A call to action on Haiti tragedy

Published 9:03 am Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Many of you reading this might know that for the past two years, I have been living in South Africa doing autism education work. However, many of you are unaware that my work in Cape Town was primarily for a wonderful family who happen to be Haitian.

Our paths collided in October 2007, when I accepted a position in Cape Town with a private autism education organization doing Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy with their 6-year-old daughter, Thalya.

Working daily in and around their home, I must admit I felt as much a part of their family as I did my very own. We shared everything together — birthdays, temper tantrums, Thanksgivings, trips to the beach, multiple floods of the bathroom, summer vacations, early mornings with no make-up, and late nights with glasses of wine on the patio. In short, we experienced the normalcy of everyday family life.

A week ago Sunday, I boarded a flight to Miami to spend five days with Lotus, Patrice, Paloma, Thalya, Miracula and Neema. I met them after their month of Christmas celebrations in Haiti as they stopped in Miami before returning to South Africa.

With two children under the age of 12 and a newborn, life is anything but sedentary for the Bakers. Because of this, a wonderful woman named Miracula was brought on board four years ago to cook, clean and care for the Baker’s children. She lives with them in Cape Town for 11 months out of each year and sends her entire pay-check each month straight back to Port au Prince, where her two children live with their father. The word “sacrifice” cannot begin to convey the feelings and emotion Miracula experiences while being separated from her children for months on end. She does this, however, because without this job, her sons would not eat or be able to attend school. She sacrifices because there is no other choice. C’est la vie.

My first two days in Miami were full of such joy — Cuban food, catching up, bedtime stories and, of course, a sunset on South Beach. But then came the terrible news of the earthquake. A shroud of sadness seeped into every corner of our home and our hearts.

On Tuesday evening, I watched (by the miracle of Skype video) as crying cousins begged and pleaded for us to send a helicopter to fetch them. I listened as phone calls streamed in with updates of family members. I held my breath as I heard “il est tombe!” (“it fell”) and we learned that a relative had died in one of the countless aftershocks.

On Wednesday, I comforted Miracula, who was rocking back and forth and kneading her hands in prayer, who continued to wait without any news from her husband and 11- or 6-year-old sons. I snuggled scared children and continued to feel helpless.

On Thursday, I witnessed a scene so sad and heartbreaking I hope to never see it again — Miracula learning that her 6-year-old had been crushed and killed days before. To be present for the wailing, the screams, the cries of “mon dieu, mon dieu!” (“my God, my God”) of a mother who has lost her son was gut-wrenching. I boarded my plane back to Norfolk on Thursday evening with a heavy, broken heart.

Growing up with an incredibly small extended family, my parents silently reinforced the notion that it is indeed possible to create your own family. I learned this lesson most when I was far away from my own and in South Africa, my family became the Bakers. For whatever reason or purpose, I was with “my family” this past week to comfort and love and support them in one of the most devastating times of their lives.

Today I offer you my personal story in hopes that you may be able to share it with others, or that it may stir something inside of you. Perhaps it will provide the very inspiration you need to be of good service to the beautiful people of Haiti. As of Thursday, Miracula managed to secure a flight to the Dominican Republic and from there, she was expected to take a private taxi across the border into Haiti. She made this journey unsure of many things, but certainly sure of one — that she would soon be burying her son.

With a family history rich in Methodism and service to others, I cannot help but be reminded of Christian theologian John Wesley’s call-to-service mantra, which reads as follows:

Do all the good you can,

By all the means you can,

In all the ways you can,

In all the places you can,

At all the times you can,

To all the people you can,

As long as ever you can.

Let us aspire to think of those in Haiti as our family. Let us love and serve and treat them as we would each other.