Spring 2010 Issue

Keeping the Faith

Students, alumni, faculty and staff – Barry’s connections to Haiti run deep

By Richard A. Webster

Barry students stand in solidarity with the victims of Haiti’s earthquake and their families at a candlelight vigil and rally January 22 at the Landon Student Union Courtyard.Friends embrace Bachelor Jean Pierre ’09 (center) at the prayer vigil and rally. Jean Pierre was at Haiti’s airport waiting to catch a flight to Miami when the quake struck.

Providencia Gousse, a junior majoring in psychology, was at her Miami home with a group of friends watching the movie “27 Dresses” when she heard her mother scream from the next room.

It was the evening of January 12.

Her mother, a Haitian native, cried out when she saw the first images from Haiti after a catastrophic magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck just west of Port-au-Prince. The death toll would eventually approach 230,000.

Throughout the night, Gousse and her friends watched the breaking newscasts in silence.

She was not alone. According to the Office of Student Life, Barry University has approximately 200 first-generation Haitian-American students. So when news of the earthquake broke, it quickly spread through the student body, faculty and alumni.

If you weren’t from Haiti, chances are you knew someone who was, said Anwar Cruter, director of Student Activities. When Cruter heard of the disaster, his first thoughts were of his friend Bachelor Jean Pierre ’09. He knew Jean Pierre had gone to Haiti for the Christmas holiday but didn’t know when he was scheduled to return. Cruter tried calling his cell phone but there was no answer.

Jean Pierre was in the Port-au-Prince airport in Haiti when the earthquake first struck. He braced himself as the ground trembled and large granite blocks broke off the roof.

Jean Pierre tried to remain calm as the crowd of more than 100 waiting to board a plane back to Miami panicked and broke for the exits.

“It felt like the building was moving backwards,” said Jean Pierre, who graduated with a degree in graphic design. “I thought a plane crashed into it.”

But it wasn’t a plane, and Jean Pierre’s friends back in Miami grew more worried about his safety with each passing day.

Cruter didn’t want to dwell on the possibilities. There was too much to do. The day after the earthquake, a group of students, administrators and faculty gathered to begin planning a candlelight vigil, donation drive and rally for Haiti.

The mood at the first meeting was somber, said Gousse, vice president of Barry’s Haitian Inter-Cultural Association.

Gousse’s thoughts were with her three brothers and three sisters who were in Haiti at the time of the quake. And like Cruter, she was worried about her friend Jean Pierre.

“Everyone had a story to tell,” Gousse said of the first meeting. “One of my friends lost two of her aunts and another lost a grandma.”

The front line

Julia Lewis-Spann shares a photo she took of Haitian doctors and medical assistants working as part of Project Medishare operations near the Port-au-Prince airport.

While students and faculty were planning relief efforts, Scott Dean was boarding a plane for Haiti along with 83 members of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Team.

Dean, a lieutenant with the Miami Fire Department, who is working toward a master’s in public administration in the School of Adult and Continuing Education (ACE), is no stranger to disasters, having spent two weeks doing search and rescue in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. But Haiti was different.

Dean and his team spent the first three sleepless days and nights trying to dig five people, including a 7-year-old girl, out of the rubble of a five-story supermarket that had collapsed.

“All we could hear were voices, but we told them we weren’t going to leave them, that we were coming to get them,” Dean said.

After two days of non-stop work, Dean and his team reached the 7-year-old girl, who survived by eating fruit roll-ups she found in the wreckage.

“We couldn’t reach her hand at first but we gave her a water bottle. Your fingers are on one end of the water bottle and her fingers grabbed the other end. It was an amazing feeling. The poor girl, her mom had passed away right next to her.”

The next person they pulled from the rubble was Mireille Boulos Dittmer from South Florida.

On January 15 one of Dittmer’s sons posted an urgent plea on the Internet. “We are missing our mom. Her car was found outside of Caribbean Supermarket the day of the earthquake. She is still inside somewhere under the rubble. Please make sure they keep searching for her and do not give up.”

Dittmer lives in Pembroke Pines with her two sons and was in Haiti for business. When Dean and his team pulled her to safety five days after the quake, they were taken aback to find out she was from South Florida.

“You go to Haiti expecting to save someone from Haiti and here we find a woman from Florida,” Dean said. “It reminded me of home, which I was trying not to think about. You want to focus on the job and not about [what] the consequences [would be] for your family if this building were to collapse on top of [you].”

In three days, Dean’s team rescued five people from the market and found more than 20 bodies. At that point there was little chance of finding additional survivors, so they called off the search.

“When we declared there were no more and it was time to go, that was really hard,” he said.

What cannot be mended

Julia Lewis-Spann sits with parishioners in a makeshift Haitian church set up outside of their damaged building.

Just a few miles from where Dean was stationed, Julia Lewis-Spann, an adjunct professor in Barry’s Andreas School of Business, was working with the University of Miami’s Project Medishare, a nonprofit dedicated to improving health care and developmental services in Haiti.

“We saw things that could not be seen on camera,” said Lewis-Spann, who handled the intake and discharge of patients and prepared charts, medical notes and death certificates. “Things that were so very painful to see but you hold it in because you can’t let those poor people see you reacting while they’re suffering so.”

Lewis-Spann and the medical team worked in a makeshift tent doing what they could to stitch wounds and mend broken bones. But some injuries could not be fixed.

“There was a small child, maybe 7 or 8 years old, crying hysterically for his parents who were probably dead,” Lewis-Spann said. “It was heart-wrenching. They were trying to console the child but he was inconsolable.”

But amid so much pain, Lewis-Spann witnessed a powerful moment of faith among the Haitian people after a 16-year-old girl was admitted to the hospital with a broken femur and died shortly thereafter from an embolism.

“They stopped everything and everyone, all the male Haitian nurses, [were] in a circle holding each other and singing to God, humming and rocking back and forth,” she recalled.

This went on for an hour while Lewis-Spann collected information for the death certificate.

“You didn’t see people forsake God. In the midst of tragedy they were singing praises to God. No one can tell me anything different about the Haitians. They are people of faith, and it made me resolute in my own faith.”

Welcome home, friend

Scott Dean (center), a Barry student and lieutenant with the Miami Fire Department, works to find Haitian earthquake survivors as part of the South Florida Urban Search and Rescue Team.

Back at Barry, in addition to faith, the students had each other to lean on. That was one of the main reasons for the January 22 vigil and rally – to gather as one and provide support for those in need, said Steffano Montano, coordinator for Barry’s De Porres Center for Community Service.

“The students were really traumatized, and I know the vigil helped a lot. You could see their attitudes start to change,” Montano said.

More than 200 people attended the event, which collected 10 truckloads of supplies. The rally featured presentations on Haitian culture, performances by Haitian artists and one special speaker who many in the crowd thought they might never see again: Bachelor Jean Pierre.

Jean Pierre had returned to Miami that same evening, and after visiting his family he went straight to the rally where he told the crowd of his 11-day ordeal.

After the earthquake rocked the Port-au-Prince airport, Jean Pierre and his stepfather walked three hours back to their family’s house in Carrefour. They didn’t know the extent of the damage until they walked through the middle of the city.

“That’s where we saw everything,” Jean Pierre said. “We walked over dead people. One building we walked on top of because it had fallen in the street. ... It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.

After 11 days, a neighbor offered to drive Jean Pierre to the Santo Domingo airport where he could catch a flight back to Miami.

Although it’s a relief to be back home in South Florida, Jean Pierre said that it’s also somewhat of an emotional burden.

“But at another point I feel guilty, because I feel powerless to help. I have mixed feelings about it, actually. Since I got back I can barely sleep. I have massive headaches.”

Jean Pierre’s first-person account of the tragedy in Haiti was the defining moment of the rally, Cruter recalled. To be able to touch someone who was on the ground as it happened and who endured the resulting aftermath gave hope to many.

“Bear in mind [many people] had families they were waiting to hear from, but here we were seeing someone back and alive,” Cruter said. “That was the most powerful part of the rally, seeing everyone run to and embrace [Jean Pierre]. And the fact that, after seeing his family, the first place he comes to is Barry speaks volumes about the family unit we have here.”

Richard Webster is a staff writer for New Orleans CityBusiness, covering crime and health care.