Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Building Boxes to Store Treasures

Day 5 Continued (Thursday, Aug. 5)

Leogane, Haiti

Many of the Haitians don’t understand personal responsibility or pride of ownership because of one very good reason: They don’t own anything. We decided to build open-ended boxes that would slide under the children’s bunkbeds so children could have a place to store their possessions, what little they have. Most of what they have has been given to them by our church’s short-term missionaries who came here this summer.

Throughout the week, we could tell when the kids were wearing t-shirts from the Bay Area. My favorite t-shirt was emblazoned with a tennis club from Marin County. I don’t think there are many tennis players at the orphanage. But every day, those kids had clean clothes to wear.

One of the things that slowed us down in the building of the boxes was the thought of only some of the kids receiving the boxes before we left. We could not built all 40 needed for the girls side of the orphanage, to say nothing about the 38 boys across the street.

In every decision we made, we tried to think how it would impact the children as a group. We were told to do certain things out of fairness to the children, such as not giving individuals presents. We didn’t give individual kids snacks. We didn’t want other children to feel slighted, and we certainly didn’t want children to be emotionally or physically abused so another kid could have a gift we had given to someone else.

Most of these kids have few possessions. Everyone has a toothbrush and toothpaste, and everyone has the necessary toiletries. Everyone has their own bed, but that’s about it. Kids don’t have toys to play with, for the most part, except for what we brought. And because the toys don’t belong to the kids, there is little personal responsibility on the part of the children to take care of them so they could play with them the next day. Often, toys disappeared for a day or two, only to be found later, in the weeds or on the other side of the compound.

Part of what I thought about with the boxes was how the children would feel when they got the boxes. “Great, I got a box for my stuff, but I don’t have any stuff to put in it. What good does that do me?” Or maybe, “Thanks, and does this mean you’re going to give me something to put in my box?” I wish I had better answers. (Many of the teenagers did have their own cell phones. Where they got the money to pay for them, I don’t know.)

Sometimes, Americans have grandiose illusions of things they can do for the children of third-world countries such as Haiti. Does it really benefit these kids if they are given some luxury item that’s going to disappear in a few days or weeks or months?

What happens to these kids after we leave this summer? Did we build up their hopes for nothing? Did we promise something we couldn’t keep? That’s a question our church is wrestling with now: What next? That answer will come from more discussions and much prayer.

The worst part about the boxes (aside from the fact I worked on them, and none of them were plum, or square) was that we would not be there when the children received them. The decision was made to not give them the boxes until all of them were completed and could be given out together.

* * *

Working with the Haitians can try your patience sometimes, whether it’s the language barrier or the difference in speed of life. The children’s boxes were to be painted today. Oopsie. We fine American mathematicians, many of us college graduates, didn’t add so good. In fairness to Doug L and myself, the boxes were designed by a certain contractor who shall remain nameless. The original design didn’t consider the half inch on the bottom of the box, which made the fit under the beds a little too tight. One could not put their fingers on the top of the box without smacking them into the metal bed frame. New design: wack off an inch on the sides.

As the group’s designated painting teacher, I was an abject failure. The interpreters were not around, so “what we had here is a failure to communicate.” I tried to teach Jid, one of the Haitian teenage boys, how to paint, stroking going with the grain. Every time I would look away for a minute or do another chore, I would return to see Jid painting up and down instead of side to side. Perhaps “with the grain” doesn’t translate in Creole.

Then, two of the boys did not seal the lid on the plastic paint container, and it spilled all over the grass around us. It’s hard to get mad at them for attempting to something they’ve never done before. I tried to stop them from using the paint on the ground because of the dirt and grass combination, but it didn’t work so well. “Non” suddenly became indecipherable to the Haitians.

When they finished, the box really looked sharp. I congratulated the boys on a fine job. They beamed. Later, I saw it after the paint had dried. Then, I could see the grass imbedded in the paint. It was actually kind of funny. I told everyone we were seeking a natural look. “The green tones bring out the color in the white paint.”

When we finished painting, I told Jid we needed water to wash the paintbrush, so I marched off, bucket in hand, to the neighborhood well a hundred yards away. Thirty yards later, I realized I was not alone; Jid was walking with me. I pumped the water, then grabbed the bucket for the return trip, but Jid took it from me and insisted on carrying it. At that moment, I felt the respect of a teenage boy. I don’t know when Jid lost his dad, but it sure felt like he appreciated another man doing something for him.

The Haitians see certain jobs belonging to women, water carrying being one of those tasks. Jid did not look at it that way. That skill will one day make Jid a better employee, a better employer, a better husband, a better dad, and a better man. Today, Jid discovered humility.

* * *

We never know how little things might impact the Haitians. Yesterday, while the men were getting lessons in using the skill saw, one of the men, Jacque, who is 53, did not have a pair of safety glasses, whereas the other six did. I saw the problem and quickly went over to Jacque and pulled off my own glasses and offered them to him. His broad smile said “thank you.” Jacque felt a part of something.

Today, Jacque is still wearing those glasses, quite proudly, I might add. Even though we were told not to give the Haitians presents, I later gave Jacque those glasses. He needs them more than I do. I can’t remember the last time I used them. I didn’t like them any way.

* * *

Random happenings from our group today:

Three people from our team went with the Haitians to take a few of the sick children to a local free clinic. One of the boys, Charlie, had severe diarrhea, but didn’t get to see the doctor. The doctor used the triage method, taking the worst cases first. Charlie’s case wasn’t severe enough. After six hours of sitting, our team felt like it didn’t get much accomplished today.

Said Hilary, a first-grade teacher at Cornerstone Christian School in Antioch, who was with that group: “DMV has nothing on Haitian hospitals.”

Said Catherine, also with the group: “I’ll never complain about American health care again.

Amy, who quit her job to come to Haiti, had the best story, though. She had to go to the bathroom and stood in line for a few minutes. When she finally got in, she laughed, loud enough for everyone in the room to hear her. When she came out, all the locals were laughing with her, knowing why she was laughing. She was laughing at the fact that the toilet consisted of a hole in the ground.

One of the sick children at the hospital needed his diapers changed. “Anybody up for the task?” one of the ladies asked. John, one of the 17-year-old twins on our team, said he would do it, and took the child in hand. Then he asked, “How?” Everyone in our group roared with laughter.

* * *

I’ve decided I complain too much. I complain about the lack of space back home in our 1,100-square foot, two-bedroom 1.5 bath condominium, shared by my wife, her son and her dad at the moment. I whine when I have to wait 15 minutes for the shower. Yet, every day, I get to take a hot shower. Every day, I write on my laptop, search the Internet on the Wi-fi. Every day, I grind coffee beans to percolate my fine, Colombian coffee. Every day, I reach into my 38-degree refrigerator for cold half/half. I have a 33-inch TV (though no cable, by choice). I am a chef by trade, but at home, I cook in a teensy-weensy kitchen, but at least it’s inside; my kitchen is also indoors; I have an air conditioner that keeps our house at a cool 72 degrees when it’s 100 degrees outside. Most of these Haitians would think I live in the lap of luxury.

Members of our team often joke about how many Haitians we could “cram” into our tiny homes. We could get 3-4 Haitian families living comfortably in my condo. None of them would complain about being cramped. Dustin and his wife live in a 1-bedroom, 600-square foot condo. Twelve was the number we came up with for his home.

My dinky 4-cylinder Honda Accord goes twice as fast as most of the cars in Haiti. I don’t think it’s ever held more than the maximum allowed by law, five seat-belted passengers. Here in Haiti, the locals would cram a 10 people in my car, with a few more in the trunk and maybe two on the roof.

It’s all a matter of perspective. The next time my toilet seat is a little cold in the winter time, I’ll remember that I don’t have to squat, as the Haitians do (and which Amy refused to do in the doctor’s office) every day. When I complain of a poor night’s sleep because my mattress is too hard, I’ll be thankful I’m not on the cold, hard ground. Next time I start sweating in my house, I can walk over to the air conditioner and turn it on to cool off.

Thank you, Lord, for the many luxuries you give me.

Caption: This simple, wooden box will one day hold the treasures of the Haitian orphans we cared for in Leogane.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Passing on Godly Legacies to Our Sons

Day 5 (Thursday, Aug. 5)

Leogane, Haiti

Everything I needed to know about Bill, I learned while hanging the orphanage’s gate earlier in the week. Our leader, Jonathan, looked at the gate at one point and said to Bill, “That’s good enough.” To which Bill responded, “It’s good enough for government work, but this is for the Lord, and I have to do it right.”

That’s the voice of a servant who wants to do his best work for God. That’s what we all should be striving for.

As the week went on, Bill’s expertise on everything construction came to the forefront. No matter what we were up against, Bill had a response based on experience to share with us. And, as a teacher, Bill was top-notch. Bill had a knack for getting the seven Haitian men who worked under us to convey his desires, often without our esteemed interpreters. Bill, no doubt, has the same reputation with his employees who work under him at the Lawrence Livermore Lab.

But the best teaching Bill has done in his life is with his son, Paul, who also is on our team. Bill tried to teach everything he knew about construction and fixing things to Paul, and he did a commendable job. Paul had the same desire as Bill to teach the Haitians life and carpentry skills. Not only did they try teach them the right way to do various carpentry skills, they also tried to teach them the meaning of hard work and integrity on the job, traits that seem to be sorely lacking with many of the Haitians.

Watching Bill interact with Paul was a joy all week. They had the kind of relationship every father and son should have. It included one important element: mutual respect. When Bill was away from Paul, he talked admirably about Bill's ability to play games with kids and be a team leader in the corporate world. Later, Paul marveled at his dad's vast knowledge of all things carpentry and the like. They had fun working together, razzing each other.

Christians need to always remember to exhibit those two characteristics when on the mission field. Bill and Paul lived that out throughout our week in Haiti, and with a good sense of humor.

Bill has passed on a legacy to his son, something that all fathers need to do with their sons. My dad taught me how to be a godly man simply by setting a lifetime example for me. I can remember having only one or two conversations with my dad about what a godly man looked like. I knew what one looked like by looking at my dad.

My dad also had a knack for fixing and designing things and would have made a fantastic engineer had he not wanted to be a farmer. My only regret I have with my dad is that I didn’t seek him out more on how to fix things. He would have taught me everything he knew, but I never had the desire – until he died five years ago.

The Haitians quickly took to Bill, too. They came to know him and trust him, even giving him the esteemed nickname, “Papa,” an endearing name in Haiti.

Men, what kind of legacy are you leaving your sons? We should all strive to be more like Bill and Paul, who is working to pass on his own legacy to his son.

When I think of legacies, I think of what Joseph passed on to his son, Jesus. By age 12, Jesus knew enough of the Pentatauch (books of Moses) to teach in the Temple. No doubt, Joseph was there in the temple studying God’s word with his son. For at least 10 years, Jesus made a living as a carpenter. Because we know he never sinned, we know that Jesus always gave his best work and never cheated any of his customers or lied to them about his workmanship. The Bible doesn’t say, but I think Jesus had an outstanding reputation as a carpenter in Nazareth.

I think about my own legacy to my sons. I am nowhere near the godly man my dad was, but I constantly try to instill in my 23-year-old son and 16-year-old step-son (Julian) the importance of hard work and integrity. My son, Matthew, is not walking with the Lord, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have godly characteristics. The things I taught him as a boy growing up in the church can still be seen in him.

Like Bill and Paul, I, too, want to go on a mission trip with my sons. When the prospects of going to Haiti came up in late April, I told Matthew I was planning to go. I hoped to instill in him a desire to go. Because he’s studying architecture in college, I tried to pump up the unique design my church is using in the rebuilding of the orphanage. In the end, Haiti lost out to an architecture class in southern Europe, where Matthew drew pictures of buildings of antiquity. Go figure.

I won’t give up in my hopes of trying to persuade my sons to go on mission trips with me. I will return to Haiti one day to plant a garden, and perhaps my son will come with me. Maybe another city will be devastated by the likes of a hurricane, earthquake or tsunami, and our church will decide to go and lend aid and care for the dead, sick and the injured. That’s where my heart is, to go on the first wave of relief aid and write about it.

Matthew is preparing to apply for grad school in architecture, and I keep pushing Habitat for Humanity on him. Not only would it be good experience for his studies, it would put him in the midst of other like-minded people who believe in helping those less fortunate than us. That’s the legacy I want to leave with my sons.

Caption: Paul is in the middle smiling broadly, while Bill stands in the background at far right, admiring the work of one of his students.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Love Letter to My Wife From This Island Paradise

Day 4 continued (Wednesday, Aug. 4)

Leogane, Haiti

My darling Susan,

Here, I am a quarter of the way around the world, slaving away in a tropical paradise, and I’m feeling sorry for myself. My wife is not here to share the experience of working in 95-degree F temperature and 80 percent humidity.

Today, as I watched our team care for the little children, I thought, “Suzie would have fit right in.” You would have been such a great lover of these orphans. You would have been a great hugger. You would have been an awesome wiper-away-of tears. You would have taken lots of pictures of the kids. You would have let the Haitian teenage girls braid your hair. You would have laughed with them. You would have cried with them. I missed getting to see you do what you do best, which is to love other people. I get to feel that every day, but these children have never felt it. They missed out.

Four and a half years ago, we went on a romantic vacation together in Hackberry, Louisiana after having dated for six months. We were on a mission trip to roof houses, and you wanted to be up on the roof with me and the other men on our team. You insisted on carrying your own weight, and you did.

Do you remember the day when the church from Mississippi joined us to roof First Baptist Church? Their under-their breath comments about you belonging below in the kitchen were not so under their breath. (Little did they know that I was the one who spends so much time in the kitchen!) The comments from those good ‘ol southern boys were beginning to bother you, and you asked me what to do. I told you to do what God tells you to do, and you stayed on the roof. The tomboy in you always wanted to play with the boys and not with Barbie dolls with the girls.

The other men in our group stood up for you to those country bumpkins. “Suzie’s a hard worker. Leave her alone. She’ll pull her own weight,” the men from our church said.

They left you alone, because they realized the spirit of faith gave you just as much energy as any one of them. Or maybe it was because you outworked a few of them.

A little while later, the pastor of the church sidled up next to me, pulling nails from the roof. We struck up a friendly conversation, and he asked me: “You planning to marry that gal?”

I stopped working. “Yes sir, I believe I will,” and went back to work.

“Good, ‘cause you’re a fool if you don’t. My daughter’s just like that. She goes on mission trips like this and she wants a hammer in her hand. If she were here, she’d be up here on this roof, too.”

That day, I knew I wanted to marry you. That was February of 2006. A few weeks later, I asked your mom and step-dad for permission to marry you. It took me another six months before I asked you to marry me and another year before we actually married, but that day on the roof I knew you were the one for me. I had been single for 13 years, because I knew I wanted to marry someone who had a heart to serve God as I did. You were worth waiting for. And, the fact that you were pretty darned cute didn’t hurt, either.

I always enjoy serving the Lord a little more when you are beside me, whether we’re distributing food to the homeless or cooking meals for people in the church. I like that feeling and look forward to feeling it for another 30 or 40 years with you.

So here I am in Leogane, Haiti, working on our church’s construction team, and I’m sad because my partner is back home. I know you wanted to be here, but the timing just wasn’t right for you this time. I know that God opened all the doors for me to come, but closed them for you. Know that I always want you beside me. I love that you care so much for people like the Haitians; I know you are praying for me this week (that I won’t bash my thumb with a hammer, no doubt). We believe in helping those who can’t help themselves. It’s who we are.

Right now, that’s the Haitians. In a couple of years, another disaster will strike some foreign land, and we’ll talk about going and pray about it. I know we will have many more mission trips to take before we die. Someday, I’m sure you’ll come to a place like this without me, and you’ll miss me in the same way I missed you this week (you better!).

It’s getting late, and it’s time to go to bed, so I will be refreshed and ready to go at 5 a.m. tomorrow. I wish you were here beside me, sweating in this tiny hotel room on this island paradise. But then, if you’d come, you might have fallen in love with one of the little buggars and wanted to adopt one, and you told me not to bring one home.

Love always,



Caption: Bethany, a college student at Indiana Wesleyan, spent two weeks of her summer vacation in Haiti, caring for the children at the orphanage.

Monday, August 23, 2010

God Whispers in My Ear

Day 4: Wednesday, Aug. 4

Leogane, Haiti

Today, I was feeling sorry for myself in a major way. I suck at measuring (accurately, at least), cutting a straight line with a skill saw and screwing-in screws with a power drill. I was 0-for-3 on the day. I came to Haiti in hopes of gaining more carpentry skills because I feel called to go on foreign mission trips to work in construction. Someday, I’d like to be able to write in a few other skills besides cooking that I offer to a team.

So I went for a short walk to be alone and pray. “Lord, why is it so hard for me to learn how to do these things. I really want to get better. I just don’t have a knack for this sort of thing. This is going to be a really frustrating week for me if you don’t help me.”

I looked out over the empty backyard of the orphanage and stood in silence for a minute, sweating profusely. Then I heard God whisper in my ear: “Plant these people a garden. You’re a farmer.” Then I cried for a minute.

God was right. The fact that I suck as a carpenter doesn’t disappoint God one bit. I grew up on a farm, and even though I left the farm 31 years ago, the farm has never left me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven down I-5 to Los Angeles and driven over a thousand bubbles in the middle of the freeway because I’m checking out the crops to my left and to my right. When I began catering in 2004, my secret ambition was to grow a garden for vegetables and herbs, and maybe even raise a few steers, a pig or two, maybe a goat, a roost of chickens or a gaggle of ducks.

I joke that the farm house I grew up in was next door to fields of cantaloupe, wheat and lettuce – and poop, lots of poop because 20,000 head of cattle lived across the road. I can tell you everything about raising cattle, because my dad was a cattleman. As a sophomore in high school, I had the 4-H grand champion steer in the Yuma County Fair. I participated in the Arizona State fair judging cattle. I could guess the weight of a steer within 30 pounds. For three summers in college, I was a hired gun for various farms in California and Arizona. Driving farm implements was a whole lot of fun growing up, but my oldest brother will tell you that I never could put in straight rows for planting. He always had to put the first six rows in. Sort of like my saw skills.

My senior year, my dad the farmer advised me to choose between cattle and wrestling, and I chose wrestling. In college, I gave up wrestling for journalism after I suffered a lifelong injury to my neck. I was a newspaper journalist for 23 years, including seven years working in the food department for the Tri Valley Herald in Pleasanton, California. Here I am writing about farming again.

I digress. Back to Haiti. Whereas my mind doesn’t really see things when I work in construction, the ideas started flowing immediately for a garden. I walked around the roughly one-half acre. I grabbed a handful of dirt and tried to envision what kind of crops would grow here. I looked at all the weeds and rocks and began plotting strategy. Thankfully, it is a fairly flat piece of land.

I walked next door to check out the corn field. I plucked an ear of corn, and the kernals were sweet and tasty. The field was infested with weeds. This farmer apparently didn’t like hoeing weeds.

I made mental notes of the farm equipment we would need. I thought about the irrigation problems we would face and how we would solve them. I made a mental note to ask my middle brother how to get rid of the abundant grass. I made a quick plan to buy some chickens and build a chicken coop so the children would have eggs to eat for protein. Chicken poop is one of the best natural fertilizers. They would need either a cow or a nanny goat for milk. We’d plant fruit and nut trees someday. I asked one of our interpreters if he thought we could get a local farmer to come in and chisel the ground, and he assured me they would help us. I made plans with the cook to go to the local farmers market so I could see the vegetables for sale from the area. (There was a large variety; I counted more than 20 different vegetables and fruits.)

When would we come back? November, to plant the winter crop. Then again in February for the harvest. We’d teach them bee-keeping because bees are needed for pollination. We’d teach them canning so vegetables would be plentiful two months later. Canning is no good unless you have a cool place to store the jars. With no electricity at the orphanage, we would have to build an old-fashioned root cellar a few feet underground to keep them cool. Because it rains so much, it would have to have proper drainage designed. We would need to write the director of the orphanage and ask his permission.

The children would help farm, because they need to learn the responsibility of caring for something that will benefit them. Teaching them to farm will bring alive Jesus’ teachings on the Parables of the Soils. Maybe a few of them will even become farmers.

I started thinking of friends who might join me because they have certain skills our team would need. My friend Jan was the first to come to mind, because she raises a few chickens in her back yard, she keeps bees to make her own honey (the best I’ve ever tasted), and her back yard is one huge garden. My two brothers are my best advisers, and maybe I’ll invite them to come along. I asked Bill, our Haiti team’s resident construction expert, if he could design us a chicken coup, and he said certainly. When I told team members I wanted to come back to plant a garden, a few of them said they wanted to come back, if for no other reason then to see the kids again. The team will need engineers as well as housewives.


When God puts a vision on the hearts and minds of one of his followers, he gives them the tools they need, from ideas, to consultants, to helpers, you name it. All of the components won’t come at one time, but they’ll come at just the right time. His time. I love how God works. He uses us for his purposes, if we are willing to humble ourselves and serve him with his plan, not ours. This isn’t about us. It’s about empowering the Haitians to feed themselves. This project may go beyond this little orphanage that sits on 2 acres of this island nation. Every farmer in Haiti could benefit from the irrigation principles we can teach them.

Here’s the funny part. In January, I began a ministry called Feast With the King, whose premise is to use good food to witness to a lost world. One of our tenets is to help churches plant urban gardens and give the proceeds to the homeless. In Livermore, I’m working with a church to plant a garden in its back yard. But as I planned to go to Haiti, at no time did I ever think about planting a garden. I knew I wanted to go, prayed about it and asked God to provide the finances, which he did.

God first had to get me down there before he could put his ultimate plan on my heart. I had to grow a heart for those orphans before I could serve them. God wants his servants to have caring hearts for those they help. He wants our motives to be pure.

The hard part for me was to not go out and find a tractor and chisel and get to work. I wanted to organize the kids and get all the big rocks out of the field. But I knew I had to be patient, pray and wait. Every once in a while, I’d walk over to the ground and just look around and pray. Before I left, I bagged a pound of dirt to have it analyzed back home for nutrients.

When I got home, I wrote up the proposal to my church, Cornerstone Fellowship, and its mission board, which oversees this Haiti project. A few days later, I was invited to participate in a group to plan our follow-up ministry. Since I got back two weeks ago, I started calling people I thought could help me solve problems I foresaw. I shared the vision with a few friends, and some of them sent me notes from research they did on the Internet.

God is present in Haiti, and he is working in the lives of Haitians. He is letting them know every day that he loves them. Someday, one of the ways he will show them he loves them is by providing them with healthy food from their very own garden.

Way cool.

I can’t wait to go back to Haiti again. I want to help plant a garden. I want to see the children again. And I want to share God’s love for those children. God willing.

Caption: Could this be where we one day plant a garden? Stay tuned.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Feminism Has Not Yet Reached Haiti

Day 3 (Tuesday, Aug. 3)

Leogane, Haiti

The heat and humidity is stifling this morning. My shirt is soaked through within an hour. By 8 a.m., I stopped twice to rest and drink lots of water. Most Haitians go through on a daily basis for half the year. I realize how difficult it is to accomplish anything in the heat of the day.

We finally finished hanging the gate by mid-morning. Just as we finished, some Americans in green construction helmets stopped by for a visit. Two of them were structural engineers who came to help rebuild homes for The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (www.CRWRC.org). With them were two Haitian men learning carpentry skills in the organization’s nearby trade school. The group leader said the ministry trains Haitians in such skills as carpenters, electricians, plumbers and welders. These are all skills the locals will need in order to rebuild their devastated country.

We asked them to play a joke on our leader, Jonathan, who is a computer tech guy by trade but struggles with construction lingo. We asked them to tell him they were there to inspect their cement beams. It fell for it hook line and sinker.


Feminism has not arrived yet in Haiti. Each day, I see the girls go fetch water from the neighborhood well about 100 yards away. One of the little girls grabbed my hand today to come with her and I went, teasing everyone I had just been asked out on a date. Off we went, holding hands. I grabbed the empty bucket from her hand, and she smiled. Perhaps no boy or man had ever performed such a gesture for her.

The well has an old-fashioned hand pump with a lock on it. I don’t know who has the key or if it is ever locked up. Perhaps 100 families draw water to drink and to perform daily necessities around the home, such as cooking and washing clothes. The engineers said the well is dug 150 feet deep in order to provide fresh drinking water year-round, including during non-monsoon season times, roughly half the year.

The little girl had a two-gallon container, which, by my calculations, is about 16 pounds. She insisted on pumping the well herself, but I grabbed the bucket in one hand, her hand in my other when it was full. Together, we walked slowly back to the compound. When we got to the front gate, she promptly grabbed the bucket from me. I let it go, trying to understand this antiquated custom. Throughout the day, the girls would grab one or two water containers from a gallon to 5 galloons and fetch water for the orphanage. We drank strictly bottled water all day, but the children drank from the well. We were told to not let the children drink from our water bottles, because other children would feel left out. Sanitation and health issues also were involved, from Haitian lips to ours.

Many of the children simply want to be held. They either walk up to you and grab your hand or put their arms up, implying for us to pick them up. It is easy to accommodate their always friendly faces. Some of them lost one or both parents in the January 12 earthquake. Some parents simply dropped their children off, because they no longer could care for them. Our main task during our week here is to love these children.

This morning, one of the little boys who has taken to me, Oligas, came to visit me while I was working on the gate. I walked around with him, holding his hand, I picked him up and walked around some more, and I sat down in a chair in the shade and put him in my lap. Oligas speaks no English, and I know about four words in Creole. We make do as best we can. Love knows no bounds. Children feel love even without spoken words. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he told his followers not to hinder a child’s love for his Father. Our love shows them God’s love for them.

Oligas comes to visit me a couple of times a day. I have grabbed his hands and swung him 360 degrees until we are both dizzy. I have hoisted him onto my shoulders, suddenly making him a giant among his peers. His smile is his way of thanking me. I hold him in my arms and rock him while my co-workers go on without me.

As we watch the work, he grabs my eyeglasses and puts them on. He figures out how to remove my sunglasses from my eyeglasses. He grabs my PGA golf cap and puts it atop his head. He cares not that the gap between my head and his is immense. I start to stop him, then think better of it. He is simply curious about things he has never seen. None of the orphans wear eyeglasses.

A choke cherry tree sits next to the front gate, and the children often come by throughout the day and pick a few red berries to eat. Oligas points for one, then another. Before long, he is loaded with more berries than he can possibly eat. He points again. I tell him “fini.” His continued pointing tells me we are not finished. I pick another. After the third “fini,” my shoulder hurts and we really are finished. He stops asking and eats his prizes, one by one.

Oligas tires of me and walks the 100 yards back to the trees, where the other children are playing with members of our kids’ team. The two giant mango trees is their haven from the sun during the day. It projects an enormous amount of shade. The temperature is at least 10 degrees cooler than the direct sun. Forty people always seem to be hovering under the trees.

Our gate has flaws, and we discuss how to fix them. Finally, we make a decision and finish the job. One of the Haitian men who helped us begins conversing with another in Creole. I joke with Paul that they are talking about how the gate is worse off than before. We laugh. We have earned the right to joke with the locals by being here and working side-by-side with them.

I tease Bill and Paul that my limited carpentry skills limits my good ideas to one a day. My one idea a day is enough affirmation to keep me going. By mid-morning, the gates swing freely without touching the ground, our main goal. And I helped.


I should have been fired from my second task, assisting Doug L in the building of a large tool box to house our battery-operated tools, spare parts and children’s knick-knacks. I keep getting pulled away by kids who want to play. After a few “careful” measures and cuts, our box is nowhere near plumb. Fortunately for me, I am given much grace.

Paul stepped in and quickly fixed our boo-boos. I don’t feel bad. As we inspect the situations, we realize that Haitian 2 x 4s are different than American 2 x 4s, which are actually 1 ¾ x 2 ½ inches. It’s a given in America. No one told the Haitians: Theirs are actually 2 x 4s. Unfortunately for us, most of the wood is severely warped, partially from the rain, partially from the humidity.

Something wonderful happened today, and we all could see God working in the lives of the Haitians. Paul, the son in the father-and-son team, began teaching carpentry skills to several of the Haitian men. Before long, all of us were teaching, even me with my limited construction knowledge. I taught painting skills, though I never could quite convey stroking the paintbrush with the grain. Sometimes, the extent of my teaching is to exhort the men. They soon come to understand what “great job” and a high 5 means. Encouragement, like love, is a universal language.

In a two-hour sequence, Paul taught the seven men how to use a skill saw, a hand saw, a power drill, a power screw driver and how to measure. These are skills they will need to get jobs in the changing Haitian economy. These skills can help these men put food on their families’ tables.

Watching the Haitian men learn new skills was worth my failure as a carpenter. Clearly, this was God’s intent all along. That’s how God uses us sometimes. We must let go of our prideful ways and humble ourselves so he can do his work. Throughout the week, Paul and Bill’s teaching became the focal point of our days.

Perhaps these men will one day show other Haitians the same love we gave them.


Our team is the only occupants in our hotel. Yesterday, Doug L and I were asked if we wanted to move to an air conditioned room. It took us all of 2 seconds to say yes and begin moving our stuff upstairs.

The hotel is a work in progress. We leave by 6 a.m., and the construction workers are already trickling in to begin their day. When we arrived, only four rooms had air conditioning. By Monday, two more rooms had air conditioning. Jonathan, our leader, tells us the manager promised the rest of the rooms would be air conditioned. We remind him that the manager didn’t say when. Haitian time. The air conditioning never came for our other two rooms. The five remaining people in un-air conditioned rooms sleep in the air conditioned rooms on sleeping pads. John, one of the twins, pops in our room every night around 10 after playing cards with his sister and brother.

The air conditioner has a habit of just pooping out at inopportune times. We soon realize that the city’s power grid has its limits. When the power grid is overwhelmed, it just shuts off, and there goes our air conditioning. The hotel has a small generator that powers the air conditioning much of the time. It is off all day while we are gone. We notice that when we meet in the evenings for Bible study that the air conditioning is shut off to save the owner a few bucks on the diesel bill.


Each night, we pray for specific needs. Sometimes it is something simple – yesterday, we prayed for a tent to cover our tools – whereas other days are more complex – such as the health of the children. Today, our tent prayer was answered. I tease Jeannine, who made the request, that the tent was twice as big as we asked. The tent was sitting unused on the other side of the driveway. After two days of looking past it, God opened our eyes to see it, just when we needed it.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Weak bricks, light cement, shoddy workmanship

Day 2 (Monday, Aug. 2)

Leogane, Haiti

Surprisingly, I slept well in an un-air conditioned room, sharing a double bed with another grown man, with a mosquito net overhead. The rooms smells of fresh paint and plaster. We were awakened at 5:15 a.m. – 3:15 Pacific time. No one grumbled at the early wakeup call; everyone was rarin’ to go and excited to get to the orphanage.

The truck that took us from the airport to our hotel and from our hotel to the orphanage broke down Sunday, and no one was disappointed. The drive from the airport to our hotel took two dirty, stinky, dusty, clutch-slipping hours. Sunday night, the orphanage’s ambulance took us home in two shifts, and we repeated the practice Monday morning. I was in the second group each time, with the kids’ group going first.

I begin a routine the first day that would repeat itself several times a day. First, I put on sun screen on my exposed parts. I wear long pants, wool socks and boots because of my construction work. I decline shorts because of my fear of mosquitoes and malaria. I would rather sweat more, be a little bit more uncomfortable and survive the dreaded bugs. When we arrive at the orphanage, I apply No. 40 Deet over my exposed parts and clothing. I grew accustomed to the smell of sweat, sunscreen and Deet.

We asked the cook for breakfast to be served at 7:30, but it was 7:30 when she finally arrived in the kitchen out back. It was an example of Haitian time, we were told. Things happen in their own time. Haitians don’t wear watches. They get up at sun rise and work till dark, then go to bed. Most Haitians eat a late breakfast and early dinner, with perhaps a light snack around mid-day. We Americans wanted our three squares a day, though. So as not to rub that fact into the noses of the children, we are told to eat lunch only inside the dining room, which is always 10 degrees hotter than it is outdoors. We eat fast.

I was put on the three-man team to rebuild a dilapidated front gate, a double-swinging gate that drags along the ground halfway to being open. I worked with the father-and-son team of Bill (dad) and Paul, both experienced handymen and carpenters. Bill taught his eldest son everything he knows about construction, and his knowledge is fast, we would find out throughout the week. Bill works in a similar capacity with the Lawrence-Livermore Lab, while Paul is a manager with UPS. I was there to learn at the feet of the masters. In other words, I was a gofer.

At 8:30, breakfast was served. At least we were told it was breakfast. I’m a part-time caterer and pretty good cook, and my knowledge of food is fairly extensive. Still, I had no idea what was set before us. It looked like oatmeal that was blended for a couple of minutes. Jeannine, a public school teacher in Pittsburg, told us it was spaghetti.

“No way,” I responded.

Way. She said she saw the cook boil the noodles, then put them through a ricer. I don’t know what she did to make it creamy. It was a bland, soupy glop. I added sugar to make it palatable. One of the kids’ team members, Justin, added peanut butter to the glop and said he liked it. As the week went on, we watched Justin put peanut butter on everything. I made a peanut butter sandwich with white bread, knowing I needed the protein. I brought beef jerky, almonds and energy bars to meet my protein needs.

I did get my precious coffee – strong, black Folgers, with a pinkish sugar that is different than the granulated stuff we see in America. I am an avowed coffee snob and haven’t lowered myself to drink Folgers in perhaps 10 years. There was no cream or milk, but I was happy, nonetheless. I didn’t care; it was caffeine.

We eat our meals in the dining room where a big table sits to your left as you enter. The cook places our food there and covers it with a fleece blanket. Maybe that’s how Haitians keep their meals warm. I do not recall eating any hair during the week. Roughly eight chairs line the outside of the room for us, as well as two coolers that contain our beloved water. Despite our request solely for water, the Haitians buy us Coca Colas, Sprites, grape soda (called raisin on its wrapper), orange soda but never diet sodas. Something tells me that Haitians don’t diet much. A large block of ice and the drinks are brought to us every morning. We never saw an ice cube during the week. The ice company simply stops on a city street and dumps the blocks on the road and sell them, first-come, first serve. Cash only.

Fixing the dual-hinged gates should have taken us no more than 5-6 hours. At 3:30, we finished hinging gate No. 1. Our main problem was the softness of the cement and bricks. When we start, there is a conglomeration of wood shims and nails holding everything together. If you know anything about cement, you know how difficult it is to hammer a nail into cement. That tells you how soft the cement is. 2 x 4s intermingle with 1 x 4s, and the depth of structure is never the same. Instead of 1-inch thick bolts, dozens of 16-penny nails hold the gate to the wall. Baling wire can be seen in two spots. The gates weigh about 200 pounds each.

We use 2 x 4s and anchor the gates with thicker bolts. We replace two of the four hinges with sturdier ones. We have to raise the gates 6 inches so that they don’t drag on the ground when rolled back. (Two days later, we discovered part of the problem; children riding on the gates.)

The flimsy cement is the core of our problem. Looking at the two gates, all we saw was gerry-rigging, something done for an instant solution when the proper tools or parts aren’t at hand, but it isn’t meant to be permanent. As we look at the parts of Haiti while driving around, we routinely see flimsy walls and homes made of brick whose cement has no structure because the locals have used too much water and too little cement.

With normal cement texture, it might take five minutes to go 3 inches; it takes us three. The problem was that the bolts would not seat; instead they easily pulled out of the wall after being hammered in. We decided to drill all the way through the foot-thick pillar, which took us 10 minutes.

Later in the day, one of my team members kicks a mason brick with soft shoes and it split in two. A few more kicks and the brick crumbled into several pieces. As we looked around the compound, we saw the same thing happening. A 7-foot tall brick wall was being constructed around the compound. Every 10 feet is the requisite vertical stabilizing pillar made of cement and rebar. Bill, the expert carpenter, tells us the rebar was put together hastily and was not well done. The pillars are meant to be sunk 3 feet under the ground for a wall that tall, but these stop at the ground. Bill tells us someone could hit the wall with a truck from the other side at 20 miles an hour and the entire wall (40 yards) would fall over en masse.

Brick buildings are supposed to be more stable than wood. Brick buildings are supposed to sway under severe pressure and not collapse. All around the complex, we can see pock marks from what looks like rocks being thrown against it.

Everywhere we drive, we see homes that crumbled in the earthquake. I estimate 1 in 10 survived. Even small, 10-foot x 10-foot homes are rubble. All around our hotel, we can see a dozen new brick structures going up that look like they are being built in the same, flimsy manner. Weak bricks, light cement and shoddy workmanship do not make a good combination.

Finally, we finished the gate project late in the afternoon. Because the original design was 4-inches too wide, the gates do not close completely. We decide not to cut 2 inches off the gate to make it fit snugly. We don’t think the Haitians will notice our gaffe

The heat isn’t so bad, but the humidity is draining. My goal is to drink eight 20-ounce Bleu water bottles, or 160 ounces, daily. My first day, I did not pee once. I get used to my shirt being soaked within 30 minutes of starting work. I keep a handkerchief around my neck and pour water over it throughout the day to cool off. I wear a golf cap to keep the sun off my head.

After one day, I realize how draining the heat can be. Even though I grew up in 110-degree heat in Arizona summers, we always had air conditioned cars, homes and offices to go to periodically. Every afternoon, I went swimming for 2-3 hours. The Haitians have none of those amenities we Americans have grown so accustomed to. Back home, I complain occasionally about our condo’s air conditioning system being busted. Never again.

The Haitians don’t seem to sweat much. Their dark skin equips them better for the horrible heat and humidity. They seem to drink far less water than we do, too.

At night, just before bedtime, I look around at the hills of this city of 150,000 people. During the day, I see remnants of homes (rubble, mostly) everywhere. At night, I see black and only a few, sporadic lights as I turn 360 degrees. There are no traffic lights, no city lights and no home lights, not even kerosene lanterns, to be seen. It is an eary.

Caption: Photo by Paul Phillips

Here we are with half of our completed gate with our two Haitian workers and one of our interpretors, Jean (far right). Most of the ideas came from Bill (to my left).