Riding On Hope

An elderly Haitian man lies in pain on a cot in a dark, wooden shack with no electricity or running water in a rural area near the Haiti-Dominican Republic border.

The 100-pound earthquake survivor, Jean, is unable to walk — a virtual prisoner in the shack.

As he is peeled from the sheets, he moans quietly. He is placed in his new wheelchair and taken outside. He looks to the sky, lets out a gasp and fills his lungs with fresh air.

I’m the Daily Toreador photo editor. Last week, I was supposed to be in class finishing up my degree. Instead, I found myself in the Dominican Republic, distributing wheelchairs to Haitian earthquake survivors who desperately needed them.

My parents invited me on this humanitarian trip that was a joint project of Rotary International and The Wheelchair Foundation. Our mission was simple: eradicate immobility. Our nine-member group, accompanied by three Dominican relief workers, spent three days delivering 70 wheelchairs, free of charge, to earthquake victims in villages, hospitals and clinics throughout the Dominican Republic.

We all take our legs, our mobility, for granted. But for people without the use of their legs, wheelchairs have an enormous impact on their lives. It gives people back their independence. Children can go back to school, adults can go to work, and the elderly can get out of their homes and have some social interaction. It also alleviates the burden on family members who otherwise would have to carry the person around.

For perspective’s sake, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake tore through Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12. It killed 250,000 people, injured countless thousands and left about 1.5 million homeless. Some of the catastrophic damage can be blamed on poor or nonexistent building codes. Many displaced Haitians took refuge with family and friends in the neighboring Dominican Republic. The Dominican hospitals, clinics and orphanages are filled with Haitian earthquake survivors.

Austin-area Rotary clubs raised enough money to purchase 560 wheelchairs. Each chair costs $150 and comes in everyone’s favorite colors: red and black.

I was supposed to chronicle the trip with photographs. But the first time I saw a child with a missing leg whose face lit up when he was placed in a wheelchair, I knew I had to put down the camera and be an active participant.

I took some pictures. But now that I’m back in our world on the Tech campus, I’d like to share a few of the many stories I heard and saw as our group hand delivered wheelchairs.

Michelle was lying in bed at a clinic in Santo Domingo, gripping her college-aged daughter’s hand. Before the earthquake, she was a kindergarten teacher and homemaker in Haiti. The earthquake destroyed her two-story home. Her children escaped with minor injuries. Michelle, who was with her sister on the first floor during the quake, had her left leg crushed; the bone protruded from both sides. Her sister died in her arms as they waited to be rescued.

Michelle was full of hope because she could now move her toes. The wheelchair we provided will allow her to continue physical therapy. If she shows promise, there is a chance she will go to Atlanta to learn to walk again.

At a hospital in Santo Domingo, my parents decided the mood was a little damp. My father conducted a wheelchair race. The halls filled with sounds of screeching tires and laughter.

My mother danced with an amputee in one of the wheelchairs. She wanted to show her that she could have a normal life. They twirled around the hospital room, patients and doctors cheered and laughed. “Dancing with the Stars,” beware.

Our original plans had us distributing wheelchairs in Haiti, but the Haitian government recently closed the border to undocumented vehicles. Miles of trucks filled with expired food and medicine lined the boarder, unable to reach the earthquake-ravaged people. We continued into Haiti on foot, weaving through hundreds of islanders carrying supplies and food on their heads and in wheelbarrows. I wonder what they thought of nine camera-wielding Americans slathering sunscreen on their pale faces.

The border trip was not a waste, however. One of our guides, Hector, obtained the proper documentation to bring hundreds of wheelchairs to Haiti. According to Hector, it is paramount that each chair be hand delivered. It is the only way to guarantee each chair goes to a person in need.

Our group had adventures away from the villages, hospitals and clinics as well. We ate fresh watermelon and coconuts at roadside stands, saw an overturned 18-wheeler, and were temporarily stranded by a roadblock of burning brush and tires.

It will take years, perhaps decades, to rebuild Haiti. But for now, I can smile knowing that Jean, Michelle and 68 other earthquake victims have hope to rebuild their lives.

SOURCE: Daily Toreader

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