call to serve, Feed My Starving Children, Haiti, health care, hunger, mission work, sorghum making, Uncategorized

Why Haiti? Part III

Len Demert founder

Schools4Haiti Founder, Len Demert

Day 2 of the mission trip with Schools4Haiti:

One of the very first things that was apparent upon arriving in Port au Prince (my first exposure to Haitian people) is how boorish or verbally aggressive they are.  It is classic id run amok–no filter.  If they think it, they tend to say it. “Hey pretty lady!” they call out to some of the ladies in our group.  Wow, put a sock in it, Ace! I think to myself. Yet somehow, they are also polite and quick to smile.  Their default expression is one forged out of lifelong hardship, however.

Haitian elder

She’s younger than you think…

Unless you are from Haiti or used to driving in Haiti, it’s best to hire a driver who can double as an interpreter–especially if you are not fluent in Creole.  One truck was not enough for our team and our luggage.  The trip organizer, Penny Demert-Neal of Schools4Haiti left our company to get another truck rented from Avis.  The standing joke of how many people can you fit on a Haitian truck (one more) did not hold for our team. We needed two trucks. Driving in PAP streets is harrowing, crowded, choked with traffic, and very minimal traffic laws are observed.  Our host would later tell us stories of drivers who have hit others in the street who were then pulled from the vehicle and stoned by villagers–judge, jury, and executioners all rolled into one frenzied group.

haitian streets

driving in Haitian streets

We began our northward ascent toward Mirebalais and the New Life International compound and our hosts, Brian and Jamie Rauschenberger. Soon we were climbing Mt. Cabrit (goat) and were seeing what appeared to be wild goats, donkeys, and horses.  Our driver soon corrected me on this issue and said that although each animal appeared to be wild, every Haitian knew exactly who this horse belonged to or that goat, even that stray chicken scampering about. I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the countryside that followed the despair, crowds, and litter so rampant in PAP. Cacti of varying types speckled the mountainside, while animals scurried about. On the way up Mt. Cabrit, those of us in the back of the truck got caught in our first monsoon, taking care to hold the blue tarp over us and at least limit the impact of the big drops of rain that were pelting us.


Our New Life Int’l hosts, the Rauschenburgers

After arriving at New Life International at meeting our hosts, we grabbed our bags and checked out our new dorm rooms.  Each of us men had a single bed, three in our room.  One of the docs roomed with his sister, a high school French teacher.  The rest of the ladies in our group shared a larger dorm room with two single beds and two bunk beds.  The dorms, recently completed, looked more like bunkers than dorms as the interior was unpainted cement that was not yet finished sweating–and would not be painted until time passed and the sweating had run its course.

inside NLI dorm

inside dorm room at New Life Int’l

Our host, Brian, explained that the air conditioning was freshly installed but the daylight hours had slipped away before the electrical connections could be completed.  Therefore, our first night we would have no AC but each subsequent night we would.  This was a huge bonus, as the nighttime air brought open windows, mosquitoes, and security risk.  Outside were two armed guards who kept patrol while we slept.  New Life International in Mirebalais sat on 40 acres of the prettiest jungle in Haiti.  Enormous cane stalks bordered the lane and the property and made me recall the memories of my grandfather Ever who grew cane and pressed sorghum for 47 years until he died in 1983.

Wanting to appease the curiosity of my foodie wife Sara (of, I took care to carefully catalog the different foods that we ate while in Haiti.  Brian’s wife Jamie served us spaghetti with fish, rice & beans, an iceberg salad, and ranch chicken drumsticks with lime-aid to wash it all down with.  Brian assured us that the lime-aid was made with purified water from his own system.

Haitian water purifying system at Pastor Paul’s orphanage

** Watch for Why Haiti, part IV soon! Please remember to like and follow the blog.

call to serve, Haiti, mission work, Uncategorized

Why Haiti?

Mercy Capitol

Mercy Capitol, Des Moines IA

Standing in the ER at Mercy Capitol in Des Moines, IA in late August, 2005, I watched the coverage on TV as Katrina moved down upon New Orleans.  Mostly, I stood there amazed at the tales of how many people remained, certain they would be rescued.  Suppinated palms, waiting for a handout.  They had DAYS, days in advance warning of the category 5 hurricane what would devastate their city, that city which rested below sea level.  Um, how could anyone there expect to remain dry?  This is not a rhetorical question.  How far could I walk in days, knowing that hell was soon to be unleashed upon my sub-sea-level home?  With just my thumb and a strong will, I am pretty sure I could be standing upon Pikes Peak with a warning that fair.


Hurrican Katrina, August 2005

A national call to help those devastated by the storm rang out, and our intensive care unit wanted to send a representative, along with a team of other nurses and doctors to lend a hand.  I wanted to go.  I talked with my wife about going, but our supervisor for the ICU chose Bob to go instead.  Crud.  I would have to travel vicariously and eagerly soak up details from my friend Bob when he returned.  This call sparked something inside me–a call to serve.

disaster response team

Disaster Response Team

Fast forward eight years and my family is living in Wisconsin, attending a new church.  An announcement is made in church that a program called Schools4Haiti will be organizing a medical mission to rural Haiti to visit and treat orphans.  There was no question–I knew I was going.  Sara must have known this, seen it in my eyes, known my heart.  Why Haiti?  I felt called to serve there.  She simply said “you should go.”  I texted my brother the ER doc, right there in church.  Medical mission to Haiti in July–want to go?  “Yes.  What dates?” came his very quick reply.  It was settled then.  I got the itinerary from the others to coordinate flight information and bought my ticket.  I was pretty sure I wanted to arrive in Port au Prince with the group and leave with the group.

Most of the group met up at a hotel near O’Hare and took stock in the medical supplies we were taking with.  Our arrival in the late afternoon was strategic–customs would be tired and weary and more likely to wave the group through, rather than rifle through our bags and confiscate supplies that were intended to do good for the orphans.  That plan worked.

mission organizing

organizing our mission supplies

Before I ever visited the Big Apple, someone offered a piece of sage advice: “just get used to streams and streams of people, everywhere you go, no matter what time of day it is.”  A similar suggestion was made of landing in Port au Prince.  Flying over Haiti I surmised that there was short, scrubby jungle everywhere and the entire nation appeared to be void of rural life.  I would later come to understand that I was just not able to see the huts below the canopy of the trees.  Ten million walked within Haiti’s boundaries–about 35 people per square acre, and that seemed like a conservative estimate.

Haitian crowd

Haitian crowd

I would soon discover that everyone is a salesman in Haiti, a service to offer or goods to barter with. Trash everywhere.  Graffiti. Earthquake damage.  The city reeked with a diffuse, acrid smell of smoke no matter where we went.  How many people can you fit in the back of a Haitian truck? One more.  On the way to our accommodations outside of Mirebalais, we were soaked in a monsoon rain while jam-packed in the bed of a pickup, dusk upon us.  I remember thinking “I am from small-town Wisconsin and I am riding in the back of a pickup in rural Haiti, caught in a monsoon and soaked to the bone as night is falling.  How did I get here?!” I chuckled at my circumstance while doing my part to hold down the corner of the blue tarp that wanted to dance in the wind.

Haiti pickup

mission pickup in Haiti

We arrived after dark, crossing a raging stream to pull into the New Life International compound.  Prior to leaving I imagined staying in some tiny hut, co-mingling with nature, squatting to answer nature’s call, no regular meals or running water, and returning half-dead with malaria and intractable diarrhea.  Instead, there was a male dorm and a female dorm, running water, air-conditioning at night so the mosquitoes could not reach us, armed guards to watch over us, a hot breakfast and supper, with packed lunches sent along with us while seeing the orphans during the day.  Okay.  Not bad.  This might not involve the suffering I thought we would have to endure.  We would be living like Americans and not so much like most of Haiti. Except for the tarantulas–those were the size of small plates.  We weren’t sure how they sneaked into our rooms on occasion. I became the designated tarantula-ridder.


Haitian tarantula

(more on Haiti and mission work to come)…

health care

A Life Time of Serving

Argyle, WI

During my high school years, I kept busy by bagging groceries at the local Rossing’s Fine Foods. My boss was a grumpy old fellow of few words who was as fiscally tight as the bark on a tree. I was paid a whopping $2.90 per hour (less than the minimum wage of $3.25/hr then) to bag groceries, stock shelves, and listen to the endless wit and banter of our 80-something year-old cashier, Hazel.  She knew every soul in town and the surrounding area, never missing an opportunity to subject a stranger to 20 questions if she did not recognize them.  Ruth was another cashier, a pleasant, portly woman who talked ad nauseum about her husband and children.  At least Hazel’s monologue was interesting.  The accountant for the grocer was a woman named Russie, a vibrant, passionate woman who also helped run a 90-head dairy farm nearby.  It was at Rossing’s where I came to know Russie and would later be asked to help out on the dairy farm, doing chores, cleaning calf pens, assisting with milking, taking pickup loads to the on-site dump, and mowing hay in the summer.  Many hours were passed pitching forkfuls of matted calf scours and straw into a manure spreader while listening to the Doors, the Rolling Stones, Kansas and other bands of that era.  Paint it, paint it, paint it black! One day my older brother and I were riding back into town with Russie, listening to the radio, when I started unwittingly bellowing “I want you to want me, I need you to need me.” My brother was embarrassed for me, he would later mention. During our junior year of high school, I asked Russie’s daughter Amy (also from the class of 1985) to homecoming court when our class elected me to the role of Duke.

Duke Erik and Duchess Amy

Amy, the duchess, would many years later be know as “The Noah Whisperer” by my wife when Amy was able to get our oldest son interested in school in a way that no one else had been able to get through to him.

The Noah Whisperer

The Noah Whisperer: Amy & Noah (right)

     Had someone told me the day I graduated high school that I would spend my entire adult life in health care, serving others, I just would not have believed it.  On the spectrum from Selfish to Selfless, I was busy high-fiving Selfish while preening in the mirror with my free hand. After a seasonal stint at UPS as a sorter/preloader in Dodgeville, WI, I beat out 35 other guys for a $3.50/hr job as a psychiatric aide at the Garden Court Group Home in rural Lancaster, WI.  I was a criminal justice major at the UW-Platteville, with an eye on joining the FBI upon graduation.  After a year of A’s and B’s at Platteville, I became restless about being on the right path for me.  A chance meeting with my second cousin Rosann during her mother’s funeral in Argyle, WI, had me head out to Phoenix in April of 1987 to explore ASU and find a job.  After a month of floundering and becoming more homesick, I returned to WI for the summer.  My official move to Phoenix came in August of 1987, just as my next younger brother was graduating from Marine Corps boot camp.


     Cousin Rosann suggested nursing as my new major since ASU’s criminal justice program seemed poorly developed.  I wrinkled my nose at that prospect since I was heterosexual, but Rosann reassured me that the notion was part of an old stereotype.  How else would I turn a four-year degree into a paycheck to afford graduate school?  I can be won over with logic, so I looked into the BSN program and my path was set. My first semester at ASU was spent being homesick and distracting myself with endless games of pool.  Did you know it is possible to get a 1.0 GPA and remain in college? After another bump in the road by the name of Marie Eicher, a Nurse Rachett type of an instructor who was all about squelching the dreams of young people, I was soon petitioning the Standards Committee for additional semesters in adult ICU, pediatric ICU, and Neonatal ICU.  I finished with the last four semesters on the Dean’s List and graduated with Sigma Theta Tau honors (the international nursing honor society) and the ropes over my shoulders to prove it.


     After sixteen years in intensive care nursing, I dabbled in the float pool caring for medical-surgical patients and came to know I really wanted to be in the emergency room, where all the action is.  Through the years, I had volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House in Phoenix, Special Olympics in Missouri, and for the church elderly.  One day in April, 2013 an opportunity came up to go to Haiti with a medical mission with a group called Schools4Haiti, started by an older gentleman named Len Demert from Cassville, WI.  Len had recently passed, but his daughters eagerly took up his cause in Haiti.  I found his daughter Penny easy to like and she and her sisters had been to Haiti enough to know how to navigate the country safely while still meeting the needs of the children in the orphanages.

Schools4Haiti Schools4Haiti

     I suppose we all have our biases and mine tend toward lazy people and smoking, but hating someone for their skin color has always seemed simply stupid to me. I was called “ghost,” “whitey,” and “Casper” when I was young, to which I would reply “I am Norse–I’m supposed to be this color!”  Obviously, if I had any hang-ups about skin color, I would not immerse myself in Haiti.  Before I ever traveled to New York City for the first time, the best piece of advice I got was “just get used to streams and streams of people on the street–no matter what time of day it is.”  This advice also came to mind when I landed at Port au Prince. My brother, an ER doc, came along on the trip and we saw hundreds of orphans and members of the community on four separate days at four different locations. Some treated our arrival like a social event, eager to put on their Sunday best to meet the American team of nurses and doctors.

Haiti missionaries

Haitian missionaries @ New Life International, Mirebalais

me (far left) & brother Adam (far right)

The pastor of my church is fond of saying that the only things you take with you to heaven is those which you have given away.  While I absolutely love foreign travel for it’s ability to expand my horizons, in one hundred years absolutely no one will know that Haiti was my 19th country I have visited since pulling away from my provincial roots. If my kin remember one thing about me a century from now, I hope it is that I was of a giving heart, always eager to help those who need it most.