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Lessons learned in Haiti

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By Robin Bass

J.D. Fleming has a servant’s heart.

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When he is not working as an airplane mechanic for UPS, the part-time Spencer County paramedic is usually off on a mission trip. Over the years he has traveled to poverty-stricken areas of Jamaica and twice to the orphanages of Romania. Closer to home, Fleming volunteers weekly at Operation Care Mercy Medical Clinic in Shelbyville. During the 2009 ice storm, he gave countless hours caring for local residents at the emergency shelter.

When he was asked last month to join a group of men and bring safe drinking water to the people of Haiti, Fleming did not hesitate and put in his request for vacation time.

After paying $500 out of his own pocket for some necessary training, Fleming and fellow team members representing Edge Outreach took off for Port-au-Prince, Haiti. They arrived Feb. 6, just three weeks after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake killed more than 200,000 people.

“As we arrived, you could feel a change. Like an oppression,” said Fleming.

He found the devastation of nearly 95 percent of the buildings horrific. Most people were too scared to return to the shelter of the unstable structures and created tent cities made of sheets, cardboard and scrap metal. Fleming said that residents in the congested city were so frightened of buildings collapsing in the aftershocks that many placed their tents along highway medians and any other open spaces they could find.

“But we had to focus on why we were there,” said Fleming. “We were there to treat water.”

With a handful of salt, a 12-volt battery and one ingenious invention, Fleming and the team could help Haitians treat hundreds of gallons of water. Then they would train residents of a village or orphanage how to operate the device.

“I think we were able to do a lot of good because we empowered people,” said Fleming.

Sometimes it was difficult to focus on his primary task. Especially when he saw how the catastrophe impacted children. At the orphanage, Fleming said children would “have that 1000-yard stare.” Most stay up all night in fear of aftershocks or the gun rapport in the distance.

“We would occasionally hear the gun fire, but the after shocks were the scariest thing. There would be this sound like a sonic boom or a cannon and then the earth would shake you,” said Fleming.

Screams always followed the aftershocks. By daylight the children and adults alike were exhausted and confused.

Some of his team members had trouble decompressing at the end of a long day amid the devastation. Fleming said that as a former Marine he has learned how to remain focused on a mission. Being a paramedic has taught him how to deal with death.

Still, Fleming teared when he recalled the state of one 10-year-old girl. She was showing the signs of being HIV positive, was malnourished and suffering from dysentery. The child’s aunt asked the men if there was anything they could do for the girl.

“We laid hands on her and prayed. That was all we could do,” said Fleming.

One of the more positive aspects he witnessed was a revival in faith among the Haitians. In a country where Catholicism and voodoo coexist, Fleming said he saw masses of people attending outdoor church services and getting baptized in streams.

Fleming’s experiences in Haiti  brought his own path closer to God.

“I felt like God was drawing me there,” said Fleming. “I came away with the sense that we’re all fragile. No matter where we live.”

His hopes are to return to the country and continue serving the people of Haiti – if Edge Outreach calls again.

“The reason I do this is because I can. If you are given talents and you don’t use them, then you waste them,” said Fleming.

With the impending  rains and hurricane season, Fleming said more Haitians will likely die. There will be mudslides and deaths from exposure to the elements. Once moisture reaches all the buried bodies, Fleming said they will begin to decompose and likely pollute water sources, bringing another wave of dysentery.

“It’s not over,” said Fleming. He encouraged donations to the Salvation Army, an organization that closely works with Edge Outreach. “If you give one dollar to the Salvation Army, not one cent is wasted.”