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Commentary: From collecting shoes to saving lives

Three and a half years ago, disaster struck Haiti. A 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit near Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010. More than 200,000 lives were lost. Almost 2 million people were left homeless, countless children were orphaned, buildings crumbled and a country was crippled.

Shortly after the quake, I held a shoe drive at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, where I had worked as a nurse, and with the generosity of staff, I collected just under 3,000 pairs in less than two months. The shoe drive came to an end, but individuals continued to approach me wishing to contribute, and before long, I encouraged our local Costa Mesa Fire Department, Davis Magnet School and individuals within the community to jump onboard. The 3,000 pairs quickly grew to 14,000.

The response from the community has been incredible.

Eight months after the quake, I traveled to Port-au-Prince with an organization called Soles4Souls to distribute the shoes to adults and children in need. I soon came to understand the significance of these items that we were delivering


. Shoes not only protected the Haitians’ feet from rubble and disease but also enabled children to attend school, get an education and help bring their families out of poverty.

Traveling to Third World countries wasn’t new to me. I have seen poverty, homelessness and starvation, but nothing quite prepared me for the disaster-stricken areas of Haiti, where people were devoid of hope, dying of disease and starvation, and simply trying to survive. I left Port-au-Prince knowing that my work was unfinished.

This summer, on Aug., I returned to Haiti with my 9-year-old son, Dylan Edgerly, and we spent a week at Maison des Enfants de Dieu orphanage in Port-au-Prince, home to more than 100 children, most of whom who had been abandoned since the earthquake in 2010.

It was an opportunity for us to learn, question, understand and enjoy the culture and the people. It dawned on me that knowledge would be most valuable gift to the Haitian people at this time.


I knew that somewhere in all of this, there would be a message of greater understanding as to why we would serve in Haiti. It started to make sense after learning that there is no 911 emergency equivalent in Port-au-Prince, no medically trained staff to assist during an emergency and no ambulance service.

The citizens are largely ultimately the ones responsible for a medical outcome. Transporting an ill child or adult is a challenge: Flag down someone who has a vehicle or ride a “tap-tap,” a Haitian form of public transportation.

When every second counts during an emergency, this relative primitiveness may be hard for many of us to even imagine. And that’s not all. Haiti has one doctor for every 10,000 individuals.

Teaching the staff at the orphanage how to check pulses, use an automated external defibrillator (AED) and perform CPR, the Heimlich maneuver and first aid gave them an incredible sense of self-worth. Learning basic, yet crucial, life-saving skills prepared them for an emergency.

The children at the orphanage were all so eager to learn. It was quite remarkable. Children are natural learners, born wanting to know about the world, and have a well-developed sense of fairness and empathy. They very much want to help someone who is injured or sick.

Showing them that they are not too young to help allows them to think about their role in the community, and when they are older, they will be more willing to assist someone because of the exposure they received when they were young.

The children jumped right in, wanting to learn CPR, and shortly after, they were teaching others what they had learned, paying it forward. Rescue Heart Foundation, a nonprofit that I serve as chief executive, donated an AED to Maison des Enfants de Dieu Orphanage, which is now equipped to save a life in the event of sudden cardiac arrest.

Our work remains unfinished. Next year, we will return to do a refresher CPR and AED training course. A gift that keeps on giving.


ANGELA HOWELL lives in Costa Mesa.