Frank and Jeanette McLaughlin are not your average snowbirds.
Like most retired Minnesotans, the McLaughlins leave the frozen north during the winter months in exchange for a warmer, sunnier locale. But instead of Florida or Arizona, Frank and Jeanette have made Pignon, Haiti, their winter paradise.
Frank and Jeanette McLaughlin talked about their experiences this past winter in Pignon after the devastating January earthquake hit the poor country.
Frank and Jeanette operate the Haiti Mercy Mission in Pignon, about 60 miles from Port-au-Prince, Haiti's largest metropolis. "It's a hobby gone out of control," Jeanette said.
Haiti Mercy Mission is home to 50 Haitian orphans, partners with four area churches, four area schools and, on more than one occasion, has been asked to operate a medical clinic. The McLaughlins have long declined to take on the clinic. "We just didn't want to take on all the disease that comes with it," said Jeanette, a retired nurse.
In January, the McLaughlins departed for their annual stay in Haiti. That was Jan. 7. Seven days later the earthquake hit. While many were just trying to leave the tiny island nation, Frank and Jeanette hunkered in for what they knew would be a bumpy ride.
With communication down, getting news from Port-au-Prince was nearly impossible. "For two days everything was completely quiet," Jeanette said. "There was no National Guard. No Salvation Army. No soup kitchens. No insurance. Just silence."
Within a few days, refugees leaving Port-au-Prince arrived in Pignon. "They just wanted to come home," Jeanette said.
Those leaving Port-au-Prince were forced to walk 10 miles out of the city to reach a United Nations checkpoint before finding transportation to outer-lying communities. Pignon received more than 20,000 refugees.
A woman walked from Port-au-Prince and acquired 12-orphaned children on her way to Pignon where she brought them to Haiti Mercy Mission. The children were identified over radio broadcast in an effort to reach family members who might be searching for them.
All 12 children are still residing at Haiti Mercy Mission.
Haiti Mercy Mission along with other area nonprofits decided against establishing a refugee camp because of the threat of disease and unrest that often develops.
The McLaughlins said their organization worked with local churches to challenge their members to take in family and friends displaced by the earthquake.
Initially, the McLaughlins thought the best way to help would be to feed everyone they could. Pignon received a 12,000-pound food drop from another nonprofit organization working to distribute food from the Dominican Republic to Haiti.
What sounded like a good idea turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. "We had to hire protection," Frank said. "Desperate hungry people can turn dangerous very quickly."
Following the quake, Frank visited the local market and was met with the contempt of the store owner who pointed out that their effort to feed people was killing his business. "Big aid is good for about two weeks," Frank said. "Then you have to empower people to invest in the local economy."
The McLaughlins and their coalition of churches and organizations began working on Plan B. "We had to come up with another solution," Jeanette said. "If we can't feed people what do we do?"
"The good thing about being a small organization is you can make immediate changes," Frank said. "You get to learn from your mistakes and fix them."
"We made a lot of good-hearted mistakes," Jeanette said. "In 10 years we'll be about to write a book on how to respond in a disaster, but when there is not time to think- you just have to fly by the seat of your pants."
Frank and Jeanette took the financial support they had received from Minnesota donors - many who gave in response to the January Dispatch article about the McLaughlins - and divided it up between the four churches they support. The money is allocated for monthly distribution to families in their community who have taken in refugees. "The money is meant to help families buy food and clothes," Jeanette said, "but some people are saving money so they can rebuild (in Port-au-Prince)."
The plan to distribute financial support will last until January. "We don't want to make people dependent on us," Jeanette said. "We want to help them do what they can't do on their own."
In addition to finding a plan to feed and cloth those affected by the quake, the McLaughlins conceded to taking on the 40-year-old medical clinic.
The change of heart actually came before the earthquake when Frank and Jeanette agreed to meet with a representative who flew down from Canada to discuss the prospect of running a medical clinic. The representative was on her way to Pignon when the earthquake hit. She was killed in Port-au-Prince. "After the quake happened, we knew it was the right thing to do," Jeanette said.
The clinic operates as a pre-requisite treatment center for less urgent cases. "We take care of the small issues so they don't become big issues," Jeanette said. "You can die of something as simple as a ... fungus if no one helps you."
The goal of the McLaughlins is to have the clinic running at full capacity as soon as possible. They are working on buying supplies and building relationships with medical professionals to help purchase equipment for the clinic. "I can't just go out and buy a scalpel," Jeanette said. "We need a doctor to help us with those details."
The clinic is run pro bono under the supervision of Dr. Ecene Jean Pierre who met Frank and Jeanette after a mutual contact read about the McLaughlins' earthquake relief effort in the Dispatch.
Jean Pierre's wife, Ann, manages the Haiti Mercy Mission orphanage.
While the clinic is a huge part of the future for the mission of Haiti Mercy Mission, Frank and Jeanette said their priorities are still the same - their kids come first. "The earthquake changed everything," Frank said, "but we still want to know that when our kids leave our home they are going to make it. That comes first."
One of their orphans, Saisette Joseph, 26, was a student nine months away from finishing her nursing degree in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake hit. She was one of only seven students from her class of 76 that survived the quake. Jeanette is working to find Saisette a program in the U.S. that will allow her to finish her degree. "Haiti lost an entire generation of young people," Jeanette said. "Saisette deserves the opportunity to finish what she started."
On June 12, Frank planned to make his first trip back to Haiti, since leaving in April, to deliver supplies to the orphanage at Haiti Mercy Mission. "We want to know what has changed since we left," he said.
While much of the media and Western aid has largely dissipated in the last couple months, Frank said that Haitians are having a hard time wrapping their arms around what has happened to their own country. "The world is finally going to notice us," Frank said speaking of the feeling among Haitians after the disaster. "They don't understand that the world has a short attention span."
Upon their return to Minnesota in April, Frank and Jeanette were invited to be a part of a fundraising dinner featuring Prairie Home Companion's Garrison Keillor. The money donated from the dinner would go to pay the salaries of the teachers in the Pignon Haiti Mission of Mercy schools who have not received pay since the earthquake.
Keillor talked for nearly three hours about, "Why People Suffer." He light-heartedly mentioned that Frank and Jeanette spend their winters in Haiti while most other people go to Florida and they get nothing for it. In response to Keillor's words, Jeanette summed up their mission in serving the people of Haiti: "We get a lot out of it- it's just not always tangible."
SARAH NELSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5879.
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