"Danny, we're goin' to Haiti." Todd Newton called my phone. He did not bother to say "hello" when I answered it. And, I thought he was joking.
"Excuse me? We're going where?"
"Haiti. We're going with Soles4Souls." I could hear the smile in Todd's voice. It was not reciprocated on my end.
"With who? To where? Did you actually say 'Haiti?'"
Todd and I became friends in St. Louis while working at the same radio station. We ended up graduating from radio. I went into video production. He moved to LA and became the voice of E! Entertainment Television, as well as a jock at the legendary KIIS FM. He even dated Debbie Gibson of "Only In My Dreams" fame.
These days, he stars on Monopoly Millionaires Club on TV, produces a weekly podcast, tours all over the world as the host of The Price Is Right traveling show, and even writes books. It's pretty ridiculous.
At the time of his phone call, he had just been named the Goodwill Ambassador for Soles4Souls. They were looking to have some video footage shot to help tell their story. When they asked Todd at their initial meeting if he knew anyone, Todd thought of me and said, "I know just the guy for this."
Hi. Just the guy. Nice to meet you.
I had heard of Soles4Souls, but I had no idea how this phoenix had risen from the ashes of cataclysmic human suffering. It all began on Dec. 26, 2004. As much of the world came out of a food and presents coma, the third most powerful earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph exploded on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. The quake roared for eight solid minutes underneath the waters near south-east Asia. It was felt as far away as Alaska, and our planet actually vibrated a centimeter.
The whole planet.
A shoe executive named Wayne Elsey sat on his couch watching this unfold on the TV screen right in front of his eyes. He couldn't quite comprehend what he was seeing... much like the feeling many of us had when watching the plane fly into the second World Trade Center tower.
Did that just happen?
Suddenly, amid the carnage of the three story wall of water engulfing the coast of Thailand, a little child's shoe washed up on the shore. Something clicked in Wayne's mind. "I can do something about that," he thought.
So the very next day, he started calling everyone he knew who could help, and within three months, over 200,000 pairs of shoes of all shapes and sizes were shipped to those decimated by the disaster.
And then, Wayne went back to work. He had done his good deed, but now it was time to refocus on work. He would probably still be doing so today had a little storm named "Katrina" not devastated the Gulf Coast of our own country. To Wayne, this was too much of a coincidence. It was at that moment when he realized that people were suffering all over the world. When he researched the facts, he discovered that there were well over three hundred-million people all over the world without a single pair of shoes.
And like that, Soles4Souls was born. Wayne and his team collected shoes from companies, schools, and individuals alike, and they shipped them all over the world, wherever they were needed: the Middle East, Central America, Africa... it didn't matter.
And perhaps the biggest need was less than a two-hour flight south of Miami. In January of 2010, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake centered just outside of Port au Prince, Haiti, did nothing short of flatten a huge part of the tenuous infrastructure of one of the poorest countries on earth. Buildings from huts to the presidential palace were utterly destroyed. Tent cities popped up wherever there was room, usually in parks or fields. There was no electricity, no running water, no anything. In a word, the situation seemed hopeless.
Two years after that earthquake, my camera case in hand, I met Wayne at Miami International Airport. Todd had arrived a few minutes before, giving me the lowdown on Wayne. "He's funny, good sense of humor, but when it comes to the job, he's all business."
I found it hard to get a handle on the guy, because I'd never met anyone quite like him. One minute he was joking with me, and thirty seconds later, he's asking me a question of how we were going to shoot. Then more joking, then more business. I thought to myself, "Does this guy know what he's doing?"
Yes... yes he does. As we touched down in Port au Prince and walked from the plane to the airport, it became immediately clear how beloved this man was in this country. "WAYNE!!!" people shouted over and over again; lots of hugs, handshakes, and smiles. It was impressive. And then like a light switch, when it was time to leave the airport, he switched from happy-go-lucky to intensely serious.
"Hold on tight to your bags," he said. "Taxi drivers will try to take them out of your hands, and the only way you get them back is if they take you into town. Head down. Firm grip. Don't say a word. Don't look anyone in the eye. And don't stop moving."
And it was exactly what happened. At least 20 hands tried to grab my camera case almost instantaneously, not to steal it, but to try finagle cab fare out of it. I kept my head down, my grip firm. I ran the gauntlet through a sea of people yelling at me to take their taxi while literally trying to yank my bags out of my hands. It felt more like an escape than an exit.
And 30 seconds after we had walked into the melee, it was over. At once, the voices disappeared. It was eerily quiet.
Again, I thought, "Did that just happen?"
Near the edge of the airport, we met Annie, our contact on the ground in Port au Prince. She was there to pick up our group: Wayne, his friend Sammy who came along for the ride, Todd and I. We also had a policeman who doubled as our "armed guard." I felt safer that we had the armed guard, and not safer that we needed the armed guard.
It was about 6 p.m., and while it was warm, it was still winter, so the sun was almost down. I tried getting footage of the landscape from the car, but it was simply too dark. So I put the camera away. Before I had a chance to survey anything, Wayne motioned for me to look out the window. I turned my head, and a surge of electricity shocked every fiber of my being.
A tent city.
I had read about them and saw pictures of them online. I had been told that you wouldn't be caught dead in one, that they were nothing but squalid areas of decay and disease and crime, almost barbarous in nature. And here I was staring at one as we passed. And the one thing that hit me was how dark it was. No electricity, no light, no flashlights. I didn't even see any communal fire. It felt as though once the sun went down, everything inside died until the sun came back, miraculously bringing everything back to life.
And I could not stop my mind racing over all that I had, foolishly, read online before this trip. I tried not to picture what heinous acts might be going on in the dark of that tent city. Was there abuse? Was there rape? Was someone going to be robbed, or beaten, or murdered that night?
I tried to internally reason with myself. "Of course none of those things were going to happen; these are people, just like me, just caught in a different circumstance. There but for the grace of God go all of us."
But deep down, I was afraid... afraid of the unknown, afraid of the country, afraid of the stories, afraid of being attacked, or kidnapped, or murdered, or never seeing my family again. I had officially boarded the roller coaster. The lap bars came down, we left the station, and I could no longer protest. I couldn't get off the ride. Shit.
My mood was greatly lifted when we arrived at the Plaza Hotel (not related to the one in New York). This place was paradise. It had a pool, a bar, a restaurant with exceptional fries, air conditioning (for part of the day), comfy beds, security, en suite bathroom with spectacular water pressure, and wi-fi so I could Skype with Stephanie and the boys.
It was a world away from the tent city directly across the street... the tent city where we would film our first shots just 12 hours later.