Typically, Irish Everywhere Respond to Haitian Crisis

Ed Forry

The story of how one Boston Irish business leader stepped up to help in the wake of the terrible earthquake in Haiti typifies the great sense of empathy, compassion and benevolence that is part of the culture of Irish Americans and the Irish around the world.

Here's the story of Kevin Leary, CEO of Valet Parking of New England, (VPNE,) in his own words:

"Our company has 47 employees from Haiti - friendly, talented, and hard working employees. Sadly, many have lost members of their family in the horrific earthquake. The day following the disaster, we told our managers that we would pay for any of these employees to travel to Haiti.

"Some have scheduled flights and some are going to wait awhile before they make the trip. Three days after the earthquake we sent a letter to each of our Haitian employees outlining our concern for them and their families. We told them that we will be giving all of them bereavement benefits whether they qualify or not and encouraged them to take time off with pay, if they believed it would be helpful. All have continued to work and work diligently.

"We have told our Haitian employees that we will be making a meaningful contribution to the relief effort in their names. We have decided that we will give Partners in Health (through Brigham and Women's Hospital [BWH]) a $25,000 donation to support their extraordinary work. Although we have donated over 10 percent of our company's earnings for each of the last 12 years, this $25,000 gift is by far the largest single donation we have made. I have instructed our CFO to get the check to BWH this week.

"I am a huge fan of Dr. Paul Farmer, Jim Yong Kim and Partners in Health. I request that all the funds be used for the direct benefit of suffering Haitians."

Reaction from Boston Was Huge and Swift - The outpouring of assistance from Greater Boston was huge in the early days after the disaster struck. At Mass General Hospital, Dr. Larry Ronan was mobilized along with a group of doctors, nurses, and technicians, part of a first-response team that was deployed to Haiti within the first 72 hours. For his part, Dr. Ronan left on Fri., Jan. 15, for Baltimore where he joined the staff of the hospital ship USNS Comfort. (See related story in this section.) At Caritas Christi Health network, a 20-person medical team headed to Haiti aboard corporate aircraft donated by John Fish of Suffolk Construction. They joined hundreds of other first responders from Greater Boston in working on the ground with earthquake victims.

There was a similar outpouring of aid workers from charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) based in Ireland. Three of the most active Irish agencies working over the years are GOAL, Concern Worldwide, and Haven. On Sat., Jan. 16, the BIR spoke with Project Haven's official Hugh Brennan in Jamaica, who was making ready to deploy the next day with aid workers from the other two Irish agencies. Brennan arrived in the Haitian capital Port au Prince with Haven founder Leslie Buckley and another member of Haven's emergency response team, Paddy Maguinness.

On that first day, according to a Haven internet posting, Buckley said "Walking around downtown Port-au-Prince at 5 this morning was unbelievably eerie. Buildings, which I have seen and visited before, have been reduced to rubble, barely a couple of feet in height. We know that there are bodies buried underneath there - and it is heartbreaking. I think it is also very important to say that all the Haven team are safe and well and are not feeling threatened. I have seen no looting, or rioting or violence since I got here. The important thing now is to ensure that the appropriate aid - food, water and temporary shelter items - gets to the people who need it most to prevent any breakdown in law and order by people desperate to feed their families."

Later that week, Brennan said, "The towns immediately outside Port-au-Prince like Carrefour, which is largely a slum area and home to some 410,000, and Leogane have been extremely badly damaged and are also in need of assistance.

"Thankfully, towns farther to the west like Miragoane and Petite Riverre des Nippes, where Haven has a house upgrade project, have escaped almost unharmed from the earthquake. We are delighted to report that the Haven project there and, more importantly, our contractors and beneficiaries are unharmed."

Haven has committed to building 5,000 homes in Haiti. Buckley, a Cork native, said, "Haven was working here on the ground in Haiti before the massive earthquake hit last week and we are determined to not just continue with our important work of providing shelter but scale up our house building program here, once the immediate emergency following the earthquake subsides.

"Haven will construct up to 10,000 houses in the rebuilding of Haiti. With more than 1.5 million people estimated to be now homeless, the people of Haiti will need our assistance in providing permanent shelter more than ever."

The agency said it will seek to recruit 250 volunteers to spend a week in Haiti in April to begin rebuilding the homes. Calling the drive "Build It Week in Haiti," the agency said: "On the 25th of April 2010, we will travel to Haiti to build homes, community facilities, and hope for some of the poorest people in the western hemisphere. We will hold a second Build It Week at the end of October this year.

Haven "Build It Week"- Leslie and Carmel Buckley founded Haven in late 2008. Leslie is a successful businessman and co-founder of the Digicel mobile phone company. His business interests brought him to Haiti for the first time in 2004 and he was horrified by the level of poverty on this island in the Caribbean. He decided to do something to help and set up Haven with an initial donation of one million euros.

Haven is building homes and communities in Haiti in two ways: It is training, up-skilling, and employing local Haitian people to build the homes all year round.

In this way, Haven is creating jobs in a country where unemployment stands at more than 50 percent and opportunities are few. Secondly, Haven is bringing large groups of volunteers to Haiti for an intensive Build it Week.

Haven's first project is in Ouanaminthe (pronounced wan-a-menth) in the northeast department of Haiti. It is a border town close to the Dominican Republic. There are approximately 50,000 people living in the town and another 50,000 on the outskirts. It is mainly rural and under-developed. The UN estimates that 94 percent of the people there are living below the official poverty line and unemployment is rife. Haven will build 200 new homes and upgrade 250 more in the first year of operations. Most beneficiaries live in makeshift mud huts, often with thatched roofs. They have no running water and most have no toilet facilities. The average income in Ouanaminthe is 523 gourdes, which is just over 9 euros. Those who are working are mainly involved in agriculture or informal trading.

In order to take part in Build It Week and help those less fortunate than ourselves, each volunteer is required to raise a minimum of 4,000 euros. Approximately 2,000 of this covers flights, accommodation, food and water for the duration of Build it Week. The remainder of the funds raised will go toward building materials for the houses that you will build during Build it Week."

Volunteers will live on site in basic accommodations, and will take part in all activities that go into the running of the camp as well as the construction of the new homes.

With help, Haven will build 300 houses across Haiti this year.