In reality, everyone is a fan of something. Even if you don't frequent online message boards to dissect the shocking twist at the end of last week's 'Vampire Diaries,' or dress up like a warrior princess for a weekend in the woods with your buddies, find me a person who doesn't obsess over sports or fashion or cars or another vice of choice.
Being a "fan" is a badge of honor you should wear with pride, something that binds you to a much wider community of equally passionate, equally inspiring people. The abstract concept of "fandom" illustrates that, even in an age where some argue we're more disconnected than ever -- conducting our friendships through the sphere of social networking and the magic of electronic devices -- we're still part of something larger than ourselves.
Occasionally, that community of like-minded geniuses can band together to change the world, or at least change a life or two, as was the case with Random Acts' "Hope to Haiti" trip.
On June 20th, I was fortunate enough to embark upon the journey of a lifetime, masterminded by the staff of a charitable organization called Random Acts. The charity was co-founded by actor Misha Collins, who decided to harness the power of his 'Supernatural'fanbase to help make the world a better place, "one random act of kindness at a time."
The trip would take two dozen volunteers to the southern town of Jacmel, Haiti, to aid in the construction of a multipurpose community center and orphanage, designed to feed, educate and house some of Haiti's most impoverished and disadvantaged children. The construction efforts would utilize a portion of over $169,000 in donated funds raised entirely by the participants and other supportive 'Supernatural' fans in the three months prior to the trip.
I'm loath to simply call the 22 women who took a week out of their lives to travel to a disaster-stricken, developing nation "fans," although their appreciation for the CW series 'Supernatural' is arguably the common thread that brought them together. To label them so simplistically is to diminish their courage, their passion and their tenacity. For some, the trip to Haiti was the first time they'd ventured out of their home state, let alone their country.
Their ages ranged from late teens to their forties; their nationalities spanned the globe, from Russia to Britain, Germany to South Africa, America to Sweden; their professions encompassed students, doctors, writers and costume designers, some with volunteer experience, others starting fresh. None knew exactly what they were embarking on, what the conditions would be like once they reached Jacmel, nor how they would respond to working with children, yet everyone approached the adventure with an open mind.
Some knew rudimentary French, others downloaded iPhone apps to teach them Haitian Creole, others had to rely on the broken English of the locals. Though there were frayed tempers and occasional frustrations thanks to the hundred degree heat, each participant did their part and pushed themselves to their physical and mental limits (and in some cases, past them) to get the job done, an example well set by the determined Winchester brothers on 'Supernatural.'
"Part of the reason that I wanted to start Random Acts is because I saw, in the 'Supernatural' fan community, so much creative energy that goes into being a fan," Collins explained towards the end of our trip. "And if people can channel some of that energy into doing things like this, then we can make, I think, maybe a little bit more of a positive, profound impact on the world."
Collins and his fans had been involved in Haiti's disaster relief effort from the outset, after the actor tweeted a link for his followers to make donations to UNICEF, and they proceeded to raise over $30,000 in the space of two days.
"That got me thinking that we could maybe do things on an ongoing basis and expand our efforts," Collins mused, "And so Lisa Walker [with a background in grant writing and program development] and I started Random Acts."
Following the creation of the charity (which is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit with tax-exempt status), two of Collins' friends, Philip Schneider and Lisa Rueff, went to Haiti to help provide materials and transportation to students to start a construction school, founded and financed by Jacmel-based NGO ACDI VOCA. The trip was funded by a portion of the $84,000 in donations that Collins raised by running 52 miles in one day, and the construction school's first class trained 40 teenagers and young adults, both male and female, who had been orphaned in the earthquake.
"They brought 1,600 tools down [in their suitcases] because ACDI VOCA was having difficulty purchasing the materials in Port Au Prince, and the port was clogged up with months of delays. They furnished an entire graduating class with the tools that they need to have a career, and were instrumental in helping to start the school, as well as starting work on a nearby dental clinic," Collins recalled.
During the course of that trip, Schneider and Rueff met Bonite Affriany, a native of Haiti who had spent 40 years living and working as a nurse in New York, before the plight of the Haitian people drove her back to her birthplace in 2001.
"Even for most of the time that I was in the US, I always had in my heart to feed some less fortunate kids, hungry kids who would go to school and come back home and have nothing waiting for them," Affriany admitted. "I always had the desire to help some of them. Not with mypresence, I didn't think, but having somebody helping to do it, for them to have a hot meal at least once a day."
After becoming a born-again Christian in 1997, the urge to return to help Haiti's poorest became too insistent to ignore, and four years later, Affriany and her daughter made the journey back to Jacmel to search for a house that could serve as a base for her feeding program. The properties all proved too small for their purposes, so they purchased a plot of land and began building the school and church that now provides hot lunches for 275 impoverished, homeless or orphaned children every day -- a school that has been in operation since 2004, but has seen its numbers swell since the 2010 earthquake.
Affriany's generous spirit proved to be the linchpin Random Acts didn't know they were looking for, and her vision for a self-sustaining children's center gave the organization a tangible goal to work towards.
Affriany will serve as manager of the orphanage and community center, which is being built on a plot of land purchased adjacent to her school. The 275 children she feeds often walk for hours for one hot meal, but Affriany admitted that it pains her to have to send them back to the streets and their tents at the end of the day.
"I still have in my heart to have more, but we really don't have seats for them," she lamented when we sat down to discuss her vision for the community center. "When the 275 are there together, they are squeezing next to each other, their shoulders together, and they cannot budge really. People used to bring me babies, young children and I never had a place for them. And of course there are many people who don't have a place to live and if I could shelter a few, that would be nice. Right now some of the people in the tents, when it rains, they get wet. They get sick, and it's very, very miserable, the way they are living."
In addition to the children's center (which will allow her to house some of the orphans she has had to turn away), Affriany hopes to raise funds to begin building a small community of two-family homes and apartments, in order to help house those who are still displaced following the earthquake.
"Most people in Haiti, if you visit them, they don't have a bed," she pointed out. "Housing is the biggest problem for Haiti now. It's not that they are my responsibility, 100 percent, and they're not the responsibility of people in America or people who donate, but at least they would have a place to sleep. Even if they sleep the way they are sleeping now [on cots] but have a solid place to sleep, that would help."
It's easy to forget that even before the earthquake devastated the region, Haiti was considered by many to be "the poorest country in the Western hemisphere," ranked 145th of 168 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index. Poor sanitation, nutrition and infrastructure were further undermined by the quake, and though the Haitians are a proud and resilient people, many lack access to even the most basic comforts, such as clean drinking water, working plumbing and, for the 634,000 people still living in tent cities for lack of anywhere else to go, no solid roof over their heads.
To say that Haiti was a culture shock to our group was an understatement. Although we were fortunate enough to stay in a clean, secure hotel with working showers and safely prepared food, the threat of cholera and malaria hung heavy in our minds. We grew accustomed to brushing our teeth with bottled water and using hand sanitizer even after washing our hands. The smell of insect repellent became a constant, pungent companion, and in some cases, even SPF 50 lotion wasn't enough to diffuse the sun's rays.
Yet we only needed to look at the Haitian workers on the community center construction site to put things into perspective. We were given the task of transporting an intimidating pile of rocks from one end of the plot to the other in order to even out the ground so that it could be built upon (since the project's excavator was broken down), while the Haitian workers continued construction on the foundations and walls that had already been erected.
The eight men worked tirelessly in the blistering heat, either barefoot or in ill-fitting sandals, hauling cement and shoveling while we (sensibly) took water breaks every 15 minutes and retreated to the safety of the shade to stave off heat-stroke. Even when the men were taking their allotted rest, it was clear that they were eager to stop wasting time, and that they couldn't quite understand why we were so slow. The most poignant moment during the work effort came when the Random Acts staff returned from town with brand new work boots for the crew, allowing them to protect their feet while traversing the hazardous construction site. It was truly humbling to witness their gratitude at a simple convenience that Western construction workers take for granted every day.
In addition to helping build the community center, the volunteers had an opportunity to meet Marlaine and Daniel Alix at the Faith and Love Orphanage, where construction on the aforementioned dental clinic was taking place. The couple currently houses 72 orphans, and our group took part in toy distribution, painting, cement mixing and shoveling to make ourselves useful to both the children and the workers during the building process.
Perhaps the most affecting part of the trip was the time spent with the students of The Art Creation Foundation for Children, run by Georges Metellus. The children who study at the ACFC (from age six through to their late teens) had never attended school before being enrolled, nor did they have access to regular meals. Many of the children who study there are orphans and street children, while the few who are fortunate enough to have families still live in situations of extreme poverty. In spite of this, they are some of the most loving, generous and talented young men and women one could ever hope to meet.
From the moment the Random Acts team arrived, the children fearlessly descended on us, enthusiastically tugging us to a large table where they were sculpting clay birds to paper-maché. We were strangers, but they treated us like family, communicating with us in surprisingly practiced English that put our tentative French to shame.
Over the course of the week, as with all of the organizations we were funding, we visited the art foundation three or four times, venturing down to the beach to admire a stunning mosaic that the children had created, and watching a play that some of the older students put on for us and family members. We grew to know and love the children, each one so passionate and full of life despite the hardships they'd suffered.
A young boy called Tony took it upon himself to befriend me and a fellow volunteer named Becky, and throughout the week he would constantly come to find us, leading us through the art center to proudly show off the amazing paintings he'd made, and critiquing our clay birds with a craftsman's eye. By the middle of the week, he was calling us his sisters. On our last day with the ACFC children, while visiting the mosaic on the beach, we were having trouble understanding a question that he didn't know the English for, so he led us over to his teacher to explain for him.
"He asks when you will come back," the man translated, and I promptly burst into tears, having to admit to Tony that I didn't know when we'd return. His resigned smile and the lack of judgment in his eyes only made matters worse. I wondered if we had made half the impact on his life in the space of a week that he had made on ours.
"I love you," he told us without hesitation, hugging us both as if we were the ones in need of comfort, when he was the one who would be staying in a country where simply drinking the water could kill him. "You're my sisters."
It costs $150 to sponsor a Haitian child's education for a year, $300 if they attend a private school. Last week, I spent as much on one pair of shoes as it would cost to educate one of Bonite Affriany's children for 365 days.
When you think about how much the average American spends on Starbucks, McDonalds or impulse buying over the course of a year, it becomes hard to stomach the reality of the situation in Haiti, when $20 might as well be $100. I'm in no position to lecture or assign guilt, and as Affriany pointed out, it's not our responsibility to solve the rest of the world's problems. But if we intend to give, we should give sensibly, judiciously and directly to those in need, instead of to large, global aid agencies who may use our donations to fund (equally worthy but unrelated) initiatives in other regions, or who may be delayed in providing the money because of red tape or regulations in their own country.
According to the Office of the Special Envoy to Haiti, donors pledged over $5.6 billion for recovery efforts in 2010 and 2011, while individuals and private companies gave at least an additional $3.10 billion in private donations to non-governmental organizations responding to the disaster. Of that money, approximately $1.69 billion in relief aid and $2.12 billion in recovery aid has been disbursed, leaving approximately $4.89 billion still to be paid.
As Affriany soberly pointed out when showing us the construction site for the first time, "What has been done? So much money was given -- where did that money go? Do nothing, or do something substantial."
"One of the most important things is having an infrastructure with people who are here whom we know we can trust and work with, because you can't just show up with a suitcase full of cash and expect to get anything done," Collins observed. "And there are a lot of people who do 'development work' who are basically just spreading a certain cultural and economic system and trying to replicate it in other places, and a lot of times it doesn't work. It doesn't apply in the same way, and in the first place, is that really something that you want to be sharing with the rest of the world?"
The actor recalled his very first trip to Haiti, 17 years ago, when he was imbued with the confidence of youth and believed that he instinctively knew how to fix the country's problems. "I stayed with a priest the first time I was here and I was saying, 'you really need some economic development here. The infrastructure is terrible.' And he said, 'No, I think we need to go back to an agrarian economy and give everybody back the land.' And I, at the time, was 20 years old and I thought that he was insane, and we got into this huge fight. And then I went home and I had thought about that conversation over the course of the next several years and now I think I have completely come around to his perspective on it. Like, no, we really don't want to replicate a WalMart on every corner around the world. And it's something that's spreading like a virus around the world, and I don't know if it's stoppable, but it's certainly not something that I want to perpetuate."
Undoubtedly the hardest part of visiting Haiti was coming back. Many of the volunteers admitted that, almost a month later, they're still struggling with fitting back in to their former routines.
"I had a surprisingly difficult time returning to normal life," admitted Julie Yip. "When I see price tags on things, I convert them to what it would mean for a Haitian. I took my mom to get new glasses and was looking at frames, plastic frames, that were over $200. That could send a Haitian child to school for a year, with money left over. It's a lot harder to complain about small potholes in the roads when there are plenty of places in Haiti that don't have any pavement on their roads. Being able to just get a drink of water out of the tap is something that I've always taken for granted, but it's not something that the Haitians have."
"The trip demonstrated to me beyond doubt that we are capable of feats far beyond what we expect to be able to achieve, especially when we work together for a common goal," Cathy Hay observed. "It gave me a profound sense of connection to the human race and to the world we live in by connecting me with people and places with whom I might never otherwise have crossed paths. And it leaves me with questions to ponder for some time to come ... why do I feel so nostalgic for a place with such huge challenges and such a low standard of living, and what does that imply about the goals that we associate with happiness in the West?"
Nicole Edison shared, "It will definitely make me take a closer look at my priorities and how I spend money. I've never been particularly extravagant, but now I'm rethinking even the little things, because I know how far that money could go towards helping people in Haiti. I will be continuing to donate to the orphanages and organizations we worked with, and be encouraging my friends and family to do the same."
Of her experience with the children, Sarah Parsons (who stumbled across the fundraiser by chance on YouTube and was only an occasional 'Supernatural' watcher before the trip) revealed, "I was a little upset [to see the kids] at first. I wanted to pick them up, stick them in my bag and bring them home with me. But honestly, these kids are so happy, they love doing what they do and being where they are. This is not punishment to them. They are hard working and strive to be the best people they can. They are beautiful and deep without trying. It is almost as though they have been conditioned for stronger, more genuine personalities then we have here in the Western world."
Even Collins was struck by the way the Haitian people conduct themselves in comparison with the behavior of those in the West, though he arrived later in the week than the rest of the volunteers.
"These kids, and frankly the adults as well ... the people who live here have so little, yet they seem, from my vantage point, to be happier and better adjusted than most of the people I know back in Los Angeles," he said. "You can't really shake that. And to go home and start worrying about mortgage payments and all of these little material minutiae in our lives that make us act crazy ... the things that we think are so important, they're just so not important. It's a cautionary tale, when doing things like this. Frankly, I don't want to do anything to bring American culture or an American mindset to Haiti."
Though he doesn't want to bring American cultureto Haiti, Collins is more than willing to bring a few more Americans (and anyone else that cares to join him) back to the country in the near future, to continue funding and supporting initiatives that will allow Haitians to stabilize their economy and forge their own path towards a more hopeful future. If you feel inclined to participate, or to donate to one of the orphanages or centers we visited, follow the links below.
Follow Laura on Twitter: @LauinLA