News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 17, 2010

Mark Bennett: ‘Don’t ever forget, there’s no place like America’

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The view of Earth through the window of a spacecraft had to be profound for the Apollo astronauts.

Somewhere on that multicolored sphere was home. Somewhere, ocean waves rolled. People drove cars, worked, loved, laughed, fought, suffered, prayed, gave birth and died. Elephants roamed. Criminals stole things. Planes landed. Forests sat silent.

But from space, the planet just looked deep blue and green, with swirls of white icing.

It’s easy to forget to appreciate what we have in our corner of the world, especially in a tough economy. This month, as America celebrated its independence, I received a couple reminders seen by folks from a different view.

On a family vacation to the Bahamas, we stood outside a church undergoing remodeling. As rain began to fall, the construction manager stopped for a moment to talk with us — obviously curious American tourists. He was a Bahamaian native, but spent 20 years working in the United States.

“In America, anyone can become successful. You can go there with nothing, and become rich. That doesn’t guarantee you will, but you have opportunity,” he said, wiping sweat and raindrops from his face. “If you want to come here and be wealthy, you better bring your money.

“Don’t ever forget,” he added, with emphasis in his Caribbean accent, “there’s no place like America.”

Our family left for our vacation on Fourth of July eve. That day, Ron Keegan — a Prairieton resident, like us — returned home after spending three months in Haiti, clearing rubble and rebuilding structures following January’s devastating earthquake. A heavy equipment operator by trade and a member of Maryland Community Church, Ron saw things few of us could imagine.

He worked for Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian disaster relief agency. His primary logistical mission was to build a compound to serve as a base of operations for the organization’s medical, water and sanitation, food distribution and shelter programs. He was based in L’Acul (pronounced “la-cool”), which is about 30 miles from the capital city, Port-au-Prince, but just 10 miles from the epicenter of the Jan. 12 quake.

Six months after a catastrophe that killed 230,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless, there’s a sense of urgency to get things done.

Meanwhile, while relief workers try to rebuild a nation’s future, the Haitian people alongside them must still work, love, laugh, fight, suffer and pray.

One day, as Ron scooped, moved and piled jagged chunks of concrete and twisted iron from collapsed buildings, two little girls began climbing on a nearby rubble pile. Ron quickly figured out these kids, about 3 and 8 years of age, weren’t playing.

“They were climbing through this razor sharp concrete on bare feet, picking out little pieces of wood, while I was sitting in an air-conditioned excavator, eating pretzels,” he said.

Ron parked the excavator momentarily, and gave the kids his pretzels. Smiling, they ate a few. Then, they carefully rolled up the bag to take the rest home to their family. They also carried the splinters of wood. Their primary logistical mission was to gather firewood for their family. With their hands full, they headed back home, which was at least a half-mile away, Ron estimated.

“That’ll mess with you,” he said of the scene.

Help is steadily arriving for the people of that impoverished island nation. Forty nations pledged to contribute $5.27 billion during the next two years, including more than $2 billion from the United States, according to a Christian Science Monitor report. The Haitian government says it will take nearly $12 billion to rebuild.

Living conditions are starkly different from most of America. That was true even before the quake. The Haitian people are frustrated by their government’s cumbersome rules for relief groups, Ron explained. Crucial equipment and vehicles might sit unused for months, waiting to clear customs inspections, he said.

The disaster multiplied existing problems. “It’s kind of a being-kicked-when-you’re-down situation,” Ron said. “But, they’re a very loving people.”

He saw happiness and resilience, amazingly, among the Haitians hired to help Samaritan’s Purse and average residents.

That joy might be hard to notice, if you’re not looking from the right perspective.

When Ron first arrived in Haiti last March, he stepped off a plane at the airport in Port-au-Prince alone, unable to read the French and Creole signs. Finally, a Samaritan’s Purse representative found him. The two men, and another SP newcomer, piled into a van bound for their destinations. They drove through the chaotic capital city, where people were yelling. Small fires burned outside shanties consisting of four poles and a tarp. Buildings lay in ruin. Accumulations of garbage were “worse than most landfills you’ve visited,” Ron said.

As they rode past these images, Ron felt as if he’d landed on another planet.

“I’m in shock, fully discouraged, and though I didn’t say it, I’m thinking, ‘Man, what have I gotten into?’” he recalled.

Bewildered, he averted his eyes, and looked instead toward the sky. That’s when he saw a kite, made from trash, and traced the string back to a kid playing amid the chaos.

“I saw it rise above this horrible destruction, and it gave me hope,” Ron said. “That’s kind of been a symbol of the Haitian people for me. They took some trash and made something beautiful of it.”

In America, we often say some things are as simple as flying a kite.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or