On the Ground in Port-au-Prince

The Haitian people whom I have come to know over the last year are a strong, compassionate, resilient bunch who mourn with the same passion they live by.
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This is Part One in a series of blog posts by Maria Bello, who is traveling with Artists For Peace And Justice in Haiti. Read Part Two of the series now.

The acrid smell of death is not the first thing that hits you landing in Port-au-Prince. It is the screams and wails of mourning that are overwhelming. The cries of mothers, fathers, neighbors and friends who have lost so much and so many in the last week. The Haitian people whom I have come to know over the last year are a strong, compassionate, resilient bunch who mourn with the same passion they live by.

Paul Haggis and I landed this morning with a team from the JP Haiti Relief Organization, a private foundation created by Sean Penn and Diana Jenkins to help in the rescue efforts. They have gathered 10 doctors, nurses and surgeons, a water specialist, logistics people and two cargo planes filled with medical supplies, food, tools, thousands of water filters and generators to help existing institutions and set up a clinic that will service those in need. They are generously supplying our group, Artists for Peace and Justice, with medicine we desperately need to get into the hands of our friends at St. Damien's Hospital in Port-au-Prince. For the last 48 hours, operations have been performed without anesthesia, children are dying from dehydration and simple wounds have become so infected that many require amputation.

We have been called here by our dear friend, Father Rick Frechette. A doctor and priest in Haiti for the last 22 years, Rick defines the power of one man's call to action. He and his Haitian colleagues have built and run the only free pediatric hospital in Haiti, the only hospital for disabled children, two orphanages, 20 street schools, free medical clinics in the poorest slums of the city, Cite de Soleil and most recently, New York City, a job training center that includes a bakery and shoe factory. He supplies the only free drinking water to the people of Cite de Soleil and feeds thousands of people a day in and around Port-au-Prince.

Rick was in Connecticut ministering to his dying mother when the earthquake hit last week. He immediately rushed back to his home and to his Haitian family, colleagues, staff and friends to help. When I spoke to him the morning after and asked what he needed from us he said, "If you are moved to do so, put on some work gloves, grab a shovel and help me dig my people out". Unfortunately, we are probably too late to dig out the 50 or so staff and small children that are buried in the rubble. We are not too late, however, to get him his supplies that will save other lives.

The Port-au-Prince I hear and see today is nothing like the vibrant city I visited last year. A group of us from L.A., led by Paul Haggis, created an organization called Artists for Peace and Justice to fund Rick's projects in Haiti and went down to work with him. For days we rode around the streets of Cite de Soleil in open air trucks, greeted by joyous children and smiling adults. I was struck not only by the overwhelming poverty of a country only one hour from our shores but more by the Haitian people themselves who, living in the midst of it all, found a way to celebrate life each day. There is no celebrating today, only the sounds of endless grief.

We are leaving the airport now to try to get to St. Damien's. Sean and Diana are sending their whole team of doctors with us and half of their supplies. Will update as we go along. For now, God Bless the people of Haiti.

To give to Father Rick and the relief efforts, visit artistsforpeaceandjustice.com. All money raised goes right to the staff on the ground.

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