In post-earthquake Haiti, work to feed, educate (J. Hallett 2011)

Written by Joe Hallett THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH Sunday, AUGUST 7, 2011

Cleveland Clinic's diagnosis: Some sort of poisoning or virus from rat feces.

That's what drove the. Rev. Tom Hagan last November from the squalor of Port-au-Prince to Doug Campbell's house in Massachusetts and eventually to the clinic to find out why the priest was so deathly sick, why it hurt so terribly to move his arms and legs.

"They finally concluded that it was probably caused by rat feces that got into the food and water," said Campbell, executive director of Hands Together, the Springfield, Mass.-based Catholic charity started in 1986 by Father Tom, as the Hai­tians call him.

That's what can happen when you live in a tent for a year, starting a day after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that devastated Haiti.

"I got attached to my little tent," Father Tom said. "It wasn't so bad. The only problem was if you got up too early and it was still dark, then the rats would still be with you."

Father Tom is divinely blinded to fear.

When gangs are acting up in Cite Soleil, a God-forsaken slum of about 400,000 in Port-au-Prince, Father Tom marches in and lets them know he won't tolerate violence against his charity's interests.

"He'll go •up to the head guy" said Campbell, "and say, 'Take your gun out and shoot me. Shoot me if you want to shoot somebody' They're always threatening our workers, and he won't stand for it."

Once teacher and student at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, Father Tom and Doug Campbell now are best friends, both trans­formed by their first visit to Haiti in 1986. They couldn't get the country's unfathomable poverty and raw potential out of their systems. They started Hands Together and in 1996, Father Tom left his comfortable chaplain's post at Princeton Uni­versity and moved to Haiti, devoting his life to a place that seemed gripped by the devil.

In the late '90s, fate crossed Father Tom's path with a U.S. senator and his wife, Mike and Fran DeWine, who also had felt a humanitarian tug to Haiti. Their'friendship result­ed in the Becky DeWine School, named for the DeWines' daughter who had been killed in a 1993 car accident.

Nine days ago, Father Tom, Campbell and the DeWines sat in a Cincinnati hotel lobby, excited about a fundraiser for Hands To­gether. Every year, the DeWines - Mike is now the Ohio attorney gen­eral — raise enough money to pay all the teachers' salaries and provide uniforms for the kids.

From three grades in three rooms at the beginning, the school now includes seven campuses in six neighborhoods of Cite Soleil, pro­viding the only daily meal many of the 5,000 students get.

"We had 7,800 kids, but after the earthquake, many went up into the countryside," said Father Tom. "A lot of the parents were killed and families were broken up. We've had some aftershocks and the people are very terrified and they haven't come back"

Before rebuilding his own resi­dence, Father Tom made sure that the schools were rebuilt, along with Hands Together's facilities for feed­ing thousands of Haitians, caring for the elderly and operating agricultu­ral and jobs programs.

Next year, the Becky DeWine School will hold commencement for its first high-school graduating class. The DeWines plan to be there, al­ready working on funding for schol­arships so the best students can go to college.


Father Tom will be 70 in October. Knowing that thousands of Haitians depend on him and Campbell, the DeWines worry about what will happen after Father Tom gets his Heavenly reward. Hence, the four of them are in a rush to educate and, train Haitians to eventually take over Hands Together and assume the responsibility of rescuing their own country.

There is no predicting how long someone so fearless can continue to stand up to gun-toting gang leaders or avoid the sickening effects of rat feces in such a place.

Meanwhile, Father Tom Hagan treads through the Haitian rubble as a saint

For information about Hands Together, visit www.handstogeth-erorg

Joe Hallett is senior editor at The Dispatch.