Poised to Build Haiti's Future

Poised to Build Haiti's Future
From the Heart of the President Wess Stafford

Now I lay me down to sleep ... if I should die before I wake ...

As I slept under a cement roof in Haiti, this children's bedtime prayer seemed a little too real to me.

This was only two months after Port-au-Prince was devastated by a 7.0 earthquake on Jan. 12.

I stayed in a Haitian friend's home for a week, and I knew the roof over me could collapse in an aftershock. So, even as I prayed, I also kept my running shoes and flashlight beside my bed and had my escape route plotted.

But for so many Haitians who lost their homes or for whom the fear remains too fresh, sleeping indoors is still not an option.

According to official estimates, more than 220,000 people were killed in the Haiti earthquake, and 300,000 more were injured. Nearly 290,000 homes were destroyed and damaged, displacing 1.3 million people.

Some have called it the worst natural disaster ever. But the catastrophic losses were also caused by poverty.

Buildings were so cheaply constructed, they didn't just crack or break, they disintegrated into powder.

Thousands of people survived the earthquake only to die waiting for rescue because there wasn't enough heavy equipment to lift the piles under which they were trapped.

Many more died or lost limbs for lack of adequate medical care. Consider this: In 1994, an earthquake of similar magnitude struck Los Angeles, a city that was more than five times the size of Port-au-Prince. The death toll was 60.

As far as I could see in every direction, multi-story buildings now look like short stacks of pancakes.

But whatever the twisted metal and heaps of shattered bricks had once been could eventually be rebuilt.

The greatest tragedy was that at 4:52 p.m. on that day Port-au-Prince shook for 38 seconds, Haiti's sons and daughters were crushed in classrooms across the capital city.

At the Lumiere School of Nursing, 150 nursing students died. I walked quietly through the ruins of the University of Port-au-Prince, strewn with backpacks and broken desks, as papers fluttered in the breeze. I picked up Jean Raymond's Jan. 11 calculus test he got an A+.

Beneath my feet, hundreds of bodies were still entombed in the rubble Haiti's brightest and most promising leaders for tomorrow.

Because of the obstacles placed in their path by poverty, only 1 percent of Haitian students makes it to university.

Haiti's Compassion staff shared their heartbreaking stories with me. Many had been injured, their homes demolished. Farcine, one of 75 staff members, had been killed.

She left behind a husband and four children under the age of 6. I wept with a man who lost his bride of just two months, another who lost all five of his children, a young woman who lost her fiancé ¯ne week before their wedding day, and one who lost nine members of her family.

Of Compassion's 65,000 sponsored children in Haiti, 21,595 lived in the earthquake-affected area. Our courageous staff, despite being traumatized themselves on Jan. 12, reported for work the next day.

Since the office building was damaged, they erected a "tent office" in the parking lot. They organized themselves to hike into crumpled neighborhoods to the churches where sponsored children attended Compassion centers. Day and night, house by house, they led center workers and church member volunteers in massive search-and-rescue operations.

Every child matters, and every effort was made to find and help each one. Angels must have been everywhere because miracles abounded. 

As I write this, we know of 54 children in Compassion's ministry who died in the earthquake.

That's more than our hearts can bear, but far fewer than we feared.

Compassion's staff in the Dominican Republic, Haiti's neighboring country, sprang into action, receiving and coordinating planeloads of relief supplies in Santo Domingo.

The quake knocked down a city but not the resilient spirit that has long characterized the Haitian people.

Many Compassion centers have been cleared of debris, and children are singing and dancing again.

They draw pictures to help heal their grief and write songs and dramas about their heartache, along with their reawakening hopes and dreams.

Now the country's young people encourage their elders, calling Jan. 12, 2010, "the birthday of Haiti's future."

I met with 500 (just 1 percent) of Haiti's Compassion "alumni" young people who had once sat on my lap as sponsored children and are now doctors, lawyers, teachers, mechanics, pastors and businesspeople. Their strength, passion and vision for their country are inspiring!

As Robert Hawkins, Compassion's Board Chairman, and I gave each of them a hug "from their former sponsors," we were overjoyed to see the sparkle of hope in their eyes and to hear them say they were blessed to be a blessing, for such a time as this.

They are poised to build Haiti's future.

The word compassion means "to suffer with."

Thank you for suffering with our Haitian brothers and sisters through your tears and your prayers, and being God's hands to bless them through your generous giving.

Please keep holding them in your hearts as they journey toward healing and the hope and future God has for them.

We can trust that "He who began a good work" in them "will carry it on to completion" (Philippians 1:6).