In May of 2012, I was invited to Haiti by a friend who wanted me to see firsthand the devastation caused by the earthquake in 2010. I accepted with no preconceptions.
Immediately following the earthquake, the Philadelphia Eagles helped a group of doctors airlift a number of the injured children to our area hospitals. I had visited these children who needed life saving care, even grew friendly with one in particular, a 12- year old boy named Marco.
I had seen the images but nothing could prepare me for the feeling of complete hopelessness I was left with after my initial trip to Haiti. Sure, there were numerous organizations and individuals trying to alleviate as much need as they could but still thousands were living in tent cities, rapes ran rampant and malnutrition and disease were everywhere...
So, in 2013 when a second invitation arrived, I was eager to see what had changed in the intervening months - how had this country that is known to be one of the poorest in the Western hemisphere, with its Cite de Soleil (Sun City) slum, home to over 300,000 people, had evolved into since my last visit.
Where had all the aid that had been assigned for Haiti gone? What percentage had actually been distributed and/or reached those it was meant for? Why was the government so incapable of action? Would the Martelly presidency change anything?
I had met NRG's CEO, David Crane at a ribbon cutting ceremony at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School in the 9th Ward in New Orleans. His company had just installed solar panels at that school resulting in 40 percent energy savings, thus enabling the principal to spend the new found money on education. I didn't personally know David even though the Philadelphia Eagles had partnered with his energy company NRG on a huge solar array for its stadium, helping the team further its Go Green mission in an effort to reduce its carbon footprint. But somehow within minutes of his talk, I had agreed to accompany him to Haiti.
This visit was a very different experience. It was a trip that ultimately showed what teamwork could accomplish. Much of the time spent in Port au Prince and the neighboring town of Mirebalais was focused on the role NRG could play in fixing existing solar arrays or providing new solar panels. David Crane and his team of tireless volunteers had already brought solar power to such entities as the Zamni Beni Orphanage and Valantine Abe's Fish Hatchery. This time around the focus was on hospitals where hundreds if not thousands of patients would eventually be the beneficiaries.
Imagine one of the only trauma centers in Port au Prince, the Bernard Mevs Hospital, having to lay off nurses because the energy bill for diesel was too high. This was a hospital that had performed 3,000 surgeries last year (with only three operating rooms) and whose outpatient clinic saw 130 patients per day. And yet its only X-Ray machine had blown a fuse due to the spikes in the power grid (with no set timetable in the foreseeable future for when GE could fix it). Its mobile CT scan was in a trailer hooked up to its own generator so it wouldn't also burn a fuse.
NRG was to install solar panels and batteries with inverters that would safeguard the costly and essential life saving medical equipment at Bernard Mevs Hospital. That would also cut down costs and bring back much needed personnel. Lives would be changed by this strategic philanthropy which wasn't just limited to this one hospital. Other clinics would also soon benefit from David's push for sustainability in places where the need was the greatest.
I saw all of this firsthand, the drive for change, the teamwork, the passion to make lives easier and a light bulb went off for me. This place offered me the perfect opportunity to practice my personal philosophy of active philanthropy, actions that go beyond simply writing a check to active participation in the change that is sought.
I remembered that on my first visit to Haiti I had visited a school in the Bois Neuf area of Cite de Soleil called Institution Mixte Union des Apotres. The school had been built after the earthquake by Caroline Sada and other donors. It was at the end of a dirt road, and existed under the auspices of the local pastor. Three hundred school children from the slums piled into two basic buildings that housed the classrooms amidst an acre of rubble. There was no electricity, no water, and no food readily available for the kids as they studied. Although the children were getting some form of education from kindergarten to 6th grade they were starving; so much so that the school had had to reduce its hours when students started to pass out.
I told myself that with the help of David Crane, Mike Adams from Bechtel, and the small team of NRG friends who were on this trip, we would be able to transform this small school into a safe haven of hope. I knew that this group of intense and dedicated people would, as a team, be able to make a difference. Whether it would be solar panels on a kindergarten building, a fence that would protect the school and the children, a well, a tilapia pond, a vegetable garden to provide food for a cafeteria, this makeshift group of new friends eventually agreed with my dream: they were going to make it all possible. And with that, Caroline Sada's vision of making this school mirror Zoranje (a successful community for children) had wings.
Ideally, I hope that our actions will embody words such as "real impact", "responsibility", "making a difference" and "partnership" because these are the attributes that drive my philosophy of philanthropy and social action.
This trip brought me into constant contact with people who inspired me and others to take action. It didn't matter where they came from or what work they did, they were actively making those words real. We can all make those words come alive be it here in Philadelphia, in Haiti, or in your own backyard.