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The Quality of Compassion

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Haiti and excellence.

Those are two words we seldom associate with each other, yet as Tropical Storm Isaac gained momentum on its track over Haiti, I stood in a building that proved how excellence is taking root in this earthquake-ravaged, poverty-raked country. I was in Port-au-Prince for the dedication of a new facility built by Compassion International that will serve as a neighborhood school and Compassion Child Development Center. And, as I would clearly see, it was no typical Haitian school building.

First, a bit of perspective. In my travels to Haiti since the earthquake, much of the landscape has changed. Rubble that once filled the streets has been cleared. Many of the crumbled buildings are replaced by newer ones. The tent cities where tens of thousands of evacuees were forced to live are now gone from many of the city parks and street sides.

The interior landscapes of individual lives are changing, too. For a number of Haitians, fear is being challenged by hope. Optimism is battling against fatalism. I even learned a new Creole phrase, "Degaje" (pronounced day-gah-jhay.) It means, "We will overcome." You have to understand how important that is. In the past, you rarely heard that message in Haiti. In a country devastated by poverty for decades, fatalism and hopelessness kept the phrase off their lips. But on this trip, I heard "degaje" repeatedly -- a word of hope literally rambling around the city and hovering above the wreckage.

But full disclosure demands more. Everything in Haiti is not fine. Dig a little deeper and you discover that the tent cities in the middle of Port-au-Prince have merely moved. The government gave relief money that flowed in from around the world to Haitians in order to move somewhere else. They took the money and simply pitched their tents or built shacks on the same type of steep hillsides that proved to be death-slopes during the earthquake. And when the rains and hurricanes come again, those hillsides are prime targets for flooding and mudslides.

Even more troubling are the construction techniques I witnessed. The same low standards that brought Haiti to its knees are being used again in an attempt to help it rise. I saw one collapsed building that had used PVC pipe in place of rebar. No wonder it was flattened. Even today cinderblock and concrete aren't being reinforced with rebar. Lift a Haitian block and you'd be surprised at how lightweight it is. If you dropped it, you'd be alarmed at how easily it shatters. The price of poverty is paid in substandard materials.

But here, at the school built through the generosity of Compassion child sponsors and donors, it's a different story, but a story that's been challenging to write nevertheless. We had to tap engineers and architects from other parts of the world to design earthquake-resistant foundations, walls and roofs. We had to identify and train a supplier in Haiti to manufacture quality cinder blocks -- not just cinderblocks that were inexpensive. The iron for rebar and roof trusses required a meticulous search. And all of the materials have to undergo random inspection by the only quality-assurance testing lab in Haiti. Even during construction, project foremen live on-site to guide progress and quality. It took time and diligence, but the result is a building that is safe and sound within a reasonable cost per structure. It can be done.

As I stood on the platform during the ribbon cutting, the first few drops from Tropical Storm Isaac started to fall over Port-au-Prince. The Simonette Child Development Center has been built to resist the weather above and shakings below. What's more, it is the first of 30 to be built in Port-au-Prince. The design, materials and systems that brought her to completion are now being implemented six-schools-at-a-time until they are all completed in 2014.

As the rain intensified we sought shelter inside. It was a perfect picture of what Compassion International envisioned this and, indeed, all of our child development centers, to be: a safe place, an excellent place for children to grow.

Excellence and Haiti. You need to know the two words can go together.