Updated: August 24, 2014 at 8:55 am
The Spirit Airlines red-eye from Denver to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, connects through Miami, one of the richest cities in the world, and two hours later touches down in one of its poorest.
"If you want to help people, there's an opportunity and you don't have to go to Africa or New Guinea," said Chad Traxler, of Colorado Springs. "Haiti is just a short plane flight away."
Traxler was a senior at Indiana's Purdue University in 1996 when he first traveled to Haiti to do volunteer construction work with a Christian aid group. After that two-week stint, he returned to the states, graduated with an engineering degree and accepted a job in Washington, D.C.
In 2005, he was approached about a volunteer gig teaching practical courses to teens at a trade school in Port-au-Prince. The timing was serendipitous.
"I was, around that point, looking for meaning to life," said Traxler, who put in for a sabbatical.
During that year abroad, he met a Haitian French teacher named Fabiola Valery, a child welfare activist and firebrand in the community. "She is the heart of the story and the project and the one that convinced me to get involved," he said.
Traxler returned to Haiti again after a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude quake struck just outside the capital in January 2010, killing an estimated 160,000 people and displacing well over 1 million. No official estimate exists for the number of children orphaned in the disaster, but "they were calling it an epidemic," said Traxler.
By December, 2010, more than 1,000 Haitian orphans had been adopted by U.S. families through the Help Haiti Act, created by President Barack Obama to ease the residency process. For orphans still in Port-au-Prince, conditions were even more chaotic and desperate after the quake, with children housed in overcrowded, makeshift orphanages that had sprung up throughout the city.
Valery - now administrator at a Port-au-Prince hospital with a roughly $600-a-month income that made her middle-class by Haitian standards - had a vision.
"She's the one that stepped out on faith," Traxler said.
In a short 2011 YouTube video about the genesis of the project, Valery said she was moved by news stories of orphans living on the streets after the quake.
"I said yes, I need to do something for them," she said. "The government said the best place here is Plateau Central. When I come here, the prices were very expensive. I begin to pray."
If God wanted her to start an orphanage, could he send a sign?
Change of heart
In the spring of 2010, Traxler accompanied Valery to look for land on which to found an orphanage - a place away from the destruction, corruption and crime of the city that could provide physical and emotional healing for the neediest of the needy.
Traxler fully intended to devote his life to such ventures. In fact, he'd spent the past year working as a private flight instructor at Peak Aviation Center while accruing the necessary flight hours to earn his pilot's license so he could pursue missionary aviation. He saw himself somewhere else, though. Africa, maybe.
"I still loved Haiti, but the year I spent there definitely overwhelmed me. I thought an orphanage was a great idea, but I was still looking for a chance to break the bad news to Fabie that I was going to go elsewhere," he said.
Valery's spirit changed his mind.
"This organization wasn't started by the rich. It was started by someone who, by our standards, has basically nothing, who lives in a cinder block home, but decided as an act of faith to start an orphanage to meet the needs of orphaned children after the earthquake," Traxler said. "When you see someone make a sacrifice like that, it affects you."
As soon as he returned home, Traxler started the process to incorporate the nonprofit Ephraim Orphan Project in the U.S. To fill out the five-member board, he reached out to connections at Purdue, including athletic chaplain Marty Dittmar and Purdue alumnus and gridiron star Kyle Adams, a former NFL player with the Chicago Bears.
"Americans want to help, and my job is to spread the word and align those who have resources and want to give," Traxler said.
Spreading the gospel
Real estate investor Tim Beeson struck up a friendship with Traxler at a Manitou Springs coffee shop.
"He was always working for his orphanage, and I said to him one day, 'I'd really like to go down there sometime,'" Beeson said. A week later, the former software developer and construction worker was on a flight to Haiti to help build bunk beds.
After a few days in Port-au-Prince, Traxler, Beeson and a group of volunteers headed out to The Ephraim orphanage in the Central Plateau region of Haiti, about three hours by bus northeast of the city. The core 4 acres of land on which the 4,000-square-foot orphanage is built was donated in May 2010 by a former public official who learned of Valery's mission through word of mouth. All the donor asked was that Valery employ Haitian workers whenever possible. Construction on the main components of the compound - which includes a farm and all the elements that could support eventual self-sustainability - was finished in June 2013. The $150,000 building project was paid for through donations from the public and from board members.
The lush farming area where the orphanage is located is removed from the chaos and violence of the city. Even so, a razor-wire-topped security wall is in the works after threats were made against the orphanage staff of five - Valery, an assistant director and three nurses - and the 15 children living there.
It is still Haiti, after all. Any oasis is a potential target.
"You get up there on the Central Plateau and it's bucolic and not deforested the way you think of Haiti, and here's this beautiful building that somehow got built on a prayer," said Beeson. "The first impression is, 'Wow, how did you ever get this done?'"
The "why" became clear as soon as the doors opened.
"The main thing about being there is being somebody to hold those kids," Beeson said. "You walk into that place and there's nothing but arms reaching up to be held and lifted. If that doesn't touch your heart, you're made of stone."
Contact Stephanie Earls at 636-0364