The Social Conscience of a Missionary

It's a long way from LoDo to Haiti, but Dan Jeune wants to bridge the gap. With friendship.

Haiti has always been as unstable as it is impoverished. Back in the seventeenth century, French buccaneers used the island as a staging spot to rob English and Spanish ships, until Spain ceded the western third of the island. Then the French began importing African slaves to work on sugar and coffee plantations, which made the land one of France's richest colonies even when its inhabitants were the poorest. In 1791, the slaves revolted, and by 1804 Haiti was independent, only the second republic in the Western Hemisphere and the first black republic in the world. But between 1843 and 1915, when the U.S. military started what would turn into a nineteen-year occupation, the country experienced 22 changes of government. In the mid-1950s, Haiti fell under a 29-year dictatorship. Finally, the country ratified a constitution in 1987, then elected Jean-Bertrand Aristide president in 1990. He took office the following year, only to be removed in a military coup six months later. He went into a three-year exile in the U.S.

Dan remembers when school got canceled for "coup" days. The Clinton administration placed an embargo on Haiti, and no planes could travel between the two countries. All of Dan's teachers fled on the last flights out. Dan left, too, and went to stay with friends of his father's in Pennsylvania.

In 1994, the U.S. led a multinational force of 21,000 troops into Haiti to oversee the end of military rule. Elections followed, but so did accusations of fraud. In 2001, Aristide took power again, and for the first time in the country's history, a full-term president transferred power peacefully to a successor.

Join the club: Merlie Walters Meis hands out school supplies to local kids.
Join the club: Merlie Walters Meis hands out school supplies to local kids.

Through all the chaos, Dan had one constant: his love of basketball. No sooner was he back in Haiti than he started begging his father to send him back to school in the U.S., which Dan knew was his only shot at the NBA. When Dan was nineteen, his father finally agreed — on the condition that Dan go to Bible school in order to become a minister.

Dan agreed, and enrolled at Victory Christian in Tulsa, where a friend of the church had agreed to give him free room and board — and where Dan quickly joined the basketball team. For once, he wasn't regarded as Bishop Joel's son, but rather as "that kid from Haiti." He was one of five black kids at the school, four of whom were on the basketball team's starting lineup. But because he was already nineteen, Dan couldn't play ball officially until January. Still, in just half a season, he rated as one of the highest scorers in the school's history.

Dan's father found out what he was up to, and in the argument that followed, Dan vowed not to return to Haiti until he could afford a room in a hotel. But then his grandfather died, and Dan returned to Bishop Joel's compound.

He was soon back in the U.S., though, with a full scholarship to junior college in Midwest City, Oklahoma. From there he went on to Rose State College, where in his second year he led the team in both scoring and rebounds. Another scholarship to Harding University in Arkansas followed. It wasn't the launching pad to the NBA that Dan had hoped for, but in 2001, he did manage to earn a bachelor's in criminal justice. He figured he'd become a lawyer.

But first Dan decided to give basketball one last chance. A team in Italy was hosting tryouts, and he talked to a team from Sweden. He even played with one in Finland for a while, but he thought the culture was cold. So he split for France, where he played on a national league. He was making a living, but his team always came up one win short of the highest professional level in the tournament style of play.

Dan had a lot of downtime, and he filled it with naps. During one, he says, he had a dream that he was in a gang that did good and helped people. When he woke up, the dream didn't dissipate. Instead, he founded the International Club of Friendship, based on the simple concept of using friendship as a development tool to connect the world. Dan asked his basketball team to hold ICOF nights, when people could donate food or money instead of buying tickets. He asked his friends to help, too.

One friend formed a dance troupe, and another helped him get the word out about performances that served as fundraisers. At first, Dan tried to charge a membership fee to join ICOF, but chasing down the money was a hassle, and skeptics wondered what he was doing with it. So Dan made membership free and started hosting parties in the ICOF name.

Although some slackers joined just to find dates, a strong chapter developed in France. That summer, about fifteen people went on a humanitarian mission to Morocco, taking clothing and money raised at ICOF events. At the same time, a friend of Dan's from Haiti who was living in Dallas started the first ICOF chapter in the U.S. By Christmas 2004, the Dallas group had already sent a couple of members to Paris to share fundraising ideas. And Paris members took trips to the U.S. to explore opening ICOF chapters in Atlanta and Miami. A Miami chapter actually started up, but it quickly turned into more of a social club than a philanthropic outfit. Dan soon realized that he needed more than casual friendship to keep his idea going. He needed people with energy and dedication enough for the long haul.

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