Footsteps of My Father
Footsteps of my father: NWH reporter takes personal journey to Haiti
Author(s): CHELSEA McDOUGALL - firstname.lastname@example.org Date: June 23, 2012 Section: MobileTwo sentences elicited a response from my father, Doug McDougall, as he lay on a hospital bed. My family had gathered, each waiting for a turn to say our private goodbyes. No one was quite ready to let him go.
Doctors and nurses said he could hear us, but he offered no verbal response.
It was hard to believe that three weeks earlier he was in Haiti. Three weeks before he died he complained of stomach problems that led to gallbladder removal surgery. Two weeks before he died they found cancer that spread like wildfire.
When it was my turn, I sat tearfully on the edge of his bed, and grabbed his hand. Of all things I rattled off, of everything I wanted him to know before he left, two sentiments garnered a reaction.
His eyebrows raised when I said the following sentences:
“I’ll take care of Mom.”
“I’ll go to Haiti.”
Haiti was a special place for my father. He started making twice yearly trips to the impoverished island in 2002. Its people captured his heart the day he set foot on Haitian soil. His heart strings were tugged by Haitian smiles – of which I later learned there are plenty to go around. He was inspired by Haitians’ faith, which like his own, he held closely.
After his death, in the mountain village of Despinasse, the Haitian flags flew at half staff, and Masses were said in his honor. The whole mountain grieved for him.
This was supposed to be the year that Dad and I visited Haiti together.
But our lives changed when he passed away on May 25, 2011, and my first visit to Haiti was one I’d make without him.
My father started the McHenry-based nonprofit organization, Catholic Assistance Missions with my mother, Melissa McDougall. CAM began in 2006 and today operates a school in Despinasse, builds houses for villagers and runs a donkey project, among its many endeavors.
CAM doesn’t have deep pockets, but its supporters are eager, huge hearts who also were called to help the poor in Haiti. CAM supporters come from nearly every corner of McHenry County and beyond.
More than a year after his death, Mom and I traveled to Haiti and bonded along the way. She, too, has been making trips to Haiti for a decade and speaks Creole so well that some villagers called her “half Haitian.”
While Dad didn’t make my trip in the physical sense, it was in his footsteps I walked – taking the same path he would travel, eating at the same table he would dine, talking with the Haitian friends he’d made, and seeing how he’d affected their lives. His presence was felt.
From a distance, Haiti is a beautiful island, with clouds so low you can almost touch them, and mountains beyond mountains, speckled with a patchwork of gardens and dotted with trees.
But up close it’s a different story. Up close, political corruption pushes its residents into grinding poverty. Up close, garbage collects in the roadways. Up close, many Haitians live in tents held together with sticks and rocks. Up close, babies are sick and dying. Up close, Haitians are hungry.
Consistently ranked one of the world’s poorest nations, many Haitians were hungry before the 2010 earthquake, and they’re still hungry today.
Among the stories I heard during my week in Haiti, the most touching were those in which I learned about a side of my father I never knew. About the wisdom he shared with his Haitian friends. About the lives he’d transformed. About the joy he had living in solidarity with the poor.
The most harrowing tales were those of the country’s orphans. UNICEF estimated there were about 380,000 orphans in Haiti before the magnitude-7.0 earthquake added to those numbers – a sizable portion of Haiti’s 9.8 million people.
I heard of mothers who made a mud concoction to feed their crying children and soothe their empty bellies. These babies often developed worms and became very ill, their mothers left to worry about what happened to their babies. All because they don’t have enough to eat.
We stayed in the mountain village Despinasse. There, CAM’s school is attended by more than 200 students. For many of these children, the meal at the school is the only food they consume all day. We saw their education in action when CAM students confidently approached us and in perfect English said, “Hello. What is your name?”
The drinking water in Despinasse comes from a spring on the far side of the mountain. Women and children often have the burden of carrying large buckets of water, balanced delicately atop their heads, through the mountain terrain. Some children were so young their tiny arms couldn’t reach the top of the five-gallon bucket steadied on their heads.
CAM’s donkey program affords children the opportunity to go to go school rather than carry heavy buckets of water. The donkeys do that instead.
CAM’s country coordinator, Loll Jean Philippe, opened his doors to us for the week. Loll and my dad grew to be friends since Dad asked Loll to head CAM’s business in Haiti.
It takes about 2 1/2 hours to get to rural Despinasse from Haiti’s urban capital, Port-au-Prince, mainly because of terrible infrastructure. Driving often required daredevil maneuvers to avoid car-size potholes or to pass without hitting one of the many pedestrians, motorcycles or other drivers.
Bouncing our way up the winding road, a bright rainbow appeared between the clouds and mountains. To me, it was a little hello from my father, welcoming me to his home away from home.
While in Haiti, we happily painted a house purchased by a friend and CAM supporter.
The CAM house went to Mr. and Mrs. Loumen, an elderly couple whose son and grandson painted along side us. Mrs. Loumen’s excitement was palpable. She danced and sang in Creole as we worked. The couple moved from a tiny shack pieced together with corrugated tin into the sturdy comfort of the CAM house. A house built by Haitian hands.
To the women of Despinasse, we distributed baby and children’s clothing, stuffed animals, toothbrushes and various toys. We tried to fit the children the best we could, but I suspect many of the clothes may not fit properly.
Despite hunger, Haitians opened their doors to us and offered to share their food. Despite fatigue, they carried heavy loads from the spring so their families had enough water. Despite a language barrier, Haitians wanted to communicate with us. Despite a country riddled with illiteracy, they were curious. Despite the sadness that surrounds them, these Haitians always wore a smile. Despite the poverty, they were rich in faith.
I now understand the love affair my dad had with this country and its people.
A year before my father’s death, Loll visited McHenry for CAM’s annual fundraiser. Loll uttered something that neither of us knew would be quite so prophetic.
He said: “Chelsea, men like your father, men who do great things for others, they never die. His legacy will live on forever. The work he does for the people of Haiti will never be forgotten.”
• Chelsea and her mother, Melissa McDougall were in Haiti from May 31 to June 7