Earlier this winter, when most people turned their thoughts to Christmas, Aaron Gregory put his focus on raising funds and getting donations for Haiti, which is still recovering from a devastating earthquake nearly two years ago.
Aaron and his mother, Mary, were planning their second trip in two years to the Port-au-Prince area, from where he was adopted as an infant. This trip would have a different focus, though. Their first trip came before the earthquake and they didn’t want to go empty-handed.
“We took three suitcases filled with donated items, and loaded our own suitcases with more stuff,” said Aaron, a Prince Charles Secondary School Grade 12 student.
The “stuff” included practical items destined for the orphanage where he lived for his first few months after his natural mother was unable to provide for him. Among those items were 30 quilts donated by local residents.
In November, when Aaron and Mary were collecting items for the trip, they also accepted financial donations to pay the costs for the additional luggage that would accompany them on the flight. But Aaron smooth-talked an airline employee into putting the suitcases on the plane for free.
“He did a great job of explaining what they were for,” Mary said. “The employee called for a manager to make the decision but eventually she made the decision herself. Later a manager called down and said OK, but that this was a one-time deal.”
“Maybe we will have to fly on a different airline next time,” Aaron chuckled.
Aaron and Mary made their November trip as part of a 19-member tour conducted by Dillon International, an adoption services agency. Their destination was the Foundation for Children of Haiti, where Gladys Thomas, whom they met on their 2009 trip, operates an orphanage, schools, a nursery and a hospital.
“We stayed at the foundation’s guest house for five days, then spent two nights in my birth town,” Aaron said. “We visited the hospital and Hope Home (for mentally challenged children) and played with the kids for a few days.”
His impression of post-earthquake Haiti differs from recent media reports that decry the lack of progress in rebuilding the country.
“There is lots of rubble and tent cities, but there is also lots of rebuilding going on,” he said. “Actually, I was really impressed — there is a new entrance and addition to the airport, and building is going on everywhere. People are starting to move into new buildings from their tents.”
Mary agreed with the assessment.
“The media is focused on there being so many people who are displaced,” she said. “Two years ago we were amazed at the statues in the Port-au-Prince city square. Now they are standing in the midst of a tent city. But we have to remember the people are making bricks by hand — everything that is rebuilt is done with manual labour.”
“I don’t think it is going too slow,” Aaron said. “You can’t just finish such a huge project in a day.”
Mary said the amount of traffic was “incredible”, much of it the result of so many volunteers and non-governmental organization personnel who are in Haiti to help with construction and aid.
“One of the downsides (to the presence of so many foreigners) is that it has increased rental prices,” she said.
The pair pointed out a noticeable irony in their visit to the orphanage where Mary first met the baby who would become her second son (her first, Ebby, was adopted at the age of three).
“The kids at Haiti Home for Children have it pretty nice compared to children elsewhere in the country,” Mary said. “They have clothing, food and toys and are really well cared for.”
“They are pretty privileged,” Aaron agreed.
Many of those children, Mary said, were rescued from poor hospital conditions by the energetic and very persuasive Gladys Thomas, a Haitian nurse who has become the driving force behind the Foundation for Children of Haiti.
“The facilities now form a village on a beautiful spot,” Mary said. “The school now has 120 kids from kindergarten to Grade 4.”
A new school is now in the fundraising stage and it will take $400,000 to complete it. It is that fund-raising effort that Aaron directed the $1,200 raised in Creston that he carried to Haiti.
Energized by his November experience and committed to helping a country that he feels a close connection with, Aaron said he will continue to help raise funds and work toward a career in international development and aid.
A benefit concert by the House of Rock is planned for February and Aaron will set up a display about his trip and take donations. In the spring, a PCSS teacher plans to hold a soccer tournament, with net proceeds going toward the new school project.
“Each time I go back to Haiti, I come home with a better understanding of what I want to do with my life,” Aaron said.
He plans another trip in two years, when a reunion of adoptees is planned.
After graduation he plans to work to save money, then move to Montreal to become fluent in French, the primary language of Haiti.
Adopting a child from a developing nation isn’t without its controversies, Mary admitted. The practice is looked upon by some as taking away the future of a country.
“But on this trip we saw so many young adoptees who, like Aaron, are going back to help out. What would Aaron’s life have been like if he had grown up as an orphan?”