April 26, 2010


I had dinner with my cousin last night. And Max. It was an eye-opening meal.

For a very long time Gail worked for a major chemical company. She could never tell her kids exactly what she did because it usually involved a truck full of puppies, some tests, and a truck full of dead puppies. Eventually she quit and went back to school at age 40 to become a pediatric nurse.

Armed with her nursing degree, Gail started traveling to Haiti several years ago, supporting relief agencies tasked with helping the poor and destitute which sadly make up the majority of the country. And then the earthquake hit. And instead of abandoning the cause, worrying about the logistics of travel or the extremely high kidnapping rate for white women, she redoubled her efforts. She doesn't make a lot of money as a nurse, doesn't get a whole lot of vacation time. So she works overtime and accrues as much vacation time as she can so that she can travel to Haiti every four weeks. I asked her what she thought when she went back immediately after the earthquake.

It was bad. So much worse than I thought it would be and I was familiar with the country. When I got there the first time they were still pulling bodies out of buildings. Kids. There were crushed skulls and limbs everywhere. Kids. And those that were still alive were living in tents, no infrastructure because there had never really been one to begin with. Max's family of sixteen was living in a tent made for six people. I'm going back I ten days with fifty pounds of clothes - they only let you bring in fifty pounds - since his family is still wearing the same clothes they were wearing when the earthquake happened.

Max came to live with Gail and her family before the quake. He's 17, has only been speaking English for a year, has a fifth grade education, loves bicycles and was awesome with my children. I have to admit I felt a little silly, a little selfish and more than a little lucky in front of Max. I just got a promotion and will likely make more money this year than max's family has ever seen (that's not to brag about my income - I have the feeling most of us drawing salaries in so-called first world nations could say the same). I felt odd strapping my healthy children into their expensive carseats in my moderately priced SUV when Max and his family have little to no assurances of safety and far fewer possessions. And I have no choice but to be humbled in front of Gail. Not only is she a nurse doing wonderful things but she's a mom to three kids - two of whom are in college - while managing to help hundreds of kids half a world away despite living in the horribly economically depressed state of Michigan.

It's really hard to leave a family dinner like that and not feel like you could be doing more. For kids like Max.

At one point in the evening Max told the story of the three little pigs. He told it in Creole because he wanted us to hear how beautiful the language is. Even in a different language the wolf huffed and puffed and blew the house down. But that's just a story. The reality is that the world huffed and puffed and blew Haiti down. And we could all probably do a better job helping build the island back, not in sticks or tents but with bricks.

Posted by Chris at April 26, 2010 6:48 AM

So true, Chris. It makes such a difference to see with that global perspective. Thanks for the reminder : )

Posted by: Jo MacD at April 26, 2010 7:12 AM

Beautifully written. Yes, we all need reminders about how safe and sound we really are here in our country.

I find the Three Little Pig story especially ironic. Haiti was truly the straw and sticks pigs. And, yes, they need to use bricks next time.

Posted by: Debbie at April 26, 2010 7:26 AM

It's tremendously sad to see what has become of things in Haiti since the quake. It's also unfortunate that many islands in the Caribbean, and of course the rest of the world live like this. In tin lean to's or straw huts or houses made from scraps. In Columbia and Nicaragua, I saw homes with no windows, no floors and doors. Women swept out the dirt floors in the houses and hung the clothes they'd washed in a tub on a line. A dog was in the yard, not for love, but for protection. Almost every yard had either a goat or pig. If they were lucky! But only one. It was the saddest existences I have ever seen.
But I also saw deplorable living conditions in eastern Europe, before the Wall came down, when the Russians ruled with an iron fist. I went with Hubby, who was doing relief flights all over and saw things, I wish I had not.
I do what I can now. I am a big supporter of our community soup kitchen. Bring clothes to the homeless shelter and in the summer and winter when the kids are out of school I supply kids foods to the food pantry. I know I am just one person, but I do what I can in my little place in the world.

Posted by: Maribeth at April 26, 2010 8:47 AM

Is Max in the U.S. as a refugee or will he go back?

I think we all need to take step back from time to time and realize that in crap shoot that is life. Haiti was a hard place to live in before. It must be nearly impossible now.

Posted by: Nat at April 26, 2010 9:27 AM

I know this will come off wrong and Iapologize in advance.

But having just woke up to the news about Loiusiana and Mississippi which are states full of poor, I find it hard to feel that our efforts should begin somewhere else. Have you never ridden through the cotton fields and seen those poor shoeless people working back breaking labor? Or towns like Tutweiler, MS. still made of shacks and one little town store?

Posted by: debb at April 26, 2010 11:16 AM

I couldn't agree more. Though we are on the verge (if my husband doesn't get a job soon) of living paycheck-to-paycheck, we have so much more than pretty much everyone anywhere. If we needed that money, we could cut off the cable and land line and zillion-minutes cell plans and a lot of other things. We are a long way from privation, to be sure.

Right now I am engaged in getting my kids through college by working at a university. In 12 years I will be in a position to turn my hands to more meaningful work and I sincerely hope I can find work doing something for people, for the world, for my community.

Posted by: Brooke at April 26, 2010 11:55 AM

Loving Gail - and everyone like her doing things to better the world (not just our world, the WHOLE world).
Thank you for sharing that - it makes me want to be a better person!

Posted by: Tricia at April 26, 2010 1:43 PM

Very sad, but uplifting at the same time. You showed that someone cares. I watch things on Africa regularly and it blows my mind at how basic their daily lives are. A decent living is asking too much in many parts of the world. Unfortunately in far too many parts of the USA, massive poverty is also common.

Everyone can help in small ways if they want too and are willing to look in our communities, schools and elsewhere. I do other things, but my main focus is finding a family or two every Christmas to ensure that they have a nice Christmas. I'm trying to raise my son to realize how fortunate we are and that giving is part of life.

Posted by: One Mom's Opinion at April 26, 2010 2:42 PM

Your friend is amazing! I don't have nearly that kind of courage but gave as much as I could to Oxfam. They do such great work, and focus on long-term solutions by working with the people, instead of simply throwing relief at them.

Posted by: Laura Gato at April 26, 2010 3:10 PM

God bless your angel of a cousin and keep her safe.

Posted by: Elise at April 26, 2010 5:11 PM

awful situation. really re-calibrates the barometer of our own perspective when talking to someone who's reality is so much harsher than our own...

Posted by: kati at April 26, 2010 8:24 PM

Great post, Mr. Cactus. I have always wondered why I can't choose a family in an impoverished nation and send them money monthly. I'm not talking about the organizations like Compassion International, we do sponsor a child through them. I'm just wanting to send a few hundred bucks to a family. My family would be better off doing this, and I have to think that in many countries, this would be considered "riches". There must be some rational reason why this wouldn't work, but I can't get my mind off it.
Thank God for people like your cousin.

Posted by: Lojo at April 26, 2010 8:27 PM

What a wonderfully written and introspective post Chris. Thanks.

Posted by: Heather at April 26, 2010 11:31 PM

Fuck the job. Write books.

Posted by: alektra at April 27, 2010 12:33 AM

It is so good to know there are people like her. My friend Patrick is like that, he's a sanitation engineer-type? And he goes over to help give access to clean water and toilets and such. It makes me proud to know him.

Posted by: Heather at April 27, 2010 1:35 AM