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An island of relative calm in a sea of chaos

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Before the massive earthquake struck the Haitian capital, a woman in Pennsylvania came to Lifechurch mission director Ramon Crespo with a check in hand to support the church's work. He said he didn't even look at the amount.
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"I told her to keep her money. I didn't need her money," said the intense, bandana-wearing Crespo, 47, a career mission worker and part-time poet, born in Puerto Rico but living now in Allentown, Pa.Š"She could have sent the check, but she brought the check. She wanted recognition."

On a mission David Friedman / msnbc.com Mission leader Ramon Crespo prays Sunday morning at the Rescue Children orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The woman was offended, but Crespo, who with his wife, Luz, helps run Lifechurch'sŠmission program, pressed on. "I gave her a list. I told her, what I need is for you to go to the store and buy 10 soccer balls. Buy 12 pairs of reading glasses and bring them to our church. You buy stuff, you have to go touch it. You remember better. It gets you out of your comfort zone."

After the woman settled down, "She did everything on the list," Crespo recalled, a smile splitting his salt-and-pepper beard and moustache. "I took her check, too."

Helping -- not just paying someone else to help -- is what the people of Haiti need. And it helps the givers, too. That's one of the philosophies of Lifechurch, which operates an orphanage in the Santo neighborhood, a little over a mile northeast of the Port-au-Prince airport.

Aid organizations don't encourage everyone to run off to Haiti, possibly making a difficult situation worse. The big organizations encourage people to donate to experienced relief groups, letting pros handle the situation.

But Lifechurch volunteers were here before the quake, rescuing children from what they said was a failed and abusive orphanage. Now they're here protecting the children they're responsible for and helping the neighbors when they can, not to try to save the entire country. Besides, Crespo, who has worked in Cuba, El Salvador andŠNicaragua,Šis a professional. He takes nothing for granted, assuming he will have only what he now has, while he looks for more. "It's not a lack of faith," he said. "But faith doesn't bring me more diesel."

At the Rescue Children orphanage, the volunteers from Allentown, Pa.,Šarise at 5:30 each day. On Sunday, although Crespo had a serious asthma attack the night before, he was back at work before breakfast, headed to a neighbor's house to distribute food. Church youths who go on mission trips with him call him "Major Pain," he said, because of his military-like work ethic. "In life I have a limited time frame. I'm afraid to not use it," he said.

Already the church volunteers have hauled out beds and mattresses and fixed tarps in the garden, organized a kitchen with propane and charcoal, and stocked a playroom for the 13 children here now – including two recent additions, the 2-year-old and 7-month-old sons of the orphanage's laundry woman, Crissiana. Volunteer handyman Ramon Morales, 35, helped bring out all the doors out of the house to support a tarp shelter for the family.

Salvaging what's left David Friedman / msnbc.com Ramon Morales escorts Mafouna, 13, and Marie-Victoire, 15, into the Rescue Children orphanage on Sunday to retrieve some personal things from their bedroom. With the house badly damaged, everyone stays outdoors except for brief forays in by the adults to retrieve things.

They do all this even though they hope to move soon to a more stable house. Chunks of concrete are still falling off of this one.

They have helped the orphanage's neighbors to the extent they can, bringing food to a house where an extended family of 15 is sleeping outside on mattresses, with no protection from the dust and 85-degree heat.

Church member Frank Andino, a former paramedic from the Bronx, set up a small medical clinic at the orphanage, offering care to about 50 people so far. Nothing major, a lot of fever, backaches, and small wounds to be dressed. It seems most people were either inside and killed, or outside and survived relatively uninjured.

Helping neighbors David Friedman / msnbc.com Lifechurch volunteer and medic Frank Andino treats a young neighbor with an infected arm on Sunday. With the situation stabilized inside the orphanage, the volunteers are trying to stretch their limited supplies to help the wider community.

Pastor and Lifechurch founder Randy Landis, 50, began Sunday morning with a short devotional at his bunk. The text was from Psalm 46: "We will not fear though the earth should give way, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea."

The orphanage has enough water now for the children and adults to take showers under the stars at night, scooping water from a bucket. They have tablets to purify more water for drinking. They have diesel for the generator and SUV, at least for a few days. They have cell phones, Blackberrys and iPhones that work from time to time. There's talk of carrying the washing machine and filling it with water by hand.

For morning snack, everyone shares coconuts. One of the older boys, 14-year-old Macson, skillfully uses a machete to hack open the shells. The children drink the sweet water and spoon out the meat. The house dog, a mutt called Petey, battles for table scraps.

Each evening, as the neighbors gather for songs outside in the darkness, the children inside the orphanage have enough light to play cutthroat games of dominoes.

Time for play David Friedman / msnbc.com Stevenson, 7, plays in the courtyard at Rescue Children orphanage on Sunday.

The adults, who have been out in the city, know that most of Port-au-Prince is suffering far more than they are. "This is heaven compared with everyone else," Crespo said.

On Saturday, the church group drove across Port-au-Prince to the suburb Pétionville and the hills beyond, to take one of the mission workers to see her family's house, which turned out to be undamaged. The worker, Regina, is a student in international relations. She cooks and cleans, helps with the children and translates among Creole, French, Spanish and English. Like the three other Haitian women at the orphanage, she stayed for four days with these children before she went to check on her sister and nephew.

Her neighbor, a doctor, offered a vacant rental house about five minutes from the orphanage, with five big bedrooms. The volunteers planned to look at it later in the day and decide whether to move their operation. Ultimately, the group may try to take the children out of the country. "We could just take all the children to the U.S.," Landis said. "I have families right now ready to take them, if we could get permission."

During the drive across Port-au-Prince, heading out in daylight, back in the dark, the group passed a mass grave in a vacant lot not far from Pétionville. Onlookers wearing bandanas to cover their face said bodies are dumped four times a day or more.

On the main road, a little farther along, a little girl no more than 4 strolled along carrying a machete nearly as tall as she was. Women hauled huge sacks of potatoes and bottles of water on their heads, in the usual Haitian fashion.

A fallen highway bridge forced drivers to go around and cross the low water of the river to get to the city center. Nearby, a collapsed movie theater multiplex drew a gaggle of journalists, with people digging on the top of the rubble.

A makeshift tent city filled a church square in Pétionville. Thousands of people were packed together, with children being bathed in the street and women taking hand baths while standing naked in the open.

Petionville </p>
<p>camp David Friedman / msnbc.com Thousands of Haitians camp in a square in the Petionville area on Saturday.

Children, and only children, were allowed to line up at a U.N. van to receive food. Hundreds waited in a long line with cups, jugs, bowls. Few other distribution points were seen.

Supermarkets remained closed, but some vegetable stands were open, offering cabbages and peas and plantains for sale.

Gas stations along the way were shut, so most cars were parked. Maybe Sunday, the men guarding the gas station said. A few stores have water, the purity of which is unclear. But just as before the quake, it's available only to those who can pay.

On the FM radio, in Creole, the announcers warned everyone to stay out of buildings.

There was no electricity, no light at all, except at places with generators: an outdoor cafe where people ate sandwiches, the U.N. camp and the U.S. Embassy, where about a hundred people waited quietly outside for help, watched by plain-clothes guards with automatic weapons. Solar-powered street lights were working, but hardly anyone stopped at intersections.

A hand-painted sign near the orphanage read: "Jesus Avec Haiti." Jesus with Haiti.

Aftershocks have diminished. Just one could be felt on Saturday, a short shake. The U.S. Geological Survey, which lists earthquakes of at least 4.0 magnitude, recorded 49 from Tuesday afternoon through Wednesday, four on Thursday, four on Friday, and one on Saturday.

"House father" David Harris recalls the moment Tuesday afternoon when the big 7.0 earthquake began. He was outside with all the children except Rodlin, a boy of 11, who came running out of the house. Now Rodlin is afraid to go anywhere near it.

"What would I have done if the house had collapsed with the children in it?" Harris asked, imagining the horror that might have been. "What do I say? What do I say? How do I make that phone call? 'We've lost the kids.'"

The children heard shouts from the nearby houses all through the first night. "A woman was screaming in Creole that her husband died," said Harris, a retired organizational expert, who runs the orphanage on a combination of principles from the Bible and Six Sigma management-strategy training. "The kids didn't know what to make of the noises. It's so different from what you see on TV."

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SLIDESHOW: Church rushes to help orphange in Haiti
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The church team was still awaiting news from Haitian physician Hubermann Debrosse, who drove into Haiti with them, then went off to find his wife and two children. Even if their house was still standing, would he be able to find them if they're alive and in one of the tent cities?

Lifechurch is planning to dispatch a medical team of six doctors and six volunteers. They hope to arrive in the Dominican Republic, on the east side of Hispaniola island, on a charter flight late Monday. If they can get into the country by truck, they will rendezvous with a larger nonprofit, Love A Child, which has a clinic in the hills. That group donated 40 boxes of food to Lifechurch's orphanage -- fortified rice and ready-to-boil soy protein meal packages assembled by volunteers at Feed My Starving Children in Minneapolis. Love A Child also is using a van to ferry wounded out from the city for treatment, though it has no X-ray machine.

Read previous stories:

A joyful reunion, but now what?

Armed, resolute, church group heads for Haiti

Pa. pastor 'expecting the worst' at Haitian orphanage

Help also is coming from the Feed The Children charity, which has donated a shipment of Crocs,Šthe ubiquitous rubber shoes with holes in them.

"On our last trip, we discovered the desperate need for shoes," said Landis, the Lifechurch founder and head pastor. "Women, children were walking without shoes. It's very rugged terrain, lots of rocks. We had taken some shoes donated from our congregation. We had noticed how Crocs were the best -- they're durable, they're washable. One of our guys, Frank Headrington, took it on himself to call Crocs. They gave us 101 pair of Crocs, and we had the children hand them out."

Now word comes of a new donation from Crocs: 5,100 pounds of Crocs, worth about $190,000.
The gift reminds mission director Crespo of a parable:

"Gandhi lost a shoe running for a train. He turned around and threw his other shoe back toward the lost one. His friend scolded him, 'You fool, why did you do that?'

"'Why do I need one shoe?' Gandhi asked. 'He who finds one, finds a pair.'"

Donations to support Lifechurch's orphanage work can be sent to 1401 East Cedar St., Allentown, Pa., 19109. Or you can click here for a list of other charitable organizations working on the Haiti earthquake relief effort.

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