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FRED DE SAM LAZARO, correspondent: Early each morning in the chapel of St. Damien’s Children’s Hospital, the shrouded bodies of infants—and one adult on this day—are counted, the names written down for prayers that follow at daily Mass.
REV. RICHARD FRECHETTE: Anybody that dies in our arms, as they say in Creole, in our place, then their body is first brought to the chapel so that the very next Mass we have the prayers for the dead and for their peace and for the transformation of their life to eternity and for the strength and courage of their family.
DE SAM LAZARO: Father Rick Frechette spends much of his day attacking the infant mortality he sees so literally each morning. He’s the founder of one of the largest medical care facilities for children and many adults in Haiti. It’s grown by necessity, often out of tragedy. Frechette is a member of the Community of Passionists, a global Catholic order, and he began 25 years ago with what seemed a more straightforward mission: a shelter and school for orphans. Today, 800 children are housed at several centers. This one, taking in the overflow, functions out of converted shipping containers. The shelter’s young managers themselves grew up here. Billy Jean is one. He was brought at age three to NPH, the orphanage’s local acronym. Today, he works to master English and is in law school.
BILLY JEAN: My mother became pregnant very early, about 16 years old, and my father took off, and then my mother couldn’t take care of me. She heard about NPH and she decided to put me there…
DE SAM LAZARO: His mother visits occasionally, he says, but the orphanage is very much his family.
REV. FRECHETTE: That’s our goal, to restore the family over one generation, to raise the children together so they have memories of their own childhood, restored childhood, and that later in life they become aunts and uncles to each other’s children and their family regenerates after a generation. That’s our goal, so we have community of families that have been broken by tragedy.
DE SAM LAZARO: The tragedy of Haiti’s AIDS epidemic, beginning in the nineties, brought big change for the organization and Frechette himself. HIV was bringing in very ill children that the orphanages were ill-equipped to care for.
REV. FRECHETTE: That really engraved itself hard on my memory. Seeing such terrible things and honestly not having a clue, not having a clue as to what to do.
DE SAM LAZARO: Frechette received permission from his order to go to medical school, a multiyear commitment which he completed in his mid 40s. Back in Haiti, his newly-acquired expertise, combined with astute fundraising, resulted in a modern pediatric hospital. It expanded with a new building in 2006, the largest of its kind in the country, with a 22-bed center for neonatology.
DR. JACQUELINE GAUTIER (Medical Director): Neonatology is a luxury for Haiti.
DE SAM LAZARO: Dr. Jacqueline Gautier is the medical director.
DR. GAUTIER: We have central oxygen. We can offer CPAP, which is external ventilation.
DE SAM LAZARO: (to Dr. Gautier) So on any given day, you have 22 kids in here who would not have lived were it not for this facility?
DR. GAUTIER: Correct. All the 22s are not very intensive. Half of it. Half of them.
DE SAM LAZARO: Many of these premature births result from conditions like hypertension or diabetes in the mothers. For them, a maternity unit was added in 2010 after the capital’s major hospital for high risk pregnancies was destroyed.
DR. GAUTIER: Fortunately, 2010 we were not really damaged by the earthquake. It was a few cracks. A few cracks only.
DE SAM LAZARO: The quake did not damage this hospital, but it quickly overwhelmed it.
DR. GAUTIER: The yard was transformed into a trauma center. We had patients everywhere.
DE SAM LAZARO: In a few weeks, Frechette says the decision was made to use donations that were pouring in to start a new adult hospital. Ten months later, a cholera ward had to be added after the deadly outbreak that killed nearly 5,000 people in its first year.
REV. FRECHETTE: So we kind of mushroomed out in response to all of these problems. I think the surprise to everybody, including to us, is that we could do it all pretty much without batting an eyelash. And the real wonder of it, to tell you the truth, this is a country of no infrastructures practically, and it’s a country of failed NGOs.
DE SAM LAZARO: He says three years after the quake, despite billions of dollars given to thousands of NGOs—non-government organizations—the rebuilding has been painfully slow.
REV. FRECHETTE: There’s too much disjointedness. It’s goodwill, and it should be recognized fully as that and appreciated, but it doesn’t get channeled in a way that makes sense, and in fact it’s a way that gets disruptive.
DE SAM LAZARO: Many smaller NGOs, often church-based, have come and gone as their funding allowed. Bureaucracy has slowed larger agencies as they’ve planned major projects in housing, clean water and sanitation. Some 360,000 earthquake victims remain displaced in tent camps. For it’s part, Frechette’s organization took in $9 million in earthquake-related donations. Its approach now is focused on community.
RAPHAEL LOUIGENE (Project Manager): (translation) Organizations come in with their own ideas and do things their own way. The way that Fr. Rick works is we don’t come into a community and give our idea of what to do and how to do it. We listen to the community, listen to their needs because they know them the best, and then we work together to accomplish it.
DE SAM LAZARO: In the sprawling Port au Prince slum called Cite Soleil, the group is partnering with the community to build homes to replace the sea of shacks and squalor. They’re simple two room structures built on the principle that if you wait to do things right, nothing will get done for years, prolonging the suffering.
REV. FRECHETTE: The way that we look at it and explain it to our donors, we’re investing in the purchase of time. You know, they’re simple block structures, we make most of the blocks ourselves. They’re simple aluminum roofs. It’s more towards normal than anything that they have known, but we’re just buying time while the people with big money and big plans, an interwoven network of organizations can do a proper urban development. That’s what we’re doing.
DE SAM LAZARO: They’re also doing health care here. A new facility is being built in Cite Soleil. All told, about 1,800 Haitians work for the mission begun by Frechette. Hundred of thousands have been served in orphanages, schools and hospitals. Funding comes from private individuals, foundations, and government grants. This year, Frechette was awarded the one million dollar Opus Prize, given to a faith-based social entrepreneur by the Minnesota-based Opus Foundation.
Frechette himself does not see his work in charitable or heroic terms.
REV. FRECHETTE: Rather than saying, I gave you this chance, I say, I was fortunate. I had that chance. It came to me. I didn’t make it. And we want that same chance to come to you so that we have the same chance. We’re people who care by being the bridge between resources that have benefited us in our life for our education and well-being, and we just want to be the bridge for letting that happen by people who have their own capacity and dreams.
DE SAM LAZARO: A long road, he admits, where success is built one small stretch at a time.
For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, this is Fred de Sam Lazaro in Cite Soleil, Haiti.