For a group of West Shore residents, the work they do abroad is all about the kids.
“There is something that’s special about Haiti … even with all of that destruction and challenges, there’s this life that’s so wonderful to observe,” said Langford Fire Chief Bob Beckett.
Children at the Baby Jesus of Prague and the Divine Hands orphanages in Port-au-Prince have captured his heart and those of the many others that have travelled with him to Haiti.
Beckett, also a Rotarian, will be leading a team on his 15th trip to Haiti. He will be joined by other Westshore Sunrise Rotary Club volunteers Rick Fisher and Hilary Groos, along with Saanich Coun. Leif Wergeland and Gazette reporter Katherine Engqvist when they depart for Haiti on Friday (Oct. 28).
But the purpose of their trip has changed due to the devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew earlier this month. Originally, the team was planning on being in Haiti at that time, but Fisher, owner of Glenwood Meats in Langford, couldn’t be away from his shop that close to Thanksgiving.
Now, the team will assess the needs – both immediate and long term – of those two orphanages. The hope is that there will be enough funds to send all of the children to school – something the orphanages couldn’t afford to do – while also being able to stockpile enough dry goods to get them through the winter.
“Food supplies are next to none,” Beckett said, adding that malnutrition is a growing concern for at least one of the orphanages. But addressing food supplies isn’t as simple as a quick trip to the grocery store. “Nothing’s easy down there,” Fisher said, adding, “all the plantations are destroyed.”
If they are able to procure the sizeable amount of food needed, keeping it secure will also be a challenge. There are reports coming in of people overturning trucks to steal the food being transported. “They have nothing to start with anyways and what little they had is then wiped out,” Fisher said. “Pictures really don’t show a fraction of what it is … It’s much worse than it shows.”
The Langford team will also carry on with the original goal of the trip, which is looking into purchasing the land the Divine Hands Orphanage sits on. Not only would the move save rental costs, it would allow that money to be allocated to other needs.
To do that they will need to work closely with United Nations representatives and RCMP officers in the country. “They have a genuine interest in the well-being of the kids down there – and all Haitian people,” Fisher said of the two contingents, adding the work Rotary and the City of Langford do wouldn’t be possible without them. “It’s amazing what they do down there.”
There’s also a group of international police officers that have taken a special interest in the orphanages. On their days off these officers will check on the children. “Every Sunday they go there and fork out money of their own,” Beckett said. However, with the current situation, these Sunday visits have become a little less frequent, creating an even greater demand, he said.
That demand is something the City of Langford is well versed in and is why the City has been sending monthly donations to the Baby Jesus of Prague Orphanage since 2010. “Imagine how vulnerable these children are,” said Coun. Lillian Szpak. “To think of empty tummies on kids is the worst thing to imagine.”
While a lot of the process and stability they’ve made in recent years has now been undermined by recent events, Szpak noted, “you have to start somewhere, when you think of how huge it is.” She added, “I think it takes a very special person to go to volunteer down there.”
But Beckett was quick to point out they couldn’t do what they do without the support of the West Shore community. “The timing is perfect and the generosity we’ve seen … the funds have really started to come in,” he said.
After the hurricane, Fisher put out a small donation box by the cashiers at Glenwood Meats. Less than a week later, his staff were blown away by the amount of donations that had come in.
Donations are also being collected at the Langford fire halls and through helpforhaiti.ca.
“You give me a dollar and that goes to the kids,” Fisher added, noting donations do not go to covering the team’s airfare and travel costs.
Through the generosity of local individuals and groups, Beckett said, “we’re going to be able to make a huge difference for these orphanages.”
But even knowing that, Fisher said, “it’s hard to leave (Haiti) … you don’t which trip is going to be your last.”
And as, Beckett said, there will be a last time.
The group is trying to help these orphanages and individuals shift their focus away from their immediate needs and more toward long-term plans. But as Szpak noted, “how can you when you’re starving?”
Fisher tried to put that into context for those that haven’t travelled to a place like Haiti before. “It’s a difficult thing … Canada is the land of opportunity, you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it. In Haiti it’s really difficult,” he said. “I don’t know if the country itself will ever change.”
West Shore community has big reach
After the earthquake back in 2010 that devastated Haiti, Coun. Lillian Szpak said Langford council members wanted to do something.
“We realized there was an orphanage full of children that needed our help,” she said. “It’s really still very much a Langford project along with Rotary. We don’t want to forget these kids.”
Making sure these children aren’t forgotten as the aftermath of the earthquake slowly faded from headlines has been a priority for the City and the team of Westshore Sunrise Rotary Club volunteers that regularly travel to Haiti to check on the two orphanages they now support.
“This really belongs to our community and it’s everyday people that are stepping up,” Szpak said.
It was a sentiment echoed by Langford Fire Chief and Rotarian Bob Beckett. “There’s many ways to answer a need. Not everyone needs to go to Haiti.”
He noted people putting something back into their community is the first step and nodded to the Rick Fisher and the work his company, Glenwood Meats, does to support local groups and organizations as well as the projects in Haiti.
While volunteers worked to rebuild the Baby Jesus of Prague Orphanage in Port-au-Prince post-earthquake, Beckett said they were referred to as the Langford team and not identified by their country of residence like the others they were involved with. Szpak added “Langford is a caring community, I’m very proud to say that … It’s a privilege to be able to help.”
Watch the Gazette in coming weeks for more stories and reactions from a country that was recently devastated by Hurricane Matthew.