of the building process.

 

 

*

 

“Let the Haitians build their own buildings. They know what they are doing. Whatever you do, hire Haitians to do the work.” Father LaBourne had uttered those words to Dick long before the possibility of building a clinic in Haiti had entered his mind.

 When Father LaBourne spoke them, the words had reminded Dick of the men on the plane on his first trip to Marigot. Dick was determined not to be like those men. It was crucial to him that Haitians were actively involved in all aspects of building the clinic, not off to the sidelines eating peanut brittle. Father LaBourne had also taught him that it was important for Americans to pay Haitians fairly for their time and labor—to not just involve them peripherally, but to actually hire them and show them that they were trusted and respected as experts in their own country.

Belony and Jean Michel were in charge of finding a supervisor for the construction crew. Belony recommended a contractor he knew in town who went by the name Boss Ken. Boss Ken had driven a taxi in Port-au-Prince for twenty years before coming to Jacmel. He had no formal training in construction, but he could build things. A loud, self-involved guy, Boss Ken was also known for being quite flamboyant. He wore boisterous, colorful outfits to the construction site—his favorite of which was the combination of a lace top, with a machete hanging off his belt, and an umbrella hat on his head.

When Dick met Boss Ken for the first time, he could tell he was the type of person who did what he wanted and let everyone else take it or leave it. But Dick could also tell he was a man who would get the job done. He was definitely a boss, and a boss was what was needed for the project.

During their first meeting, Dick showed Boss Ken the initial plans for the clinic that he had drawn up. Dick asked him how much he thought it would cost to pull it off. Boss Ken laid the plans out on the hood of his car and studied the design. It took him twenty minutes to come back to Dick with an answer.

            The number shocked Dick—it was way higher than he had expected, or thought was fair. Having a sense for Boss Ken’s ambition, Dick figured the quote was a combination of Boss Ken not being one hundred percent sure of what the project would cost and also trying to see what he could get. Dick refused the estimate. Boss Ken went back to the car and studied the plans again. Another twenty minutes later, he came back with a different price—half the amount he had originally quoted. Dick agreed to the new price. Boss Ken would be managing the construction of the clinic.  

Although Boss Ken’s personality was strong, a mutual respect developed between him and Dick, and Dick especially admired the quality of his work. After the clinic was finished, Boss Ken brought his family—his mom, and brothers, and sisters—to see it. He was proud of his work, and should have been. Years later, the clinic he built would withstand the catastrophic 2010 earthquake.

The design for the building was straightforward—it was basically a box, three-stories tall, that allowed for the space needed to run an efficient clinic, and little else. Although the property was vast, Dick had never intended to build a massive structure. He knew it would be easy to go overboard and build something that went on and on. He had to make sure the clinic was manageable. It needed to house upwards of twenty-five volunteers at a time, and Dick and Barb would need their own space to live six months out of the year, or more. The building would need exam rooms, a pharmacy, a laboratory, a kitchen, and living space for the volunteers to spread out and relax.

Dick based the design of the building on what was available for construction materials in Haiti, mostly concrete and iron. At first, he bought all the construction material himself from a local depot in Jacmel. He would place his order, and a worker would create a ticket for him, which would then be filled. An invoice would be given to Dick when the order was completed, and he would pay for the material and load it up to take to the construction site. After some time, the manager at the depot came to trust Dick, and he was able to place his order and then have it delivered, without the wait—he would later receive a bill for the material. Eventually, he was able to send Jean Michel on his behalf.

            Dick was learning a lot about the Haitian method of construction—what materials were available, how much they cost, how Haitians made concrete blocks out of stones. But occasions still arose when he would get confused. Like the time he thought rocks cost twenty-eight dollars apiece.

When the construction crew was first getting started, the Haitian workers would collect rocks from the property to break up and mix with water to make cement blocks. The rocks were free because they were already on the land, but Dick would have to pay the men to stack the rocks into piles closer to the construction site.

The first day the workers collected rocks, Dick asked Jean Michel how much the labor was costing him. Jean Michel told Dick the cost was twenty-eight dollars. Dick thought Jean Michel meant the cost for each rock the men collected, not the cost for each pile they created. Dick was stunned. All of a sudden, he felt he had gotten in over his head. He would never be able to afford to build the clinic—the whole building was going to be made of concrete. After seeing the look of panic on Dick’s face, Jean Michel corrected his mistake. Dick was relieved, and a little embarrassed, realizing there were still things he didn’t quite understand.

Before getting started on the clinic itself, Dick first needed Boss Ken to have his workers build a depot over the well. The depot was not only intended for protection, but would also serve as a place to store construction material and equipment. No construction would be happening when Dick was out of the country, so it was important that he had a secure storage facility. It took twenty Haitian workers five weeks to build the depot. When the men were done, Dick returned home for a short break—the holidays were coming up, and he was going to spend time with his family. With the road cleared and the depot completed, everything would be ready when Dick came back. The building plans were in place, the crew had been hired, concrete blocks had been made, and iron and steel were on site. When he returned to Haiti, it would finally be time to start building his and Barb’s dream—one they had been waiting to get started on for years, and maybe, without even realizing it, for their whole lives.