Do-It-Yourself Individuals Fly in Relief to Haiti

Haitian Americans bypass charities to raise money for family and friends.

March 9, 2010— -- Jean Abraham Charles has been so worried about his relatives in Haiti that he decided to undertake his own earthquake relief effort. Today, he left on an American Airlines flight to Haiti with bags full of clothing and supplies, including a tent and a solar panel.

Charles, 48, a barber from Worcester, Mass., only earns about $400 to $500 a week, but he has spent more than a week's wages just on his ticket.

He is one of many Haitian Americans who are bypassing organized charity efforts to volunteer on the ground in the earthquake ravaged country.

"I made my donations to the Red Cross and UNICEF, but I want to go see my family – my niece, my sister," said Charles. "They are close, close with me and I am going by myself."

American Airlines said its daily flights to Haiti have been full since the Jan. 12 earthquake. Charles had to pay $200 extra, $100 for each bag over the airline's two-bag limit.

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"That's why we are limiting the baggage to insure all bags get on," said Martha Pantin, director of corporate communications.

The airline currently offers two daily flights from Miami, one daily flight from Fort Lauderdale and one flight four times per week from New York's JFK airport. They will also add American Eagle flights from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic to Port-au-Prince starting March 12.

"We see a mix of passengers," said Pantin. "We have relief workers, Haitian Americans visiting their families, Haitians returning home as well as international business people traveling to and from Port-au-Prince."

About 24 percent of all travelers said they are interested in a volunteer or service-based vacation, according to 2006 statistics, the latest from the U.S. Travel Association. Interest was strongest among baby boomers and in the 35 to 54 age group.

Anecdotally, Haitian-Americans are reporting that many in their communities across the country are making up a large number of these travelers. The largest Haitian populations are in Florida and in New York City.

HALO Unifies Haitian Diaspora

"The numbers are astronomical and underestimated," according to Dr. Angelo E. Gousse, a University of Miami urologist and president of the Haitian American Leadership Organization (HALO), which works to unify and empower the Haitian Diaspora. "More and more individuals are going to Haiti."

Charles, who emigrated from Haiti eight years ago, lost close friends in the earthquake and many of his relatives are now homeless.

He will give the tent to his sister, a principal whose school was destroyed. Her house is unlivable because of a giant crack. A tent can cost thousands of dollars inside Haiti.

The solar panel will be used to charge his niece's computer. A college nursing student, she was rescued after being trapped under concrete when her school collapsed.

"My sister told me that what we see on TV is not enough," he said. "'When you come on the ground, you will see the disaster and it's going to shake you,' she told me. Like, 75 percent of Port au Prince is destroyed."

Charles is also bringing cash for his family to buy food and water. "I don't know what they are going to do," he said.

Charles left Haiti in 2002 after gangs repeatedly plundered his barber shop for cash. At first he left for Canada, and then joined his wife's family in Massachusetts. Today he is a permanent resident with a green card and rents a barber chair in Brockton. His wife works at a TJ Maxx store.

"I love my family," he said of the do-it-yourself relief effort.

"This is the biggest thing he has done so far," said Charles' 22-year-old daughter, Sundia Bourdiau, who is married and a student at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston.

"He wanted to go over and help. When it comes to doing the right thing, my Dad doesn't think about money. He worries about that later."

More Help Gets in With Individuals

Gabriel Demosthene, a Haitian pastor who leads the Tabernacle of Salvation Church in Miami, is also a one-man relief band. He has returned to his homeland several times since the earthquake and leaves again March 22.

In addition to leading a 40-member congregation, he runs a radio show in English and Creole, mobilizing his listeners to find ways to help the Haitians.

"I talked to them about having more compassion and love for their country and homeland," he said. "But then I decided to do something."

So, Demosthene raised $2,300, and not just from Haitians. He even asked his children to donate their tax refunds. He and another pastor friend booked a commercial flight with nine bags -- paying the fares and extra baggage fees on their own.

"When I saw the devastation, I cried," he said. "There is big time lack of leadership and you see all the misery and nothing goes out to the people. Food is not really distributed to people who need it."

They distributed food and money, then helped lay the foundation for a new church, after one was destroyed in the quake.

"Our first trip we brought rice and beans and the second time, many friends gave me medical supplies and we hired nurses in Haiti to give the medical care to people," he said. "We saw 300 patients."

Demosthene is convinced that bypassing organized aid groups gets more help to the people.

"The problem is too much bureaucracy," according to Demosthene. "I know the country culturally speaking. We did so much with so little. It's very important to use the people on the ground, in the situation. I know how to interact with people."

Even Angelo Grousse, who works with the umbrella organization HALO, said these entrepreneurial aid workers like Demosthene and Charles are "inspirational," but not surprising in the context of Haiti's cultural values.

"You'll find a very generous people," said Grousse, who just returned from a medical mission to Haiti under the auspices of a United Nations flight.

"They will help their relatives and friends and feel a duty and an obligation to help," he said. "They start with the immediate family and friends and neighbors, then go from there to other people from their city. Everyone takes care of their own.

"In Haiti, your family is your root. This is why you are who you are and you always remain connected," Grousse said. "It's a very rare Haitian who is not willing to support the other ones in need without asking for anything in return."