A pregnant 12-year-old girl. Men sobbing as they beg for a job so they can feed their children. A half-million homeless people still living in tent camps.
“Every time I have a meeting at a tent camp, there are at least 30 or 40 people begging me to take their kids,” said Vance Simms, 50, of Ojai.
Such are the conditions in Haition the two-year anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. Simms and his wife, Cheryl, 43, are among theVentura County residents who have not forgotten Haiti’s plight after the 7.0 earthquake and the cholera epidemic that followed.
The Simmses helped open an orphanage and school there. Dr. Ian Armstrong, a Thousand Oaks spinal neurosurgeon, is lending his support and services to the New Life Children’s Home, an orphanage nearPort-au-Prince. And organizations such as Calvary Community Church and the Transformational Development Agency, both based in Westlake Village, are still helping Haiti.
“After the ‘voluntourism’ was over, we maintained our commitment, (including) the challenge of finding those willing to go,” said Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, who founded the Transformational Development Agency with her husband, Rikki Alakija.
The surge of volunteers who wanted to help in January 2010 slowed to a trickle after the media organizations packed up and moved on.
“When it comes to building steps for the long haul, people lose interest and go to the next crisis,” said Brian Field, mission director for Calvary. “We want to invest more into the Haitians who can be there day in and day out.”
The church helped build a water reservoir in a mountain community and hopes to construct a school. The Transformational Development Agency helped government officials dispense health information during the cholera epidemic, trained numerous health workers and got about $1 million worth of medical supplies delivered to Haitians.
Olatunbosun-Alakija said her group has “tried to steer away from simply providing handouts, which have a tendency to create a dependency on outside input and aid.”
The Simmses agree that helping Haitians help themselves is the key.
Education is the cornerstone behind the orphanage and school they helped open. Cheryl, a hairstylist, calls herself the big-picture person. As a contractor, Vance knew how to take the ball and run with it.
“I figured if I can deal with thecountyofVentura, I can build an orphanage,” he said.
Their interest inHaitiactually began six months before the earthquake. Cheryl and daughter Hailey, now 19, traveled there on a mission trip with the idea of building a children’s sports camp. The need was so great, Cheryl realized her husband might be interested in helping.
“I knew this was for Vance,” she said. “I knew this was what his heart needs.”
Then the earthquake reduced much of the nation to rubble. Just as Vance was packing up to go there, a Haitian minister named Benite Jeune came to Ojai to speak about how his organization, Changing Tides Ministry, had been destroyed.
He and Vance met and clicked, staying up until the wee hours developing a plan for an orphanage and school. Beginning in September 2010, Vance traveled to Haiti every other month, using the couple’s own money.
“We’re not rich,” he said. “We’re middle-class. We just took the money we would use for vacations and such.”
In July, the Changing Tides Orphanage and Academy opened in Jacmel, a three-hour drive fromPort-au-Prince. A three-person staff oversees about 15 children who live there, although they feed as many children as they can.
“We had kids come to us at death’s door,” Vance said. “They’re barely able to lift their heads. They were eating one meal a day.”
There are many images that haunt Vance, including the pregnant 12-year-old girl and the man close to his own age who begged him for a job at the orphanage.
“This guy was sweating the whole time,” Vance said. “He said he couldn’t listen to his kids cry one more day because they were hungry.”
Vance does not know the circumstances of the pregnant preteen but knows minors will remain in danger and adults in misery until Haitians learn to develop roads, bridges, jobs, sanitation, water and other infrastructure.
The Simmses hope to add one grade a year until their school has 12 grades. Then they hope to bring graduates to the United States to get a college education, with the understanding that they will return to Haiti to help the nation help itself.
Armstrong traveled to Haiti right after the earthquake and stays connected to New Life. After his first visit, Armstrong offered medical services, then helped establish a clinic at the orphanage. He has offered regular consultations for the 130 children there, including a dozen who are severely handicapped.
“That’s where the iPhone came in handy,” Armstrong said. “They could send me photos, and I could diagnose them.”
Like the Simmses, Armstrong thinks the answer to Haiti’s future lies with the education of its children.
“They are teaching them life skills — how to farm, how to raise fish in little ponds, how to raise rabbits and chickens,” Armstrong said. “By making them self-sufficient, you are going to change Haiti from the bottom up.”