Help for Haiti, Volleyball Style

Edeline Felizor, a nurse and teacher, was gravely injured in the earthquake. Byron Shewman (gray t-shirt and blue cap) arranged to get her medical care in San Diego.

During my 15 days in Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake that hit the country in January 2010, death and pain were everywhere. Babies were pulled lifeless from mothers who barely hung on to their own lives, skulls smashed under tons of fractured concrete and brick, the endless lines of people with broken bones, the steady hum of the amputating saw never at rest. I observed an old, one-legged woman propped back against her daughter who held her all day; the older woman passed away quietly in the late night. A young boy’s wound went septic and a Navy helicopter was called in to our clinic but couldn’t find the landing spot in the field. The child was then rushed in a car to the airport to fly out to Miami. Too late. When he reached the airport, he had already expired.

Somehow, goodness also abounded within this nightmare. In the middle of an operation, two physicians in the medical group I was affiliated with proffered their own arms to draw blood in order to save the patients they were working on. One gave so much he began to pass out and had to sit down. I met a young surgeon from Fresno who slept on the floor of his dirty operating room for two straight weeks, sponge bathing, surviving on peanut butter, crackers, and coffee. He had to go to Santo Domingo for a day but was returning to his Haitian operating room to stay on indefinitely. Hundreds from around the world worked amid the chaos that was unleashed. Doctors’ and nurses’ hearts broke along with those of the Haitians. I saw some sit down, their blue or green scrubs splashed with blood, so exhausted they were asleep within seconds. Another cup of coffee—if they were lucky enough to have it—and they were up, ready to go again.

After those 15 days working in Haiti as a translator for a medical team, I had to return to my former life, although I was profoundly changed. Through my trip and all the medical experiences it entailed, I also learned something that pulled at my volleyball heartstrings: the only gym for the three million citizens of Port-au-Prince had been rendered unusable in the earthquake. The stark realities of a country that was left in ruins, along with my history as a volleyball coach and organizer, left me convinced that another way I could contribute my time and skills was to have a new gymnasium and rehab center built. It was a daunting plan, but I had an idea of how it was going to happen.

Already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti suffered tremendously in the span of 50 shaking seconds and the many aftershocks that left hundreds of thousands of people dead (the final death toll varies depending on the source). Thousands more who had to undergo amputations were left with no access to either physical or emotional therapy, prosthetics, or wheelchairs, and would be condemned to live as shut-ins. They faced unimaginable challenges.

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake occurred about 16 miles west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and destroyed notable Haitian buildings along with vital infrastructure, including hospitals, transport facilities, and communication systems. In the days after the earthquake, Haitians were suddenly sleeping on the ground, sidewalks, cemeteries, anywhere they could find shelter until tents were brought in days later. Those tents soon transformed into tent cities and shantytowns. I witnessed all this chaos and misery and felt the overpowering need to help.

To start the challenging process of getting a new facility built, I looked back on how I had coordinated donations of materials for sports facilities in Mexico in the past and who I might ask for a helping hand. As founder and director of Starlings Volleyball Clubs I had moved our national championship to the 12-court facility at Alliant International University in San Diego several years ago. A friend and former teammate of mine, Bob Stafford, built the facility’s huge fabric structure. I figured this could be a good place to start.

I placed a call to Bob at his company, Creative Tent International. He immediately agreed to donate a structure for the Haitians. This good news bolstered me to make a second phone call to another former teammate, Doug Beal of USA Volleyball. He was also on board with the plan. After that I spoke with the United States Olympic Committee, then NORCECA, and finally the Haiti Volleyball Federation. Everyone endorsed the idea and wanted to see a new volleyball facility become a reality. NORCECA and Sport Court Inc., collaborated to donate the flooring for the three planned courts. Lily Richardson, through her nonprofit, Child in Hand, funded the initial shipment.

Within weeks of my initial stay I was back in Haiti with two goals in mind. First, I visited the half-dozen amputee orphans I had earlier placed in foster families, supported through the nonprofit I founded in 2005, Youth Without Borders. I also wanted to make progress in building the new gym. The gymnasium project took me to Haiti’s National Sports Center, a huge compound called “The Ranch.” Formerly used as the private playground of ousted dictator, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, “The Ranch” housed a few national sports teams that were already training, including a girls junior volleyball squad. It made sense to erect the new structure here.

I found even more reason to get the facility built when I saw these girls practicing on two courts, one of them dirt and both with makeshift standards and sagging nets. They had been training for over a year but had yet to face opponents since there was no funding for travel. These young teenagers had been selected from various regions throughout Haiti, an honor in its own right. But an equally great reward for these girls was the bed they were given in a dorm, three meals a day, and free schooling – privileges that most Haitian children do not enjoy. For most children in a country like Haiti, sports are often defined as a plastic bottle serving as a soccer ball. An actual soccer goal or basket or volleyball net is a luxury only found at private schools.

As I have found over my years of international charity work, projects in underdeveloped countries move glacially slow. In Haiti, even slower. It took a year to finally get the structure shipped to Haiti from the U.S. But due to bureaucratic snares as well as a lack of technical support and equipment availability, it took two more years to get the structure erected. It was finally completed in the early months of 2013 when Creative Tent International sent down an engineer to oversee its completion. That marked a full three years since the earthquake and since the idea took root.

The structure’s internal mechanisms might still be stored in a shipping container had it not been for Haitian Volleyball President Margarette C. Graham. Introduced to the sport in New York City in the early 1990s where she played for the fabled Creole club teams, now called the Creole Big Apple Volleyball Club, Graham took over the reins of the sport in Haiti two years ago. The progress under her leadership has been extraordinary: from an increase in player participation to a few national team trips outside the country. No small feat with such limited resources.

With the facility now built and in use, people are continuing to reach out to Haiti and Haitians through volleyball. A Toledo-area Starlings team is fundraising for a trip to Haiti in July. They will play some matches in the new gym and will finally provide opponents for the Haitian girls’ team. The Starlings team will also do some work at the school and teach volleyball to the local kids, while medical care will be given under the club’s director, Dr. Richard A. Paat.

Help comes in spurts but the essence of Haiti’s reality continues to reveal 200 years of suffering. The only slave colony to ever win its freedom, Haiti and its people have unfortunately never been able to truly experience the joys of that freedom. Yet, they go on, smiling through conditions of misery that stretches limits of the mind while capturing deepest admiration from outsiders. I once read this line and it has stuck with me ever since: “Haiti will win your heart and break it at the same time.” It certainly did mine.

Talk About Teamwork

These organizations and companies contributed time and resources to build a volleyball facility in Haiti.

- Creative Tent International
- USA Volleyball
- Youth Without Borders
- Haitian National Sports Ministry
- NORCECA
- Sport Court Inc.
- Haiti Volleyball Federation
- Child in Hand

Class Act

During my first aid-trip to Haiti, one of my most immediate tasks was to arrange the transport of a young woman, Edeline Felizor, to San Diego for physical therapy. A nurse and teacher, Edeline was on the second floor of a four-story school when the building collapsed into a giant mound of rubble. After a single man with a crowbar dug down into the depths of a concrete grave to rescue Edeline, her broken neck would require major surgery in order to survive. But that procedure was only possible on the nearby U.S. Navy’s hospital ship, the USNS Comfort. It took 16 hours of crawling through Port-au-Prince, her head strapped down on a flatbed truck with masking tape, before I got her helicoptered to the 1,000 bed Comfort.

Three weeks later a weakened Edeline, with four screws in her skull, arrived in San Diego with her sister, Isemene. Although I suddenly had—and still do—two “adopted daughters” living with me, I felt compelled to get back to Haiti and do more.

It was the need for exercise, fun, and education that figured prominently into my eventual plan to build a school in Haiti. A year ago Youth Without Borders bought a plot of land near Edeline’s home and a three-room building was finished last October. Inaugurated with a class of 60 kindergartners, it was named Institut Edeline Felizor. The opening was attended by a dozen San Diegans—friends of Edeline’s physical therapist, Steph Hoffman—who arrived loaded down with bags of school supplies, medical necessities, gardening tools, and a volleyball net and balls.

Originally published in July 2013

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