Monday, September 22, 2008

Changing Haiti From Within

BY Jay Price or (919) 829-4526

[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="128" caption="Dorleans depends on aid from local groups. "]Dorleans depends on aid from local groups. [/caption]

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI - In some of the world's poorest neighborhoods, Leon Dorleans' flock is scraping the last of the mud from the floors of their shanties and wondering if the hurricane season is finally done with them after four storms.

Dorleans, meanwhile, has seen enough years of Haiti's serial misery to worry more about what comes next. Tens of thousands of acres of crops were ruined, setting the country up for a massive food crisis in the coming year. The worldwide food shortage had already been squeezing millions of Haitian bellies, triggering deadly riots in the spring.

"They didn't have anything to eat before, and now it's a vicious cycle," Dorleans said. "Food will be more scarce and more expensive, but they have even less money because they have lost jobs and many have had to spend to repair their homes."

Dorleans, a lean, wisecracking minister, presides over a small empire of hope in a country that doesn't have much. He oversees five churches, three grade schools, a vocational school and two clinics, and his work is heavily supported by a cluster of aid groups and churches in the Triangle.
"Without that, I would close everything," he said.

Dorleans visits the churches twice a year, and gave a sermon at University Presbyterian in Chapel Hill during a stop in the Triangle in 2006. He is headed back for more fundraising this week.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and Dorleans works in slums like the notorious Cite Solei -- 200,000 people packed into rows of tiny concrete shacks topped with hole-riddled metal sheets held down by chunks of rubble. Open spaces are wastelands of garbage, and the best of the smells is the acrid scent of burning plastic.

Nationwide, the recent storms have killed at least 550 people and flooded more than 160,000 out of their homes.

The capital wasn't hit by Hurricane Ike as hard as areas farther north, like the port city of Gonaives. Still, Dorleans' clinics have treated people with storm-related problems such as infected cuts and fungal infections, and he expects that in the next few weeks cases of illnesses such as typhoid will jump.

But the big thing will be hunger. In a country where many don't have enough to eat in normal times, Dorleans said the hunger likely will breed more security problems.

Even while others are repairing damage, Dorleans is expanding. On Friday, electricians were wiring a new second floor on one of the clinics, space for visiting medical teams.

As Dorleans finished showing off the new space, a man carrying an Apple laptop sauntered up. It was Scott Catlin of Durham, a longtime volunteer who tries to come to Haiti three times a year.

A computer expert with a Morrisville company called LSII Data, Catlin was helping wire four computers in a new library for one of Dorleans' schools and dealing with other digital and electrical issues in the compound.

Dorleans is a magnet for Triangle-area volunteers; on the same day, Taki Donovan of Cary and Kay Leaman of Chapel Hill dropped by.

They were on a trip to drop off relief supplies and gather material for a calendar they create each year to raise money for Hearts With Haiti, a Raleigh charity that supports programs mainly for Haitian kids.

The North Carolinians greeted each other and asked about several acquaintances they have in common, both in North Carolina and Haiti.

"You care about what the other people are doing and you care about Haiti, so the relationships start out strong and get stronger," Donovan said.

In Haiti, there are no free government schools, and many kids in places like Cite Soleil, where even a meal a day can be a luxury, simply can't afford to go.

Dorleans and his supporters, though, have drummed up 500 sponsors in the United States, mainly through churches that pay $25 a month for each of 800 elementary school students. Another 400 kids can afford tuition themselves.

A life turned around

After getting into trouble as a kid, Dorleans decided to go to the Bahamas and find work. Determined not to turn out bad, he took the money he made and got into a small bible college in Winston-Salem. He graduated from another bible college in the United States, then returned to Haiti and started his own, branching out from there.

Dorleans gets support from several Triangle sources, including a Rotary club in Apex, White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, Black Knoll Presbyterian Church in Durham and Duke Chapel.

The Raleigh aid group Stop Hunger Now -- which has been pulling together hurricane relief -- provides lunch for the sponsored kids, the only nutritious meal of the day for most.

Dr. David Walmer of Family Health Ministries in Durham helped establish Dorleans' ties to the Triangle. Walmer led a Virginia aid group's project to build Dorleans' first clinic, in Cite Soleil, then built a second after starting FHM. Walmer's organization regularly brings in visiting teams of doctors and divinity students and provides money for operating expenses, including salaries for the nine workers, among them the only doctor for miles.

About 10 years ago, after the first clinic was built, Walmer invited Dorleans up to meet members of Walmer's church and others, for the first of what would become many fundraising trips to the area. Now, Dorleans travels to the United States twice a year; his most recent swing through the Triangle was last spring.

Toward the end of the day Friday, Dorleans drove to Cite Soleil to drop off one of his workers and check on some families in his flock.

"This," he said, "is the terrible famous Cite Soleil. The American Embassy, they would say you cannot come here -- it's not safe."

Dorleans is something of a celebrity among the city's poor, and as he walked among the shacks, a small crowd gathered.

School should have started Sept. 7, but with so many areas still flooded or being rebuilt, opening day was put off until Oct. 6 for all but the wealthy schools. In the giant slum, the corners and alley-like streets are crowded with kids just standing around with little to do.

Dorleans popped his head in one shack. Inside, in sweltering darkness, three toddlers lay parallel on the floor, two of them naked. "And no one here with them," he said, shaking his head and conferring with a neighbor.

At another shack, he stopped to talk to a 3-year-old boy, the son of an employee.

As he walked away, he said that the boy would come to one of his schools one day.

"The big thing is education," he said. "I believe if you start teaching them at 3 or 4, maybe there is another Leon."

News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this story.

Source: NewsObserver.Com

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