A Heart for Haiti
It is never too late to change the world! During our lives, we cross paths with various individuals. Some linger in our minds, prompting questions that need answers and the need to hear their story tugs at our heartstrings, not allowing us to disengage. I have one of those stories crying out to be told. One that will not let me rest until my mission is complete.
It begins with a question. What moves a legally blind, nearly deaf, 97-year-old man with prostate cancer to travel to Haiti to ease the suffering of the poor? As a foot care nurse in Maine, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. and Mrs. Coleman Gorham from Portland. During my time with them, I learned about their mission work in Haiti. Their kindness and generosity has and still continues to touch the lives of countless people who reside in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. As a believer that everything happens for a reason, I feel that I have been chosen to be their ‘storyteller’.
The story began 18 years ago. After seeing a video about Haiti and its poor conditions, Coleman Gorham, nicknamed Coley, was compelled to fly to this third-world country to see for himself. He visited orphanages, schools, churches, medical clinics, and the slums of Cite Soleil. He has a vivid memory of being on a school ground where several young children behind a chain-linked fence stood staring at him with their fingers through the wires that separated them from the school. “And I knew what they were thinking”, Coley said with sadness in his voice. “They were thinking… why can’t I go to that school?” This was the very moment when he knew that his mission work in Haiti had just begun. “I could not turn my back on those people”, he stated.
As a past educator and a successful building contractor, Coley had the desire, the know-how, and the funds to do multiple projects in Haiti. He began his work there in 1998 and his mission lives on today. His first project began at the St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Port-Au-Prince. With assistance from the Orphanage Manager and a local carpenter, a secured, air-conditioned computer lab with ten computers was designed and completed. He then traveled to Jacmel to complete another orphanage that had been under construction for four years. He also purchased the adjacent lot for the purpose of athletic and recreational activities for the kids. Following the Earthquake in 2010, Coley made major repairs to 108 homes and other structures that were affected by the quake's devastation. All homes received concrete floors to replace the dirt floors along with tin roofs.
Coley moved on to Petite Riviere de Nippes, otherwise known as Ti Riviere. The pastor asked Coley if he would build a church on the outskirts of Ti Riviere, in a town called Charlier. Eventually, the St. Charles Church was designed and constructed. The church sits on a high promontory overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Once the church was built, he added a sacristy, a septic system, and a concrete stairway leading up to the front doors from the main road. Coley really wanted to build homes for the poor, so he purchased a large parcel of land for his project. Thirty-three homes were designed and built with high-quality materials which met the hurricane and earthquake specifications. Water purification kits were also provided for each home. In 2014, the families were given the deeds to their homes. A stone wall is now being constructed in front of the property as a landmark for GORHAM VILLAGE. In 2009-2010 the construction of the St. Patrick Community Center in Ti Riviere was under way.
As former educators, the Gorham’s wanted to build a specialized school where teens and young adults could learn English by utilizing the Rosetta Stone Computer Software Program. The school was uniquely designed, with a solar system for energy and a creative water cistern system for the kitchen and lavatories. As of today, over 40 young adults have completed the English Program at St. Patrick. During our stay at the school in January, I had the pleasure of meeting many of those students. I couldn’t help but notice the love and gratitude that each and every one of them felt for Coley and his wife Anna. Many of the students came by daily to pay him a visit. Coley was always quick to give a short educational lesson. With great respect, they would gather around him, listening intently to the man they refer to as ‘their father’. Anna, now 90 years old, has not traveled to Haiti recently, but continues to be fully supportive of the mission and the students in Ti Riviere. The Gorham’s are in constant communication with the school administrator, Julio Eugene, via email.
When asked how he could give so freely, Coley replied, “I don’t see it as ‘my money’. I am only a designated steward, in charge of distributing funds to the needy.” He recalls a time when he was 8-years-old. His father raffled off a bag of flour at the church bazaar, but after his own name was picked, his father put the flour back into the raffle so that someone else could win it. This surprised young Coley and made a lasting impression on him. Coley said that he’s been in the habit of being thrifty all of his life, a formation of his younger years, when his family were no strangers to hard times. “But” Coley continued, “When it came time to write a check for $25,000, $50,000 or $100,000 for the poor…well, that was easy for me.”
Coley expressed some concern when asked about the future of the school. He had hoped that a Haitian organization would take it over, but after making overtures to two different organizations, he realized that they could not carry out his vision. "If the St. Patrick School is to prosper, it will need a US organization such as a University to take over and install a Peace Corps-type of system; sending motivated college graduates for 2-year tours to teach at the school, especially math and science," he said. Coley would like to see this blueprint replicated in Haiti and throughout the third-world. By utilizing Rosetta Stone, as well as making online courses available such as Kahn Academy, a school like St. Patrick would require fewer teachers.
The Gorhams laughed when asked how their mission had personally affected them. “We have grabbed the tail of a tiger,” stated Coley, “and for fear that it might devour us, we have not dared to let it go.” Although the Gorhams have no regrets, they would like to perpetuate the vision that began many years ago. “We would like our mission, along with other like-missions, to continue to spread throughout Haiti,” he said. Coley would like to tell the world that here in the United States, and other affluent countries, we have no awareness of the hardship and poverty in countries such as Haiti. Without seeing is without knowing; without knowing, one can never fully comprehend the magnitude of poverty and desperation. He truly believes that if more individuals would travel to Haiti and see for themselves, it would have a profound impact on the way they see the world.
When this story is printed Coleman Gorham will be 98 years old and still hanging on to the tiger’s tail AND to the hope for the people of Haiti.
RN Foot Care Nurse