By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
The drunken frat boys stumbling down Blake Street late one summer evening found an angel blocking the sidewalk.
She had wings strapped to her back and a coffee can in her hand — for donations for kids in Haiti, she said. If they wanted, the boys could follow her to a local club, where rappers and DJs were on the mikes and local artists were showing their work — all for the benefit of the children.
In fact, she told the drunks, if they wanted to, they could follow her angel wings all the way to Haiti.
Stephanie Jeune ditches the wings long before she hits security at Denver International Airport two weeks before Christmas. Even so, she's singled out for extra screening. But her husband, Dan Jeune, who's wearing a black dashiki patterned with outlines of Africa, along with matching pants and a hat, makes it through quickly.
On the other side of security, Dan and Stephanie meet up with Traci Grilley. A 34-year-old operations manager for a mortgage company, Traci is doing well financially but wants to turn her success into something more meaningful. She heard about this goodwill trip to Haiti at a fundraising barbecue hosted by Dan and Stephanie. Of Mexican descent, Traci was adopted as a baby by a Colorado couple — and her parents are now terrified at the thought of her traveling to the poorest, most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere.
Joining them at the gate is Terrance Roberts, who knows all about danger even though he's never been out of this country. Terrance runs the Prodigal Son Initiative, a gang-diversion nonprofit, and he met Dan when he spoke at Pace, a program run by Catholic Charities, Denver Public Schools and Denver's Safe Cities office for kids who've been suspended from regular school. Before founding his own organization, Terrance called shots for the Bloods — and then he spent nine years, more than a third of his life at the time, incarcerated.
Before they board the plane, Dan, Stephanie, Terrance and Traci join hands and pray for a safe journey. But they also pray that the International Club of Friendship, which Dan founded in Paris in 2004, will be able to make a difference in his native Haiti.
In Haiti, one out of eight children dies before the age of five. Because the government offers so few services, 90 percent of the country's primary schools are run by private and parochial organizations, and only 65 percent of the kids are enrolled. About 20 percent of the population makes it to secondary school. Only half of Haiti's adults can read. The country ranks 154th out of 177 countries rated by the United Nations Human Development Index.
In Miami, the group meets up with 32-year-old Lee Ramirez and his girlfriend, Merlie Walters Meis, a 29-year-old who's both Latina and black. She left her native Costa Rica in 1999 for a job in Summit County and has lived in Colorado ever since, very aware of the disparity between her Third World birthplace and the ski resorts of her adopted home. Merlie met Dan shortly after he moved to Denver, when he inquired about a job at Primerica Financial Services, where Merlie worked. Lee was born in California, raised in Iowa and has been living in Colorado for five years. He's a self-taught, self-employed graphic designer who listens more than he speaks.
Once Lee and Merlie join Dan, Stephanie, Terrance and Traci, the roster for team Haiti is now complete. Although there are about 550 members on Dan's ICOF Denver mailing list, only four of them were able to come up with the time and the cash for this trip.
The flight to Haiti goes quickly. The passengers disembark on the tarmac into a windy, sunny day and file past a passport check before heading into the small terminal, where their luggage soon overwhelms the elderly baggage carousel. Everyone on the ICOF trip has agreed to live out of their carry-on bags, so the two fifty-pound suitcases allowed per traveler are filled with donated school supplies, clothes and toys for the children of Haiti.
One of the airport cops knows Dan — or "Danny," as he's called in Haiti. The policeman is married to a girl who grew up in an orphanage run by Dan's father, Bishop Joel. He guides the Denver group through a sea of black faces waiting behind a gate outside the airport, where men argue with each other over the opportunity to earn a dollar or two by carrying suitcases or leading passengers to a waiting taxi. But Dan's already arranged for transportation, a Dhiatsu minivan that will take the ICOF team to the Christian compound where these missionaries of friendship will stay.
Away from the airport, you can smell the culture shock. The air blowing through the van's open windows stinks of smoke, coconut milk, diesel fuel and dirt. The road to Port-au-Prince is Haiti's only national road — and it was the only paved strip in the country when Dan was a kid, he says. But the project's still unfinished, with potholes big enough to bathe in and no lane designations. Traffic travels both ways in both lanes as cars weave in and out and drivers use horns instead of turn signals.