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Haiti needs more volunteers like these

Image: Lifechurch volunteer Jose Rey holding the baby boy who he helped deliver, and who was named for him.
Arnie Matos Lifechurch volunteer Jose Rey holds a baby boy he helped deliver, and who was named for him.

By Bill Dedman, msnbc.com

Here's an update on the dozen Haitian orphans under the protection of a church group from Allentown, Pennsylvania, whose stories msnbc.com chronicled in January, shortly after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake damaged their home in Port-au-Prince.

As some aid organizations are pulling out of Haiti, the volunteers from Lifechurch have reached out to the neighborhood around their orphanage in Port-au-Prince, demonstrating the difference that small organizations and individuals can make.

The volunteers from Pennsylvania have delivered 20 babies at their medical clinic, put up hundreds of tents and shared food and medical care with thousands of their Haitian neighbors.

News coverage of Haiti relief efforts has sometimes suggested that there are only two ways to contribute in a crisis, one sensible and one foolish: Either stay home and give your money to one of the well-known international relief organizations (this is the standard advice of the experts, who tend to work for well-known international relief organizations), or rush off in an ill-prepared effort that wastes resources and is likely to cause more harm than good.

Three months after the earthquake struck, the volunteers from the evangelical Lifechurch have found a middle ground: With wave after wave of volunteers in small groups, and through alliances with groups of all faiths, they have made a difference in one neighborhood in the devastated Haitian capital.

Once they found a temporary home for their orphans -- first at the larger Love A Child orphanage in the hills, now in a freshly painted home back in their old Santos 19 neighborhood in Port-au-Prince -- the Lifechurch volunteers set up a medical clinic in the courtyard of their original orphanage. They treated and fed more than 3,000 people, vaccinated more than 1,000. At times they had more than 200 people waiting outside the gates.

Their medical team, which included a pediatrician from Allentown, Dr. Scott Rice, joined forces with doctors from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Word spread. Pregnant women started arriving.

But not all the babies were born at the clinic.

One woman arrived at the last minute in a tap-tap, the multicolored taxi truck that dominates traffic in Port-au-Prince. And in the tap-tap the baby was born, a boy named Scott.

On a trip outside the neighborhood, one baby arrived so quickly that mission director Ramon Crespo and volunteer Jose Rey had little more than a cardboard box to serve as a delivery table. Now they too have a namesake in Haiti, Jose Ramon Rey Crespo.

The children from the church-sponsored Rescue Children Orphanage have gone on missions themselves, delivering food and clean underwear to a nearby home for children with special needs, where some children were going weeks without clean diapers and clothes.

Image: Lifechurch volunteer Jean Pierre with three of the children. Arnie Matos Lifechurch volunteer Luciano Martinez with three of the Rescue Orphanage kids, from left, Stevenson, Francois and Ja-nelson.

But such efforts can only help a tiny fraction of those in need, and Lifechurch leaders say too little help is coming to Haiti.

"On my last flight, there were only about six relief workers," Lifechurch Pastor Randy Landis said this week by phone from Port-au-Prince, where he was visiting for the fourth time since the earthquake. "The amount of people coming in has really dwindled down. A lot of institutions are leaving. A lot of those that are staying are smaller, faith-based organizations like ourselves.

"We met a woman last night from Long Island. She and her husband have opened up an orphanage with nine children that she and her husband found on the street. She's been here for a month now. I just met a group of Sikhs from Cincinnati, working to set up a camp of 200 tents.

"There's a need for the larger organizations. But what I see is the smaller organizations, many of them faith based. At night you get e-mails from different people, sharing what their need is, we've got additional supplies today we can help you. There's this really cool tapestry playing out here."

After long days of 100-degree heat, the rains have now arrived, so the Lifechurch clinic is moving indoors, to a house the group has rented next door to the old orphanage. Much of the construction and repair work is being done by Haitian men.

"There's a great need to create jobs," Landis said. "We set up about 200 shelters on this trip. We're paying ten dollars a day with meals -- the average wage in the country is about two dollars a day. We know that the work elevates their spirits. I'm talking about the men. You get them out there working, they're hard workers, they're diligent at what they do. There's just no jobs here."

The children of Rescue Children Orphanage, whose schooling was interrupted from January until April by the quake, are back in school now, except for the two youngest. And they are thrilled to be there.

The adults say that despite the many transitions they've been through -- four homes in less than a year, many changes in caregivers – and the tremors that still occasionally rock their world, they seem pretty secure and well adjusted.

Image: The outside of the new home for the Lifechurch children, as furnishings were being moved in. Arnie Matos The outside of the new home for the Lifechurch children, as furnishings were being moved in.

Their new home has a large central room with a piano, comfortable bunkrooms, and comforts that many Haitians still do not have: food and electricity. But even this home is temporary. They'll stay there for a year, while volunteers plan and build a new home for them in the countryside. Volunteer Jeffrey Sneller, a structural engineer from Bainbridge Island, Washington, is designing an orphanage with a series of Quonset-style buildings around a courtyard, resistant to both hurricanes and earthquakes.

The first night in their new home, a tremor at 3 a.m. woke up mission leaders Luz and Ramon Crespo. "They ran through the house along with the team members waking up all the children and rushing them outside," mission coordinator Carmen Rendon wrote in an update for the church. "Some of the children did not want to go back inside the house, so they had a slumber party outside and some of the team members and mommies slept outside with them."

Each time a volunteer group rotates back to the States, adjustments are difficult.

"The children got very sad and said the Americans are leaving, and we keep hearing rumors that more earthquakes are coming, and we are very scared," Rendon wrote of one parting. "So of course everyone comforted them and loved on them and reassured them that they are safe and that God is watching over them."

On Easter Sunday, the children dressed up for church. The younger girls wore white dresses that the older girls had made for them.

They've learned to play street hockey with foam sticks and pucks that volunteer Dave Harris made for them. They've learned to make S'mores, roasting marshmallows over charcoal. And they've been to the beach, burying each other up to the waist in sand, fishing, listening to shells.

Several times they have spent the evenings in song. "They had a powerful time of singing and worshipping with the team," Rendon wrote. "The beautiful Haitian people, they sang in English, French and Creole." Luz Crespo, a mission leader, "said it was simply amazing, and definitely lifted spirits and heavy burdens they are carrying."

The group has suffered one loss. Triplets born at the clinic were weak, and one was severely dehydrated. The group scrambled to get them to a hospital run by the University of Miami, but one of the week-old triplets died there.

Ramon Crespo, the feisty mission leader from Puerto Rico by way of Pennsylvania, has kept order at the clinic and the orphanage.

"Ramon also shared that there was day when they were doing distribution with about 150 people or so and things got crazy and men were pushing mothers, women and children," Rendon wrote. "He got very upset and began to rebuke the people in love, and he told them that this was their sister that they were pushing, their mother, and that if they continued in their wicked behavior they would receive nothing. He also told them that it is time for them to repent and turn from their Godless ways of their country and acknowledge God. I am sure much more was said, but after he was done speaking the crowd calmed down and they all started clapping. They have even sought Ramon out to handle their disputes. I joked and told Ramon, 'Now you're a Haiti sheriff.'"

Previous coverage of the Haiti orphage:

On his trips to tent camps, Pastor Landis said, he sees a desperate situation. "There is still a need for tents, still people living under sheets and blankets and tarps. I'm looking at 500 little makeshift tarps and blankets right now, about 1,300 people, in an area outside Port-au-Prince. Down in to Port-au-Prince, the city electric is turned off. It's raining almost every night. There's hopelessness. I walked into a camp two days ago, about 2,500 people in an area the size of a football field; there had not been a food drop there for at least three weeks. It was easily 100 degrees in each little dwelling of tents and blankets. The desperation on people's faces was just heart-wrenching.

"I hope people won't forget the people of Haiti."

Ways to keep up with the Rescue Children Orphanage: