Ile a Vache (literally “Cow Island”) is a roughly 8 mile island off the southwest coast of Haiti, only accessible by boat, or helicopter if you’re well-off. Its pirate credentials are solid, having once been a hideout for Captain Morgan (yes, that Captain Morgan), and it’s difficult to get to. It’s home to at least two luxury hotels, plenty of shipwrecks, a few small lodgings, sailboat cruisers, charities, and most importantly, lots of brave people with an enterprising spirit who are just looking for a chance after a ton of bad luck.
In January and February of 2016, the 56-foot cruising yacht Tandemeer spent almost a month dropping off badly needed medical supplies, clothing, sporting goods, toys, water and other items to the people of Ile a Vache and surrounding rural communities in Haiti. It’s been five years since the devastating earthquake hit Haiti, one of the world’s poorest countries, killing 200,000 people. Since the earthquake, more than 700,000 people in Haiti have been affected by cholera, a serious and sometimes fatal bacterial disease spread by contaminated drinking water.
According to CNN, cholera has now infected upward of 700,000 people in Haiti, and has claimed the lives of nearly 10,000. According to the AP, peacekeeping troops from Nepal carried strains of the disease with them, contaminating a large portion of Haiti’s drinking water. In January, a U.S. judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by human rights groups seeking compensation for the victims.
When people donate money to charity organizations, the organizations can buy supplies they need, but the supplies still need to get there. Due to the limited infrastructure in Haiti (which was further damaged by the 2010 earthquake) that’s not always an easy proposition. We forget that not everywhere has FedEX and USPS that can deliver anything, anywhere in a limited time. That’s where small cruisers like Tandemeer, working with International Rescue Group, can come in and help.
Tandemeer was built in 1980 and soon embarked on a career in Hollywood, appearing in the 1983 movie “Trading Places” with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. She soon embarked on a more wide-ranging career as a cruiser, however, visiting ports in the Caribbean and all over the world.
Early this year, the crew of the boat brought a large cargo of supplies to the city of Deschapelles: books for the new library being built there in French and Creole, musical instruments for the band, tennis rackets, balls and strings for the tennis program. The crew played tennis with them each morning, ping pong at night and attended the grand opening dedication ceremony of the new library being built their thanks to philanthropist Jennifer Grant, who grew up in Haiti and now works with the Albert Schweitzer Hospital, which was founded by her mother Gwen Grant Mellon.
Their second stop in Haiti was the small fishing village of Soulette on Ile a Vache, where they unloaded donated sails for local boats, soccer balls and shoes for the organization run by Pastor Raymond Bideaux and his Islander Evangelic Ministries, then onto Ka Kok (Caille Coq) where they unloaded 22 boxes of medical supplies for the Citi Lumiere hospital there, plus shoes, clothes, soccer balls and jugs of water along with more sails.
In the port city of Les Cayes, where you catch the boat to Ile a Vache, the boat unloaded many large boxes bound for Little Footprints, Big Steps (LFBS) brought from Florida and hand delivered to LFBS Director Morgan Weinberg.
LFBS, as the director explained to me, is not an orphanage but rather an organization dedicated to getting kids off the streets, putting them in schools, and reuniting them with their families if possible. The equipment they are using to give these kids extracurricular activities–the kind we take for granted in the U.S.–will really help enrich these kids in ways that it’s hard to imagine.
Thanks to the Haitian tourist board, I was taken by ATV for a tour of Sister Flora’s orphanage on Ile a Vache, where Tandemeer distributed medical supplies and sporting goods. There, I was greeted by three dedicated nuns and the good sister herself, a tiny little person with a big, big heart, who gave me a kiss on the cheek and, through a translator, explained how the corruption of the failed Haitian government has unfortunately screwed over their organization again and again.
Every year politicians arrive, make photo ops, and make promises they don’t keep. Sister Flora has been at this place since the 1970s, dedicating her life to the least, the last, and the lost. The Tandemeer was able to deliver badly needed medical supplies for the disabled children who call the place to home.The knowledge that there are people out there that eat, sleep and breathe charity is truly humbling.
The children were all fascinated by technology and eager to have their pictures taken, and especially to turn the camera around and see how they turned out! One particularly friendly little girl named Beatrice was a real camera hog. Some of the shier kids hung back and having been there myself, I would have loved to get to know them better, but as it turned out, the orphanage had a “no pictures” policy, so I had to shut the operation down.
Conditions here are stark for such a beautiful place, but the French-Canadian nuns never wavered from their work, especially with the constant attention demanded by the special needs children. In the U.S. children with special needs are educated in public schools right alongside typical kids, but we forget that for kids in poorer countries, that option isn’t there–and most of the time, their parents can’t afford to care for them, either. So they end up in places like this. I couldn’t stay here long because of the bleakness, where children are housed in a single room with two overworked caretakers. It did hearten me that most of the wheelchairs, changing tables, and equipment they were using were in good condition, which means that donations were eventually getting there, no matter how sporadic their arrival.
It’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t enjoy this island–whether for sailing, snorkeling, beaches, or cultural tourism. But it’s going to be a challenge. The island is also building an airport to try to attract more tourists.
“The biggest problem is there’s no drinking water,” said Capt. Sequoia Sun. “The government put in some wells and water distribution pipes a few years ago and was supposed to put in water spigots connected to the wells.”
But these were soon made useless when another large hotel on the island actually diverted the water for its own use.
This illustrates the importance of IRG’s work–when boats can deliver supplies to these organizations directly, they can bypass a lot of the red tape, corruption, and monetary costs that it takes to ship supplies.