The Social Conscience of a Missionary
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.
View the slide show "Snapshots of Haiti" by Luke Turf.
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.
Garbage is everywhere, lining the road like leaves in Denver in the fall. There are piles of it — some burning, some smoldering, some being feasted on by pigs and goats. There's more garbage in the canal system that runs through the city. Around almost every corner, grown men are urinating in the street.
Kids are all over, too, some in clothes, some naked, some with one shoe, some with two, some barefoot, many selling dirty plastic bottles filled with what they call "juice." Everyone's thirsty, but no one buys any. The street is littered with plastic bottles. One skinny boy is running alongside a dirty truck, wiping off dust with an even dirtier rag every time the truck pulls to a stop, trying to squeeze a few pennies out of the driver and refusing to abandon his task until he gets paid.
Between unfinished construction projects stand squatters' shacks thrown together with wood and concrete and metal. There's no water, no electricity. The construction projects don't look like they'll ever be completed.
After about an hour or so in bumper-to-bumper traffic, the van reaches the compound. A security guard armed with a shotgun waves the friends through the gate.
Danny grew up in a compound like this one in Carrfour, a ghetto outside Port-au-Prince.
Each morning he'd wake with the sun and the roosters on the compound, where his father, an evangelical minister, and mother ran a church, a medical clinic, an orphanage and a school. But Danny went to an American school, one where the children of missionaries and U.N. workers sent their kids.
At school, Danny heard other students talking about Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, and he'd bring those stories back home to share with the orphans and neighborhood kids. He'd never seen a game — soccer was the sport in Haiti — but Danny became obsessed with basketball. His father wanted him to focus on the Bible.
Pastor Joel, who later became Bishop Joel, was famous in Haiti. He had a television show that was broadcast throughout the country. Danny would tune in for the last few minutes, hoping he could keep the TV on so that he could watch Kung Fu. But that wasn't a suitable pastime for the son of a preacher who was himself the son of a preacher.
When he was little, Danny would pile into the family car with his mother and father and three brothers and take the long trip up unpaved mountain roads to visit that preacher, Rameau Jeune.
His grandfather told Danny stories. About the time when he was a fisherman traveling back and forth between Haiti and Cuba and got lost at sea for two days. About how when he was a young thug, he killed two men in a machete fight and then fled into a sugarcane field. While he was hiding, Rameau told Danny, he heard a preacher in a nearby church claiming that God would forgive even a murderer if he accepted Jesus. So Rameau walked into the church, took God into his heart and found salvation. And over the years, he built 35 churches across Haiti.
And then there was the story about how, when Rameau was off on a church-building mission, his two-year-old son, Joel, fell ill and died. Although it was taboo to bury the boy without his father present, the body was beginning to decompose, so the family started for the cemetery. But then Rameau Jeune appeared. He ordered that the casket be put down and everyone pray for the child. Within a couple of hours, they heard a sneeze from inside the box: Joel was alive. So early on, Danny's father knew that it was his destiny to serve God, too.
But he went about it differently than Rameau had. He studied everything in English he could find, and as a young man befriended the American missionaries who'd come to Haiti. Seven times he applied for a visa to visit the United States. Seven times he was refused. But then he and his wife did some work for the captain of a medical ship, translating their native Creole into English for the doctors on board, and the captain helped them secure a visa. While they were in the U.S., they give birth to their first son, who was automatically awarded U.S. citizenship. The couple made sure to plan speaking engagements or missionary work in America that would coincide with the birth of their next three children, too. Danny was born in Florida thirty years ago.
"As a kid, I hated it that everyone knew who I was," Danny remembers. "They knew who my dad was. It was like 'Pastor Joel' was written on my forehead. Even in the dark of night when there was a blackout, they knew who I was."
Once, when Bishop Joel spoke out against the ruling party on a radio show, his supporters all rallied at the compound for fear that it would be burned down. The deacons were sitting on the roof of the church, ready to drop rocks on anyone who tried to do damage. Danny wanted to defend the church but was told that he was too young. Eventually, they let him be a lookout, and he remembers seeing burning tires and people running through the streets with machetes.
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.
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.
On a trip home to Haiti in February 2005, Dan visited a friend who was raising a number of children he'd found abandoned in the street. Dan committed to sending $300 a month from the Paris ICOF chapter to support seven of the kids, but even that amount was difficult to raise. After seven months, Dan transformed the commitment into a scholarship program at his father's school, with $100 covering a student's tuition for a year, as well as a meal a day, books, school supplies and a uniform.
"A kid who eats well and doesn't go to school isn't helpful to Haiti," Dan says. "But a kid who is malnourished and still goes to school is better for Haiti's future."
Dan's brother, who was living in Atlanta and already hosting charitable events, signed on to continue doing so as an ICOF chapter. And by May 2006, the Paris chapter had raised enough money to purchase fifty professional sewing machines for women in Senegal. The plan called for creating a type of sewing co-op that would make clothes to be sold in Senegal and Mali, but it took a year before all the machines were transported to the desolate areas for which they were intended.
Dan realized that to take his dream to the next level, he'd have to give up basketball and leave Paris. "It got to a point where even at the meetings, I wasn't saying much anymore," he remembers. "Everything was already in place."
In August 2006, Dan returned to this country. At first he thought about settling in Miami, where his parents had bought a home to use as a base for their operation in this country, Grace International. But with its sizable immigrant population, Miami just didn't feel like the U.S. to Dan. From there he went to Atlanta, but that ICOF branch was doing just fine without him. So he moved on to Kansas and then to Denver, where another friend from Haiti was living.
In October 2006, Dan headed to LoDo. Looking around 5 Degrees one night, he saw a young, social scene that would be perfect for the ICOF message. So he settled here, selling furniture at American Furniture Warehouse during the day and recruiting members at night. None of his co-workers really cared about his dream. "Oh, okay, Oprah," they'd say when he talked about the Senegal project.
That December, Dan quit the forty-hour-a-week gig and took a part-time job with Catholic Charities, working in the youth department. He didn't know how he'd be able to pay his rent, but he knew he needed to surround himself with like-minded people. He soon added a second gig as an after-school coordinator for Beacons, a division of Catholic Charities, and started coaching kids at Rishel Middle School. That's where he met Stephanie.
A product of Denver Public Schools herself, Stephanie earned a master's degree in curriculum and instruction in social sciences from the University of Colorado Denver. She now works full-time as a DPS substitute teacher and teaches dance at the after-school program at Rishel.
"I thought he was an interesting individual," Stephanie says of her first meeting with Dan. "I thought he was very well-spoken, and it was really positive to see a young African-American brother on the west side working with these kids. You don't see many black men in middle-school after-school programs. He seemed very kind and engaged, and dedicated to his work and to his kids."
And her appreciation of Dan didn't end there. "He's an American dude," she adds. "He was born here, but he had a different experience living in Haiti, Paris and several different states. Typically, most men from Denver — minus some who leave to go to college somewhere — live in Denver their whole life, speak one language, and they know Denver and that's it. Dan's just a unique dude."
Like Dan, Stephanie is an athlete: a soccer player and a dancer. She also smiles a lot. It didn't take long for Dan to convince her to attend an ICOF fashion-show benefit. After going to a few more ICOF events, she convinced her parents to host a fundraising barbecue at their Denver home in April. When Dan spoke in front of the two dozen people gathered there, Stephanie's father could tell that Dan had feelings for his daughter.
"Then I just fell madly in love with him," Stephanie remembers. "I began to see that in many ways, our aspirations and our spirits were aligned. There are many things that people look for in a mate, and often they may not know exactly what they are. But in him, I was able to identify those things — and some of them I knew and some of them I didn't know."
In May, they went on a couple of dates. On June 4, they got married.
"We're hoping to change the world," Stephanie says. "Side by side, together, I see us making an impact. We want to use our lives for something. We want to use our lives to help others."
Dan and Stephanie share a room at the compound, the newer of the two that Bishop Joel and his wife now run. Traci is assigned a room in the orphanage, where about sixty girls live. Terrance gets a bed in a dormitory-style room in the guesthouse.
This compound, where sixty people work, also has a church that was started in 1990 but has never been completed. Bishop Joel holds a service under the roof each week. It is here that he'll also host a Christmas party for 7,000 kids, which ICOF will help coordinate.
But on its first morning in Haiti, the ICOF team loads up the minivan and heads for Waney, where Dan's father built his first church with his own hands in the mid-'70s, and where the compound later grew to include a school and a girls' orphanage (which became a boys' orphanage when the new compound was built in 1990). The basketball hoop that missionaries installed at the Waney compound when Dan was a kid still stands, but the backboard is gone.
Inside the church, a couple of kids sing a welcome to the ICOF visitors, who start distributing notebooks, pens, pencils, crayons, glue sticks and scissors to the audience, which numbers almost 500. Terrance takes the stage and speaks about what he sees as the mission of ICOF. Merlie follows and is moved to tears. Then it's Stephanie's turn.
"We were able to give you a little bit," she says, "but what's important is what you do with it. I want you to write. I want you to color. I want you to use your mind."
By the time the supplies make it to the back of the room, the crayons and notebooks are gone. Kids without two things to stick together get glue. Kids without paper get pens, and vice versa. One boy asks for a pair of scissors so he can cut his hair.
When every last item is gone, the ICOF team gets back in the van, which bounces down the bumpy pavement as Michael Jackson's voice breaks through the static on the radio. The streets are clogged with men pushing wheelbarrows full of rocks and women carrying baskets filled with oranges or goat skins on their heads. Above them, selling sodas on billboards in every direction, is the face of former Fugee Wyclef Jean, a native of Haiti who has the same status there that Elvis has in America. Signs welcoming Wyclef, who is hosting a free concert this week, hang all over the city. Everyone but Terrance wants to go to the show; Terrance thinks it's too dangerous.
The van makes a quick stop at a police station so that the women can use the restroom, then turns off the broken pavement onto a road with no pavement at all. After a couple of close calls, it gets mired in a hole filled with mud. Everyone gets out to help push the vehicle free.
After almost an hour on back-country roads, the team finally arrives at Source Sab (Creole for a source of dirt or sand), a village where about 3,500 people, most of them children, live in huts without electricity, sharing a few water pumps and fifty outhouses. The village's only income comes from a few small wheat fields; the villagers live on rice and beans, with occasional sweet potatoes and dairy from village cows.
A blind orphan navigates her way around the village holding on to a barbed-wire fence. Another malnourished kid runs around half naked, looking like a "for the price of a cup of coffee" charity commercial.
The only school in the area, which runs through fifth grade, is about a fifteen-minute walk from the village. It costs $5.50 a month, and even though that includes one meal each day, most parents can't afford it.
"Every kid should have an education," Traci says. "They should have an ability to speak, to read and not be oppressed. That's Starbucks money, that's nothing." Traci is sponsoring three kids through ICOF and has convinced friends to sponsor two more. "I'm gonna cry soon," she adds.
Soon comes when the orphanage director shows the group where the 24 orphans sleep, in a room where he puts mattresses that they can share on the dirty concrete floor. Traci takes pictures with her "babies."
A woman in the village asks Merlie to take her child back to the U.S., knowing that her baby's future will be brighter anywhere but here. Although ICOF has managed to help only a few of these children, they all raise their hands when Dan asks who is happy.
By early afternoon, everyone is dehydrated from standing in the hot sun, and the ICOF team hustles toward the van so that they can reach civilization before sunset. School has apparently just let out, because hundreds of kids in yellow uniforms who weren't there just a few minutes before now surround the team. They follow them all the way to the van and then hang on to the windows or stand on the bumper as the van pulls off into the dust.
On the way back to the Waney compound, the van makes a quick tourist stop at the presidential palace, which has a clear view of the slums across the street and a monument dedicated to the slavery rebellion that led to the founding of Haiti. There's also a giant, million-dollar torch that Aristide built but never lit — another unfinished project. As the team gets back in the van, a motorcycle with four people on it passes by.
At Waney, ICOF hosts a dinner for six kids it's sponsoring at the school there. Each of the scholarship recipients gets a new book bag, some school supplies and a soccer ball. "Thank you, ICOF," they say in unison.
Seven-year-old Benjamin says he wants to be a pastor when he grows up. Twelve-year-old Johnny wants to be a mechanic. Twelve-year-old Rosema wants to be a nurse. Six-year-old Christelle wants to be a doctor, as do five-year-old twins Cassandra and Cassan.
Their mother may not be around to see that day. In fact, she doesn't expect to survive until the twins finish first grade, she tells the ICOF team, because a doctor told her that she's dying. Rumor has it the doctor was a witch doctor, Dan says.
Voodoo was the country's first religion. But over the years, Christian missionaries have come in and converted most of the population, and the heavy Christian influence has rendered voodoo taboo — in public, at least. But witch doctor flags still hang by the roads across the country, and many Christians consult them.
Before she goes, the twins' mother says, she wants to raise enough money to celebrate her children's graduation from kindergarten. She claims she needs $120 per child — more than the tuition of $100 a year.
That night, Terrance tells Dan and Stephanie that ICOF needs to get more organized. Everyone on the trip should have signed a waiver, he points out, and the organization also needs to tighten up its accounting or risk trouble with the federal government. "In a lot of ways, I can tell he's used to seeing charity work," Terrance says of Dan. "He's not as new to this as people may think. He grew up around it, watching his mother and father do great things. But right now he's just getting stuff and dumping it off. He's not used to the business end of it, and it is a business — the business of helping kids.
"I think the accountability factor hasn't settled in yet for Dan because he's more used to it in Haiti than he is in the U.S., where the business factor of helping people comes first. In Haiti, the need is so great, it's all about helping people first."
"I don't think charity works as a business," says Dan. Still, he plans to apply for ICOF's 501(c)3 status as soon as he has a spare $700 he can send to the government rather than use to help the poor in Haiti. And so far, the lack of tax-deductible status hasn't kept people from making donations — albeit small ones. Nor has it discouraged local bars from hosting his events.
"I have to make a choice between that $700 or sending it to the kids," he says. "I always try to negotiate that. My dad did that, too. I've noticed that, for him, what happens in Haiti is more important than what happens in the United States. I don't have anything to hide. It's good to be cautious, but I don't really need ICOF to do what I am doing. It would be good to get a 501(c)3 so that I could do more, but all I need is a group of friends to get together and get things to people who need them."
Bishop Joel may not have it as easy as his son thinks, however. Grace International is now inactive, according to the state of Florida, and the hospital that stands on the compound is a long way from finished. According to Bishop Joel, about $3 million has already been poured into the structure, which is only two stories tall but has a strong enough foundation for five and will need another $3 million before it's complete. But funding dried up when Smile of a Child, a nonprofit connected to the Los Angeles-based Trinity Broadcasting Network, pulled out of the project. Bishop Joel says that was because the nonprofit wanted complete control and ownership. But officials at TBN — which broadcast Bishop Joel's show for more than twenty years before calling a halt in 2006 — dispute that. "We have been in a conflict with Grace International, in particular with Bishop Joel Jeune, regarding his organization being able to provide a proper account of the funding," says TBN's John Casoria. "He says he's got $3 million into it. My response would be, 'Prove it.'"
TBN had only agreed to build a two-story building with a $1.75 million price tag, he adds, and the organization put the brakes on in 2006 when $2.3 million had already been spent on a project that wasn't 50 percent complete, and Bishop Joel gave them "woefully inaccurate records" that investigators determined to be "somewhat fraudulent" — a term Casoria says he doesn't use lightly.
The compound also has a small clinic, which Bishop Joel says has been there since 2000 but Casoria says he suspects was built with TBN's money in spite of TBN's opposition to building a medical clinic alongside a hospital. TBN also paid for the guest house, according to Casoria, which was supposed to house doctors volunteering at the hospital. Bishop Joel is now renting that building to missionary groups, including ICOF.
"Whatever happens with other organizations, I can't control," Dan says. "Whatever other organizations like TBN do or say, all that I know is that I have seen my dad help thousands of people."
On day three, everyone finally gets a chance to help when more than 10,000 children arrive at the compound for the annual Christmas party hosted by Dan's family. This year, ICOF is helping. Every spot on every pew is packed, but the buses keep coming. People surround the open-air church, craning their necks to watch the puppet show and see the children sing.
After the service, everyone is supposed to get into a single line for lunch: a chicken leg, rice and beans, salad and a juice box. The child-to-adult ratio is at least forty to one. Boy Scouts have been called in to help with the security, and they manage to keep the slow food line somewhat orderly.
But the toy line is another story.
The ICOF team has helped to package up the brown bags stuffed with cheap plastic balls or cars that you'd find at a dollar store. A few hold nicer stuffed animals donated by a church in Miami. With 10,000 kids and only 7,000 toys, the scams soon start. Big kids stealing from little kids. The "Hello My Name Is" stickers used as identifying "badges" for invited guests are stolen, too, then passed along.
As Dan tries to distribute sacks of toys from a big metal cage at the back of a truck, people keep sticking their hands in, begging and pleading, moaning in Creole. One woman snatches a toy from a child's hands and runs away, swinging her fists at the Boy Scouts who try to stop her. Before Dan can distribute all the toys, the driver fires up the truck and puts it behind a locked gate, to maintain order.
Although the toy giveaway is over, the children continue to run around the compound for several hours. Fights break out in the church.
The kitchen keeps serving long after the sun has set. Some kids probably sneak in more than one meal. Others won't get any at all.
After a week in Haiti, Traci witnessed a road-rage incident on Peña Boulevard. Just one side of Peña is at least triple the width of the road leading from the airport in Haiti, but somehow the drivers there keep it together. She didn't see a single accident.
"I highly recommend a trip like this to not only slow down your world, but to know what's out there," Traci says. "People don't understand, and I don't know if people want to understand. My reality is so limited to what's really out there. It gave me an appreciation for what I do have, for what I don't need. There are so many things in my life that I don't need. I don't need the newest Coach purse. I don't need the things I work for. There are people living in trash piles working all day to make $2, and we're sweating what lane you should be in."
Traci's response to the trip is all Dan had hoped it would be. She and her fellow travelers have vowed to keep working with ICOF, to continue helping out in Haiti and to recruit other members, too. Dan knows it won't be easy to convince people in this country to use their vacation time and money to travel to the Third World and live out of carry-on luggage on a religious compound where their main source of protein each day is one chicken leg. He knows that his parents would like him to move back to Haiti and join Bishop Joel in his good works there. But Dan's determined to make ICOF work. Already, the Denver chapter is subsidizing six kids at his father's school and five more in the village.
But it's not the scholarships, nor the 800 pounds of clothes, toys and school supplies they took to Haiti, nor the assistance the ICOF team provided at the Christmas party that was the most important part of the trip for Dan. Instead, it's the relationship that each member of the team has built with Haiti. Lee snapped about 500 photos on the trip — but he doesn't feel that he captured an accurate portrait of the situation there. Problem was, people smiled and posed for all the pictures. Most had never been photographed before. "Nobody would ever understand it unless you were there to see it, to see what it was like," he says. "The experience of the country and the culture and how they live, and just the comparison with what we have here. I wasn't able to define it, going to the village, going to the school, passing out school supplies. It wasn't narrowed down to one thing. It was the experience of seeing it, being immersed in it."
Merlie says that Haiti made her homeland of Costa Rica seem like a Second World country, even though it technically shares the Third World label with Haiti. "It opened my eyes to a whole new realm that existed, at least on this side of the world," she explains. "I knew there were people in Africa living in those conditions, but I didn't expect Haiti to be that bad."
A few days after returning home, Dan and Stephanie lend a hand to Terrance at a toy drive he's organized. Almost 400 families show up, a good crowd of more than 1,000 people. There are a few tiffs over petty stuff like jumping in line, but after his time in Haiti — after seeing how the rest of the world defines poverty — coping in his own hood seems easy. "When you are in the city and they cut off the electricity at night, it felt like prison," Terrance says. "We had to be locked in. The whole island is a prison, and people have to try to escape it. People are there starving, violent things happen, and people can't take care of themselves or police themselves, like prison. Going to bed hungry at night is like prison. If there's a riot or a political situation, everything goes into lockdown, like prison."
For so many people still in that prison, Dan is living a dream life. He escaped Haiti. But he can't let it go.
"I hope I'm not naive or too ambitious," he says, "but I think great things can be done if people put their heads together. If twenty people give 10 percent, you're doing way more than any great man can accomplish in one lifetime. My dream has always been to help people and make a difference, and I think we are going to do it. We're so strong with this group, with this team, and that's what I've always wanted."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
- Senate Committee Approves Medical Marijuana for Veterans
- Reader: Denver Is Full of Smokers and Beta Males Who Refuse to Grow Up
- Denver Health To Limit Patients Passively Enrolled In Its Medicaid Plan