updated 01/04/2012 AT 11:00 AM ET
•originally published 01/04/2012 AT 1:00 PM ET
After the 20 minute drive from the airport, we drop off our bags at Fr. Rick’s permanent home. He sleeps in a small, spare room on the 41-acre compound where the finest pediatric hospital in Haiti stands along with the Academy for Peace and Justice (the country’s first free high school), and other extensive health, trade and educational programs.
There’s even a bakery that makes pasta and bread, feeding thousands of children in St. Luke schools throughout Port Au Prince.
In mere minutes, we pile back into the truck and drive to a cathedral in ruins where 40 families dwell, homeless, to drop off rice.
They line up against the street curb and patiently wait their turn. Fathers holding babies and mothers smiling at us – momentarily relieved from uncertainty. Their children scramble around the shell of the cathedral, playing in the ruins where they live. It’s a ghostly sight that I can’t shake.
We’re heading into the Red Zone, Cite Soleil, with a population between 200,000 and 300,000. A former gang member, Ash, helps give us safe passage. Fr. Rick jumps on a motorcycle taxi and zigzags ahead through Port Au Prince.
Make no mistake; this man is tough as they come. He’s fearless, hardcore and known to “show teeth” when needed. Rick earned respect from the most hardened gangsters in the area: the “Chimere,” who lay down their guns to allow his Haitian St. Luke team to bring in clean water, feed malnourished children and give medical treatment in street clinics.
The sight of the endless rows of rusted, corrugated tin shacks embedded in mud, rivers of open sewage and trash, much of it washed in from the mountains during violent hurricanes, unsettles me in its heartbreak. Rick is instantly mobbed, surrounded by locals – and he speaks to each one of them, smiling, listening and looking them intently in the eye.
Packs of children, some almost naked, leap out at us, lively and starved for new stimuli from the outside world.
Strangely, in all of this mud and debris, the girls wear hair ribbons. Mudcat bends down and carries two little ones in his arms. … Several others grab at me with tremendous affection and openness, laugh at most anything, and talk endlessly. “Mama, Mama,” they call me as if trying to make this true.
We’re standing in the middle of rubble, refuse and stench where there’s no running water or electricity, let alone conventional toilets. The kids take Bookstaver and me by the hand and lead us around. They’re curious about my long hair – a few start stroking it and because their warmth is so powerful, I’m moved beyond measure. It strikes me, as always, that they’re giving me so much more than I can ever give them.
Helping Locals Realize Their Own Vision
A tall Haitian man strides over to us, followed by six or seven of his friends. This is Badu and his contruction crew. Fr. Rick and St. Luke’s have been working closely with them, funding and enabling their talent and enormous will to build dignified homes in the most blighted and difficult area of the Western hemisphere.
Badu and his team grew up like the rest of the children in Cite Soleil, but they were given a chance. Fr. Rick, who believes firmly in helping locals realize their own vision and talks about what he calls “the starting point,” later reminds us: “They’re not looking to be lifted out of this mud. They want to take themselves out of it.”
I look at the children and the men and women around us: they radiate, ebullient and persevering.
Fr. Rick, Ash and Badu’s crew tell jokes and break out into a rousing Creole song, clapping their hands, laughing, while enjoying this profound accomplishment. They celebrate, a recognition that they’ve transcended the circumstances they were born into – their “Starting Point.”
They’re altering their Cite Soleil. And they carry their own light, making us feel that all things are possible.
Check back this week for Stowe’s final installment on her trip to Haiti, exclusively in her own words on PEOPLE.com