"The most dangerous place in the world right now is the sky over Haiti. It is filled with so many helicopters in a very small space. One has already crashed," warned the airport official briefing our pilot.
The Blackhawk we were supposed to fly to Port au Prince from the Dominican Republic cancelled at the last minute, but I didn't mind because the only word I've ever associated with the word Blackhawk is the word "down." Instead we flew a smaller chopper, low enough to get a taste of the destruction and suffering we were soon to meet face to face.
We flew to the Dominican Republic thanks to the generosity of Timberland, which lent its plane to shuttle Partners in Health doctors and supplies. Haiti's Wyclef Jean, a 12 time Grammy winner who led our delegation, obtained a meeting during our layover at the presidential palace in Santo Domingo with President Leonel Fernández. The earthquake has led to unprecedented cooperation between the two countries. We pressed for even more and he assured us that "stepping back from long term investment in Haiti is unacceptable."
Landing in Port au Prince we were met by security and military officials. One told me: "I've been to Rwanda, Kosovo, Indonesia, you name it. But this is different. Nothing prepares you for something like this." You've seen the pictures, more unforgettable than words. Mountains of collapsed rubble stretch mile after mile. We saw only two bulldozers during our entire visit. The clean up alone will be years, not months.
With Wyclef we went to Cite de Soleil, one of the poorest areas of Port au Prince. We were there to distribute food from a truck stuffed top to bottom with containers of cooked meals. The combination of Wyclef and the food led to an almost instant crush of thousands of Haitian children and their parents for as far as the eye could see.
In my work at Share Our Strength I've often seen gratitude from families receiving meals. What I'd never seen before was the panic on the faces of so many people who knew better than I did that the food would run out before we'd served even a fraction of those who'd had nothing but an energy biscuit or power bar in the ten days since the quake struck.
The crowd became larger and surged forward. A few fights broke out, but there was no real violence, just hunger in the starkest and truest sense. At one point the crowd broke through a formidable security team and we were pinned against the truck. Timberland CEO Jeff Swartz and I locked eyes in realization of the fragility of a moment that could go either way. Wyclef grabbed a bullhorn and tried to calm the crowd, but even his celebrity was no match for their desperation. The only option was for the truck, almost empty, to speed away, to another neighborhood, where after restocking, we began again.
Before I got to Haiti, Share Our Strength had distributed $145,000 to the most effective organizations on the ground here. We'll make more grants soon. I like to think we excel at long term solutions, entrepreneurship, and bold thinking. The time will soon come when such competencies are invaluable. But none of that was worth a pile of concrete rubble in Port au Prince this week. What was required instead was Mother Teresa's prescription of hands willing to serve and hearts willing to love.
Now the real test of commitment begins. I could have lived with myself if we'd chosen not to make this trip, but having made it I won't be able to live with not going back to continue what we've begun. The airport official who conducted our helicopter briefing was wrong. The greatest danger is not the sky above Port Au Prince, or Cite de Soleil where there was no violence, only desperation. The real danger is whether our hearts and heads have the capacity to continue to bear witness after the headlines fade and the benefit concerts end, and our lives once again refocus on the many needs even closer to home.
On our second day in Haiti we met the heroic Partners in Health docs, and soldiers of the 82nd Airborne who have rebuilt Haiti's general hospital and are working in conditions beyond my ability to describe. But tomorrow I'll try with a final update from the end of our trip.