Neighbor to neighbor

An Oak Parker is helping to bring hope

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By LEIGH BEHRENS

'Mache, mache!' I learned that Haitian-Creole phrase during my first volunteer mission to the island nation, and since then it's been bouncing around in my brain, becoming a mantra for the experience I had there, one that continues to both haunt and inspire me.

The phrase translates roughly to "hurry!" and, as the turmoil continues in the Western Hemisphere's poorest countryâ€"where violence and chaos have slowed progress toward upcoming elections set to replace the ousted Aristide governmentâ€"I can't stop thinking about the urgency that's needed to support the 8 million who call Haiti home.

Their world is seemingly so distant from the life of abundance I've taken for granted, and yet it's one I've discovered is much closer than I'd imagined in proximity and spirit.

In fact, Haiti is only 600 miles from the coast of Florida, and Jean-Baptiste DuSable, who founded Chicago, was Haitian. Plus, the Midwest is home to some of the world's largest collections of Haitian art, a vivid expression of the history, creativity and resilience of a country with a deeply troubled past and present, but the promise of a transformed future.

The reason I believe this is because of my work with Friends of the Children of Haiti (FOTCOH). Against enormous odds, the Illinois-based, grassroots, non-profit group is helping to turn despair into a foundation for a self-sustaining future in Haiti.

They're doing it by teaming highly skilled medical professionals with ordinary people like me, a journalist living in Oak Park with no medical background and little hands-on volunteer experience, to provide basic healthcare at their clinic in Cyvadier, a hamlet on the south coast, about 30 miles over mountains from Port-au-Prince.

Volunteering at the Cyvadier clinic

I signed up to go because I deeply admiredâ€"though didn't quite understandâ€"the work my brother, photojournalist Eric Behrens, had done with the group for many years, after first traveling there on assignment. It seemed a hopeless cause; a country where everything from TB to malaria to AIDS had ravaged the population, and poverty and natural disasters had destroyed much of the environment. Still, Eric always spoke of his trips there with such excitement about what could and was being accomplished, despite the country's setbacks. I'd never seen him so animated and inspired.

Once I got there, I began to understand. And what I discovered surprised and horrified me: The struggle to survive in Haiti is more a matter of escaping the peril of "everyday" illnesses, those easily cured or managed in most of the rest of the world. Parasites (from unclean water), respiratory illnesses and infections allowed to progress unchecked here turn into fatalities.

This year, the group will treat more than 8,000 patients during four medical missions; during my last mission, in February, my team treated more than 2,300.

Our patients often walk long distancesâ€"or are carried by familyâ€"barefoot through fields and sometimes over mountains to get to the clinic. Then they wait days and nights in hopes of having someone examine them at one of the treatment areas set up under trees to take advantage of the Caribbean breeze to cut the swelter.

On my first trip, under the close direction of medical personnel, I learned to treat scabies, a skin mite that afflicts mostly babies, children and women. I scrubbed oozing lesions, then "painted on" medication to help kill the critters.

During my most recent trip, Iâ€"along with my volunteer colleagues, a cook and a high school seniorâ€"learned wound care. One of my most vivid memories is of Louis, a 30-something man with a bright smile and ferocious third-degree leg burns, a common injury since electricity is rare (most live in tiny shacks) and cooking is done over open fires.

Louis was our first patient every morning, having limped miles for his daily exam, and barely wincing during the required scraping off of the dead and infected tissue and application of antibiotics.

I also came to look forward to simply holding and soothing children while they endured painful procedures. Providing comfort seemed an honored duty, and all my efforts were met with smiles, if through a trickle of tears.

Meanwhile, my nurse, doctor, dentist and EMT colleagues were performing the true heroics, handling everything from removing tumors to extracting infected teeth (more than 400!). And the pharmacy team dispensed prescriptions and vitamins to every one of the clinic visitors.

This group was usually the last to finish each day's clinic, the depressing time when hundreds have to be told "no more," in order to conserve the medication allocated to last the duration of the clinic, and to let the FOTCOH team recover from the long day.

My way of processing the distressing things I witnessed (especially children beyond recovery, taken to a nearby convent where nuns cared for them) was to climb alone onto the clinic's roof at night to feel the embrace of the most dazzling canopy of stars I've ever seen.

I also focused on the facesâ€"the expressive eyesâ€"of other patients. The giggling of the children whom we coaxed into inflatable pools for baths before treatment. And to keep in mind the real changes we'd seen. Children who arrived too malnourished to move, beginning to stir in their mothers' arms. Veteran volunteersâ€"and even me!â€"recognizing "rendezvous" patients, returnees from previous clinics who'd been seriously ill, and now were much healthier.

The evidence was clear even during our two-week clinic that what we were doing was making a true difference.

Friends of the Children of Haiti

It's something that FOTCOH has been doing for 20 yearsâ€"an extraordinary accomplishment in a country with so much strife. But through forging local community relationships and partnering with groups such as the World Health Organization, FOTCOH has created a fragile but growing safety net of vital health services.

It's also been an economic driver in the community. FOTCOH employs nearly 40 local Haitians as interpreters and in other support roles for each of four annual clinics; a few are even employed year-round to help support the group's foster child and other programs.

The clinic also has helped widen the exposure of the vibrant Haitian art community in nearby Jacmel. It buys paintings and other sought-after art (director Jonathan Demme is just one high-profile collector) to auction at fundraisers, including the group's first ever Chicago benefit, held last November, and also featuring Haitian art from Oak Park's Ridge Art Gallery, whose owner, Laurie Beasley, is a FOTCOH supporter.

Despite instability and poverty that's hard to comprehend until you've seen it up close, the all-volunteer groupâ€"no one takes a salary and the organization relies solely on donations for operating expensesâ€"hasn't wavered in its commitment. In fact, it's even contemplating expanding with more frequent clinics and the possibility of adding major surgical facilities.

In a country that sorely needs good news, FOTCOH is creating a positive story. Why does the group persevere? Because, as the group's founder, Richard Hammond, a former millwork president from Peoria, points out, the Haitians are our neighbors.

And he's right. If you think about it, Louis and Lovelie, an 8-year-old girl who, on my first trip, quickly claimed me as her friend, gripping my hand tightly every time we met, are truly my neighbors.

And they've given me much more than I gave them. They've provided me with a profound dose of perspective on life's true priorities: love, friendship, fortitude and family. (My brotherâ€"who's now FOTCOH's presidentâ€"and I have become closer than we've ever been.)

Their world may lack many things (though parts of the country, including the south, are breathtakingly beautiful), but the Haitian people are truly joyful and live each day to the fullest. That lesson of gratitude is one I'll never forget.

And it's the reason why I feel compelled to "mache, mache!" to share what I've seen, and to prove worthy of the gifts I've received.

For more information on The Friends of the Children of Haiti, including upcoming fundraising events and how to donate, visit fotcoh.org.

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