Educational & Cultural

In 2003 Senator Mike DeWine visited the Becky DeWine School in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where he and his family have urged U.S. supporters to send humanitarian aid for many years.

DeWines long committed to Haiti

Before the earthquake, Haiti was a country that struggled to support human life. Haiti was already the poorest country in the Americas by most standards; 80 percent of the people lived in poverty and many of those were malnourished or infected with AIDS or other diseases. And in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, about 400,000 people lived in the squalor of a lowland trash dump besieged with standing water, through which rag-clad children would dig for their daily sustenance.

That was the Haiti that former U.S. Senator Mike DeWine, who grew up in Yellow Springs, and his wife Fran saw on their first trip there in 1985. And it was the picture that drove them to return at least once every year afterward to do what they could to assist a country that seemed so close to the U.S. and so far from a decent standard of living.

The DeWines have spent the following 20 years rallying their family and friends to support the work of Father Tom Hagan in his effort to build an orphanage, health clinic and a school for the poorest of the poor in Cité Soleil, so that children could get at least one meal a day and a chance at a better future. They eventually drew in about 700 regular supporters, and during their last visit the DeWines attended the dedication of the high school as the newest addition to the eight-school campus known as the Becky DeWine School, named after the DeWines’ daughter, who died in 1989.

And then came the disaster of a century for the island. The magnitude 7 earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12 and took the lives of an estimated 150,000 people was indiscriminate in its destruction — taking down both the presidential palace and several of the DeWine school buildings that Father Hagan and his supporters had worked to build. The disaster spared Hagan, but took the lives of two of his seminarians, one of the school’s principals, and at least five of its students. Six of the buildings may never be habitable again.

Last Friday Father Hagan wrote the DeWines that on Thursday he had buried the seminarians who lived in his house, and he was now sleeping outside to the sound of sporadic gunfire. Despite the insistence of friends who urge him to return to the U.S. for his safety, Hagan stays to assess the damage, get at least a kitchen up and running, and to try to begin again, DeWine said. The Cedarville family, whose eight children are also committed to the cause, wants to continue to provide the support that is needed, now more than ever.

The DeWines’ son and daughter-in-law John DeWine and Michele Burns, along with local resident Jen Clark, are planning a fundraiser dinner at the Yellow Springs United Methodist Church on Feb. 12. On short notice, last week the DeWines’ daughter and son–in–law, Jill and Bill Darling, held a fundraiser dinner at their home in Columbus to see how people in their area could help. And Fran DeWine has been on the Internet and Facebook connecting with all the supporters they know to get funds flowing toward the city swollen with grief and wreckage.

“For the first time, people know how great the need is because they’re seeing it on T.V.,” DeWine said. “The irony is that the poverty of Haiti existed two weeks ago too, and the reality is that the attention span isn’t very long.”

The disaster will put Haiti on the world stage for a moment, and it will help to draw aid from the far corners of the world, he said. But the real tragedy is that soon, Haiti will slip back into the recesses of people’s consciousness and it will return to its historic struggle.

“Haiti will go on being Haiti,” Mike DeWine said.

During his tenure as a U.S. senator from 1995–2007, DeWine kept Haiti on his political agenda. In 2003, he sponsored the Haiti Economic Recovery Opportunity Act meant to promote trade by granting duty-free status to apparel articles assembled in Haiti using materials from countries with a free trade agreement with the U.S. Though it did not pass, the bill had bipartisan support from Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). He also advocated as a member of the Senate Finance Committee for an amendment to increase the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, a big public health issue in Haiti. And when he left the Senate after being unseated by Democrat Sherrod Brown, DeWine committed to keeping Haiti a priority on his list of private aid projects.

Last summer DeWine announced he would run for Ohio attorney general in the 2010 election.

“I had limited success while I was in Congress focusing people’s attention on Haiti, which is not high on anyone’s list of priorities,” he said.

But DeWine feels that, if not from a purely humanitarian view, the U.S. has an interest in promoting stability in a nation that lies less than an hour’s flight from Miami and is one of the largest stopovers in the illegal drug trade.

But it seems that Haiti has been at the bottom of the barrel for a long time. Nicaragua, the next poorest nation on this side of the globe, boasts twice the GNP that Haiti has, Mike DeWine said. One in five Haitian children dies before the age of 5. The current president was popularly elected, but the government “on a good day barely functions, and there is no institution in Haiti that really works,” he said. Gang violence in Cité Soleil periodically shuts down the schools there, and malnutrition and lack of potable water exacerbates the spread of diseases that in the U.S. could be cured within 24 hours.

Despite the overwhelming vortex of issues blocking progress in that country, Father Hagan has perservered with his organization, Hands Together. He began with the modest goal of building one school for first graders in Cité Soleil, where there was no public school system. He built from there, and last year the Hands Together Becky DeWine School served about 7,000 students in grades K–12, employing 227 administrators, teachers, cooks and other staff. The annual budget for the schools, the clinic and the elderly care facility is about $775,000.

“What’s amazing is these same kids who come to school absolutely clean and perfect with their uniforms ironed and bows in their hair are the same kids we saw barely clothed walking in trash-filled water before,” Fran DeWine said.

Though the earthquake posed a major setback, the group and Father Hagan carry on with their mission, DeWine said. Their first priority is to restart the meal program for the students and their families at the high school kitchen, which sustained the least damage.

“We know that when all the relief and aid are gone, it will be up to people like Father Tom to do the work and make the difference,” DeWine said. “When people contribute money and focus on the problems there this time we hope some of them will commit and maintain an interest in Haiti over a year or five years.”

DeWine’s assistant, Ann O’Donnell, who has been moved by her experience in Haiti with the DeWines, can view the disaster in the context of the country’s recent history.

“It isn’t about fixing everything in Haiti,” O’Donnell said. “It’s about doing what you can.”

People wishing to contribute to Father Hagan’s organization may mail checks directly to Hands Together at P.O. Box 80985, Springfield, MA 01138, or donate online at www.handstogether.com.

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