Written by PrideFest Director Egan Orion
When the images of the January 10, 2010 earthquake near Port-au-Prince, Haiti were broadcast, I watched in horror at the massive destruction and ensuing suffering. Like many of you, I contributed some money to the Red Cross, doing what little I could to help the Haitians recover from the disaster, but over time Haiti started to fade from my memory. Occasionally, I’d see a news story about the slow rebuilding effort there, or about the difficulty of NGOs to get things done, or on the continued suffering, but I, like you, felt helpless to do anything more. That was, until earlier this year, when I chanced upon an application for Habitat for Humanity’s Carter Work Project in Haiti. I applied, was selected as one of the 600 volunteers, raised the requisite $5000 for the trip, and on Thanksgiving night made my way to Atlanta to join the other volunteers before taking a charter flight to Port-au-Prince that Saturday.
It was fitting that we should head to Haiti on Thanksgiving weekend. Here at home, we were surrounded by food, family, and friends, and unnoticed by us, had a safe roof over our heads to accommodate the abundance. When we landed in Haiti and started to make our two hour trip to our camp and build site in Léogâne (the epicenter of the earthquake), what I saw that afternoon was the polar opposite of the bounty I’d experienced at my family’s Thanksgiving table. Extreme poverty. Suffering. Slums that went on for miles. A complete lack of sanitation. I knew now why I’d come to Haiti, but for the first time I wondered if the 100 homes we’d be building during our weeklong work project would do any good at all. The problem was so big, the suffering so great; how would my contribution be any more than a drop of water in an ocean of need?
I’m used to a more manageable problem-solution equation. In 2007, when it looked like the Pride Festival wouldn’t happen at all, I felt that the community needed the annual celebration so much that I stepped in to make it happen. It was a nearly insurmountable task to do just six weeks before Pride weekend, but with the help of others, I made it happen. Over the years, we’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars for community non-profits—including $13,000 for Washington United for Marriage—and we’ve grown the event to be one of the largest Pride festivals in the country. Even the campaign to approve same-sex marriage seemed a daunting task at the start of the year, but I personally thought it was within reach, so PrideFest gave all we could to help the campaign and along with hundreds of other organizations, made that happen.
So when I arrived in Haiti, I’d seen challenging problems and been part of creating a solution, and yet as we drove through the slums of Port-au-Prince, the challenge of creating a festival from scratch in six weeks or even passing same-sex marriage seemed easy compared to what was unfolding before my eyes. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and 80% of its 10 million citizens live in extreme poverty. The 2010 earthquake made this worse, and more recently Hurricane Sandy wiped out 2/3 of the country’s crops, leading to food riots and a lot of empty bellies. As we drove through Port-au-Prince, I could see the result of decades of dictatorship and crushing poverty from my cushy seat in an air-conditioned bus. Corrugated roofs as far as the eye could see marked the breadth of the slums, side-by-side to lean-tos with little defense from the wind, rain, and sun, and certainly no protection from the next earthquake. Rivers that wound their way from the mountains to the coast converged in Port-au-Prince with a chaotic deluge of garbage, sewage, goats, cows, chickens, and a mass of humanity. People bathed in tainted puddles as the dark grey plumes of burning garbage rose from the earth, spoiling the air and staining the sky. Earthquakes, Cholera, poverty, and hurricanes—would the people of Haiti ever get a break?
Those first few hours in Haiti turned my earnestness into helplessness, and we hadn’t even started working yet. Soon, we arrived at our camp, surrounded by barbed wire and secured by armed guards, and settled in to our new home. We slept on cots in big tents, ate less-than-inspired meals in a big mess hall, dodged tarantulas and mosquitoes, met new friends, took our anti-Malaria medication, and began adjusting to the heat and humidity of Haiti. The next day, we were transported in buses (again, by armed guard) to our build site a half hour away. There, a hundred enthusiastic soon-to-be homeowners and a hundred concrete foundations and stacks of construction supplies greeted us. We were put into teams of 8-10 people, and we, alongside President and Mrs. Carter, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, and people from around the globe, began to build. Yes, it was just a drop of water in an ocean of need, but it took an army of enthusiastic volunteers working 8 or more hours a day for 6 days to build 100 houses for families in desperate need of safe housing.
They was nothing fancy, these houses: a single-story 14x14’ structure (about 200 square feet) with two internal walls to form a small bedroom, a solid roof secured with hurricane straps and clips and insulated from the intense Haitian sun (even if we weren’t so insulated during the build), as well as a community well and latrine. No running water. No electricity. As many of six or seven people would live in each tiny house, but for those with inadequate or unsafe housing, this tiny cottage represented safety, and ownership, and the future. When you’ve been leaving in a lean-to covered by a tarp, the Habitat houses probably look like mini mansions to you.
For the applicants of our two houses—two strong Haitian women named Sonia and Marie—it would be the first time they’d live in a house they could call their own and be safe from earthquakes and hurricanes. Sonia was younger than me, and already a grandmother. Marie, younger still, hammered with more vigor than some of the men on our team. All week, they worked alongside us to help build the houses they’d be living in. As their homes took shape, you could see the dreams they had for their family—once hopeless and dire—begin to take shape. When they hugged us each morning, you could tell it was with genuine love and gratitude. Haitians are used to be being promised many things that are never given, but this promise was being built before their very eyes. Each of them had an ocean of need between them, but it wasn’t beyond my power to help them and when we finally left Haiti, I knew that Sonia and Marie’s lives would be changed forever. I knew they would thrive. Even as I knew that my contribution was nearly invisible against the endless black sky of hopelessness in Haiti, I could see that for these two women, my help was everything. That alone was enough for me. I’d actually done some real good, and I felt it.
There is much work to do here at home, in our own neighborhoods and within our own communities. And there are many places like Haiti around the world, some nearby, others oceans away. As we look forward to our newly-won marriage rights in Washington State, some of you may be asking, “What next?”
For me, that answer is to look out into the world, to find the suffering, inequality, and injustice, and to seek out the Sonias and the Maries of the world. For you, the need may be closer to home. Your “Haiti” may be just down the road or on the other side of the world. Know that service takes sacrifice. It takes time to make things better, it takes money to fund important projects. But I know from my volunteer work in Haiti that my time and money were nothing compared to what I could do, or what we could do as a community if we came together to serve our communities and the world.
I went to Haiti looking to do some good in the world. Who I found was Sonia and Marie, and now I pass my intention to do good onto them, and onto you. In this season of goodwill, consider giving your time to something bigger than yourself. Our fight for equality and justice goes beyond what we want for our own community to the great big world beyond. Now that we can say “I do,” we should start thinking about what “We do” as a community. Because others pitched in to help, our community is now filled with more promise than ever. Now it’s time for us to start to pay that promise forward.