For most of one day last week, UK Coach John Calipari put away his basketball cap, and immersed himself in what the Haitian people are enduring. After his "Hoops for Haiti" effort last January raised over a million dollars, he wanted to see if the donations were helping. Our exclusive trip with him last Wednesday was eye opening and rewarding.
Our first part of the day began at the New Life Orphanage where Coach Calipari, friend Royce Pulliam, and Director of UK Basketball Operations, Martin Newton, washed the feet of children, and fitted them with new, athletic shoes provided by a non-profit called Samaritan's Feet. As the coach left the children, they surrounded him. They probably had no idea he's one of the biggest names in college basketball. They didn't want an autograph...all they were pleading for was a sucker.
Our group climbed into two SUV's provided by the American Red Cross. Coach Calipari wanted to see downtown Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, before ending up at a camp on a mountainside. This city, built for 200,000...had two-million squeezed in here when the massive earthquake struck last January.
Julie Sell of the Red Cross says, "the estimates are probably a minimum of 1.5-million people were left homeless by the earthquake." Sell was our guide through the city. She went on to say, "over 200,000 dead...so what's happened is these temporary camps have sprung up pretty much on every spare patch of open space."
As our SUV moves through congested traffic, we see trash everywhere. Tents and makeshift shelters are jammed next to each other. Malnutrition is a huge problem here, and sanitary conditions are deplorable. Most of the water has to be brought in from other countries.
Coach Cal sees long lines of people, and says "what's amazing, you see everybody in line for water...that's mostly what you are seeing."
The earthquake only made a bad crime situation...even worse.
Sell says, "with the earthquake, a lot of the prisons collapsed, so you have escaped convicts all over." We never see a police officer, or any military, just a small group from the U-N.
"Wow, oh my gosh," says Coach Cal. Coach, who regularly attends Catholic Mass back home, is stunned by what's left of the National Cathedral, and the government's palace. Both are in ruins. He says, "that's incredible, looks like the roof caved in on the rest of the building."
Children surround us, tugging at our elbows, and begging for food. Coach Cal laments, "I feel bad for these people. Like Sam said, we get to leave, and you know what the worst part of it is, you see these young children. Is there a hope for a future?"
Our group finally makes its way to a mountainside overlooking a camp, but the road is too muddy to go any farther. A Red Cross worker assures Coach Calipari the city has come a long way since January. Matt Marek says, "I know it's hard to imagine...that it looked a heck of a lot worse, but it did. It looked much worse. You had 250,000 people that died. We had bodies lining the streets."
He has a simple message for the people of Kentucky. "thank you, for sure, the generosity is one of the things that touched me, and all may staff members."
Coach Cal admits, "there's so much to do here, it's scary." I asked him if he's glad he came to Haiti. "absolutely, the kids at the orphanage and the school...if we were in this environment, could we feel hope?"
After seeing the smiles of orphans sporting new shoes, I think Coach Calipari and his group did leave them with hope that other people care about what happens to them.