Saturday, September 27, 2008

South Florida Mobilizes To Help Haiti After Storms

A broad range of South Floridians are eager to aid the storm-devastated nation of Haiti.


Shoppers queued up at the Whole Foods Market in Aventura are greeted with a sign at the cashier soliciting $1, $2 and $5 donations for storm-ravaged Haiti.

Across the county line in Dania Beach, fishing enthusiasts bring in 40 bags' worth of Haiti-bound clothing and food after reading about a plea for help in online chatrooms like Florida Sportsman and Swordfishing Central.

Even amid this season of financial ruin in the United States, Haiti has been showered with good deeds, rendering the troubled country something of a cause du jour for many South Floridians.

Do-gooders have rushed to the side of Florida's southern neighbor before, pitching in, say, after Tropical Storm Jeanne brushed the western coast in 2004 and left some 3,000 dead and foot riots rocked the island nation in April.

But this time, the outpouring of support is being carried out on a much broader scale. From boating enthusiasts to hipster clubgoers -- people who have no direct ties to Haiti or its people save physical proximity -- everybody wants to do their part.

''We are going through tough times,'' said Melanie Nieves, who runs the PTA group at St. Hugh Catholic School in Coconut Grove. ``But when you see something like [what happened in Haiti], it helps you put things in perspective: My life isn't so tough. I'm not dealing with the loss of a child. I haven't lost my house.''

Nieves helped collect 150 bags of diapers and clothes to deliver to the Friends of the Orphans, an orphanage in Haiti. She recently dropped off more than 50 bags of clothing at the Coconut Grove firehouse, picked up by the City of Miami for its own relief effort.

All together, the back-to-back storms left at least 426 dead and a million homeless.

''I don't have anybody out there I know, even though I have some Haitian friends,'' said George Rodez, 51, a Kendall artist. ``The images I see of Haiti make me want to reach out and help.''

Rodez is selling reproductions of his work at $100 a pop and donating 100 percent of the proceeds to the Red Cross. He's sold 15 pieces so far.

There are the celebrities who have been bringing attention to the plight through personal trips or donations -- Wyclef Jean, Matt Damon, Gloria Estefan, Mia Farrow. But there are also the lesser-known, de facto humanitarian workers.

There's a church group, the Bahamas Methodist Habitat, that plans on sending clothes, food, and household goods to Haiti after repairing roofs on Great Inagua, a southeastern island in the Bahamas that took a solid beating from Ike. The Palmetto Truck Center in Doral collected enough food to fill a 24-foot truck. And then there's the Vagabond, a Miami nightclub popular among the local hipster set.


''We were overwhelmed with the turnout -- people were dropping off stuff and leaving,'' Carmel Ophir, owner of Vagabond, said about a recent Friday night. ``You name it, it was given.''

Ophir said he and others loaded up two pick-up trucks and a Jeep with children's toys, diapers, blankets, T-shirts, and dropped them off at Notre Dame D'Haiti Catholic Church in Little Haiti.

Food For the Poor, a Christian relief agency in Coconut Creek, is also noticing the range and stream of support.

On Tuesday, FFP's 30,000 square-feet warehouse briefly ran out of floor room -- the first time ever, Angel said.

''Our warehouse people have been going crazy with what we've been receiving,'' said Angel Aloma, executive director of FFP.

Among the people donating are students from Springview Elementary in Miami Springs. They recently donated more than 450 hygiene kits. Plus, Royal Caribbean and Coca-Cola have donated pallets of food, water, blankets and new clothing, later shipped to northern Haiti. Whole Foods Market will send all of its donations to FFP.

Since the storms banged up Haiti this season, FFP has shipped 89 containers to the country at a value of more than $7.7 million.

One Haiti native explained the show of benevolence this way: Media images of Haiti's storm victims were so powerful and poignant that one had no choice but to act.

''When you look at those pictures, it doesn't matter if you know someone -- it's having a human heart,'' said Marilyn Rousseau from Gonaives, whose Davie book club is organizing a mini-fundraiser. ''You have to have a heart of rock not to feel the need to help in some way.'' Even as Ike took aim at Galveston, one Coral Gables woman felt moved to do something while passing through Houston.

''You're always praying it doesn't hit you but it hits somebody,'' said Stephanie Cohen, 54, a part-time retailer who bought baby formula to donate. ``I've always felt that Haiti was the underdog.''


Then there's the police department in Bal Harbour, whose world-famous mall resembles a do-not-touch museum for well-heeled shoppers. Two police officers approached the chief about launching a collection. Congregants and residents dropped off food, clothing, and water at Church by the Sea in the village.

''This time, it wasn't just the politicians helping out,'' said Bal Harbour Police Chief Tom Hunker. ``Very seldom in law enforcement do you see this group effort. But with this one, it really struck a chord when you saw those little kids with mud all over them.''

Source: MiamiHerald.Com

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