Haiti: Little Paul gets it done!!!!! By René Bruemmer
Paul Waggoner (Little Paul) directs workers building a shower at the Orphelinat Bon Samaritan, a parched place half an hour outside of Port-au-Prince, where two green army tents with 14 beds serve as home for 75 orphans.
Photograph by: MMRC Global file photo
Port-au-Prince – Little Paul’s fledgling career as an international aid worker was flourishing until he got arrested for allegedly kidnapping a 15-month-old baby and selling his organs to a witch doctor.
He’d done time before, but this wasn’t some cushy Massachusetts military prison. This was the Pénitencier national of Haiti, home to 2,000 desperate residents in the middle of Port-au-Prince in December 2010. The inmates, apparently unswayed by his good Samaritanism, set upon him “before the cell door had even closed,” one going for his left pocket, one going for his right, the other swinging for his head. Bodies were being dragged out almost daily in the midst of a cholera outbreak, and LP had a bad case of diarrhea, a full bucket for a toilet and guards more inclined to tell the one they called “baby-killer” he was a dead man than accompany him to the restroom.
In Haitian prisons, inmates can decay for years before they even see a judge.
LP would get out in 18 days with the aid of numerous supporters in the United States and Haiti, Montreal’s Nanci Murdock and tens of thousands of dollars in “legal fees.” He went back to the U.S. till the legal issues were sorted out, but returned to Haiti as soon as he could last April to continue his volunteer relief work.
Which begs the question: Why? Why give up a successful contracting business working on million-dollar homes owned by people named Kennedy and Schwarzenegger to help Haitians for a year for no money, get thrown in prison on false charges, and still return? There are thousands of volunteers in Haiti, but most come for a week or two to do something that feels like it matters, then go home. Relief workers who stay longer tend to be paid or devoutly religious, living in the well-guarded compounds of their large aid organizations.
Little Paul and his partner, Big Paul, were living outside the safety net in chaotic Port-au-Prince for almost a year, sleeping in tents, driving through the darkened city, moving infectious cholera patients, saving lives.
Growing up poor in a variety of trailer parks in Florida, Little Paul remembers driving around the state during hurricane seasons, stopping to help out when he’d see “some old man trying to pick up the wall of his house.” He couldn’t get away from work to help out when Hurricane Katrina hit, but the economy was slower in January 2010. So when the earthquake happened, “it was a no-brainer,” he said. He planned to stay for five weeks.
Paul Waggoner (Little Paul), 32, a general contractor working in the wealthy enclaves of Hyannis and Nantucket, Mass., and Paul Sebring (Big Paul), 34, a fashion photographer from Tempe, Ariz., and former paramedic, contacted the Red Cross and other aid organizations to volunteer after the quake hit. Both were told: “You can give us money, but if you come to Haiti, you’d just be a burden.” The snub rankled then. It still rankles now. They made their own way to the battered country 10 days after the earthquake via the Dominican Republic. They met in Port-au-Prince, volunteering at a hospital.
Big Paul found out the Red Cross was in a sense correct – there were more nurses, doctors and paramedics than fleas on a dog. But he noticed two glaring deficiencies in the mayhem of the relief effort – medical equipment and medicine coming in by the planeload was piled in mounds in fields and warehouses. And while there were dozens of aid organizations, most were too busy, territorial, or bound by bureaucracy to share resources. At the Haiti Community Hospital, the Pauls corralled dozens of volunteers to build shelves and organize 20,000 kilograms of meds and medical supplies. The time needed for finding meds and equipment went from 30 minutes to one. The Pauls had become useful fleas.
They became known as the guys to call if you needed anything – blood, oxygen, IV tubes, morphine, a patient transfer in their pickup in the middle of the night, an orthopedic surgeon. Unhampered by bureaucracy, they were the guys “that got shit done,” an attribute that resonated with many who wondered just what those massive aid organizations were doing with all that money they donated.
There is a frustration in the international community and Haiti at the slow pace of reconstruction and aid distribution, at the fact that 18 months after the earthquake, nearly half of the 1.5 million initially rendered homeless are still living in tent camps.
Part of the problem is the sheer enormity of the devastation in a country that couldn’t meet its needs at the best of times. The other is the fact that of $4.58 billion pledged by 55 donors in March 2010 to be used for rebuilding the country in 2010 and 2011, only 38 per cent of that money had been disbursed as of June, the World Bank reported.
That they worked well together was surprising. Big Paul: nearly 300 pounds, brash and outgoing, head shaved into a mini-mohawk, more focused on emergency medical services. Little Paul: low-key and wiry, intense and camera shy, taught by experience to be leery of cops and journalists. He preferred keeping his head down and getting the work done, had a soft spot for kids, wanted to work with orphanages.
Still, it worked. They started the non-profit MMRC Global (Materials Management Relief Corps). An article in Men’s Journal magazine describing them as “Extreme Humanitarians” brought fame and donations. Garden Fresh Gourmet CEO Jack Aronson adopted them as one of his main charities and gave thousands, putting an end to their money problems. Nanci Murdock of Montreal, a former business development analyst, volunteered hundreds of hours to improve their website and raise donations.
They were an ambulance service, driving like Haitians, which is to say, too fast and too close to other Haitians. Nurses and volunteers would call to find out where they could be of help, and stay at their compound.
Most importantly to Little Paul, they took on dozens of young Haitian volunteers till they settled on about 10 who were serious about working and learning. They found them places to live, put them in school. They became family.
They were doing something that felt like it mattered.
“We were amazingly effective,” Little Paul said. “I was never a burden on anyone. Until December.”
One month after Little Paul arrived in Haiti, 15-month-old Kevans Philistin was brought to the Haiti Community Hospital on Feb. 23, feverish and suffering from malnutrition and dehydration. He died overnight. Little Paul, who was volunteering at the hospital, brought the father to see his dead child. The father waited several minutes for Kevans to start breathing. A U.S. doctor re-confirmed the death, but the father was unconvinced. There was, LP said, something not right about the father.
In March, the father would bring charges against Little Paul, saying he had kidnapped his child. He would later claim LP turned his son into a zombie, to be used as a slave servant, as his voodoo priest suggested. He would also charge that LP killed the boy so his organs could be sold to a witch doctor. LP thought the potential for extortion might be at play.
Little Paul fled to the U.S., but returned in eight days, told by his Haitian lawyer the matter had been resolved. Ten months later, the father spotted him in a restaurant, and Little Paul was imprisoned. The radio stations broadcast a press conference by a Haitian police commissioner telling the populace: “We found the baby killer.”
“That,” said Murdock, “is when we knew we were in trouble.”
It was a bad time. Prisoners set upon him right away. Little Paul fought back, and met someone he knew inside, a respected boxer, who helped. He was moved out of the general population and into a cell with four other inmates.
It came out that Little Paul had a record in the U.S. for assault and battery for striking an employee with an axe in 2007, and served 109 days when his bail was refused. (He received an 18-month suspended sentence and two years probation after pleading guilty to assault). Little Paul said the man was a registered sex offender who threatened his girlfriend, and he struck him in self-defence.
“I took it further than it should have gone,” LP admits. “I should have been punished. But I’m not Hannibal Lecter.”
Little Paul’s friends stood by him. A Free Little Paul Facebook page gathered 1,000 members and helped raise $20,000 for his defence. He received hundreds of messages a day, printed out and delivered to him in jail. A local police officer, moved by the Pauls’ work for his people, visited daily to make sure he was safe.
Friends, Haitians and non-Haitian, brought him food in prison, which he shared with his cellmates “and the schizo guy screaming himself to death out in the hallway.” Friends smuggled in a cellphone and an iPod, hidden in the food.
“But no hacksaw,” LP joked.
Big Paul and Murdock worked tirelessly to get LP out. It took more than $40,000 in “legal fees” to free him, much of it given by Aronson, the CEO of Garden Fresh Gourmet. They suspect most of the money was spent coercing authorities to let him out sooner. All charges were dropped, but there was a possibility they could be reinstated within three months, so LP went to the U.S. As soon as he could, he returned.
“It was two corrupt cops who convinced a judge to charge me with these bogus crimes,” Little Paul said. “I can’t blame the whole country for that.”
It was too much for Big Paul, however. Burnt out and disheartened, he went to Ecuador to work with children deformed by cleaved palates. That mission dried up a few months ago for lack of funds. On his MMRC Global blog, Big Paul said he is returning to do photography work in the U.S., then find somewhere else in the world that needs help.
It’s dinnertime at LP’s two-bedroom house in Port-au-Prince on a sultry evening in mid-June. After nine-months of helping out via the Internet, Murdock is there to see Haiti first-hand. She’s accompanying LP and nurses to orphanages, doing a lot of “holding babies and crying.”
Laura Brown, a 33-year-old critical care nurse from Seattle, is one of three American nurses staying with LP that week. She’s been to Haiti eight times since the earthquake, coming for anywhere from a week to two-and-a-half months at a time. Her husband Rodney is with her, on his third visit. “It’s the only way I get to see my wife,” he jokes. Brown often works with U.S. aid organization Medishare, but likes to volunteer with MMRC because they work outside of Port-au-Prince, and because “LP gets the most done with the least amount of money.”
She and Rodney have taken on education costs for 14-year-old Ely, a bright, hardworking kid who asked Little Paul to put him in an orphanage because his mother can’t care for him. (“You’ve seen what a lot of the orphanages here are like,” Rodney said. “They’re not nice places.”) They found him better housing, and pay so he can go to school. It’s not a lot, Rodney said. They’ve spent $1,500 on his education since October. There’s also two more American nurses and one pharmacist, PJ Pitts. She’s lived and worked in Haiti for a year.
Five of LP’s Haitian workers – Junior, Nelson, Eddie, Ely and Billy, who used to live on Pie IX Blvd. in Montreal, also join us for dinner. (At the end of her two weeks in Haiti, Murdock decides to sponsor the education costs for Nelson, 21, and Eddie, 15.)
Wilson, 20, another part-time volunteer who visited LP in prison despite the risk, and was briefly incarcerated himself for his loyalty, is absent that night. He would die a month later, stepping backward to avoid a moto-taxi in Port-au-Prince and falling into an open manhole cover.
LP and the nurses swap war stories about cleaning “cholera” out of the truck (a euphemism for the feces of cholera patients), hauling corpses who have turned to soup, and emergency drives in the middle of the night.
It is slightly insane, but it’s better, they say, than dealing with patients back home who complain about a lack of cable channels on the hospital TV, or have surgery because they’re overweight from eating too much. When they leave after their week or two stint, they hand over their remaining money to LP. It’s the volunteers who seem to be keeping MMRC afloat these days, as donations have shrunk.
Driving through the dark streets of Port-au-Prince at 11 p.m., I ask LP how he feels about BP leaving. He pauses for a few seconds, thinks about the answer, a rarity for LP, an enthusiastic storyteller.
He’s okay with it, he tells me. They were going different ways, and LP always had a longer-term vision than Big Paul. Others tell me there was always friction, which got worse once BP left and there’s a disagreement over who gets to keep the organization’s name. BP ends up with MMRC Global, LP takes MMRC Haiti.
LP never mentions any of this.
At midnight, LP gets an emergency transfer call for a pregnant woman in distress. He picks her up and drives her to four hospitals in less than an hour before he can find one that will take her. She is fine. The hospitals never pay LP for these ambulance service trips. But they never turn him away when he brings in one of his orphans.
It’s 34C in the sun and we’re standing on the packed earth of the Orphelinat Bon Samaritan, a miserable place half an hour outside of Port-au-Prince. Two green army tents with 14 beds serve as home for 75 orphans. Only the girls get the tents – the boys sleep outdoors. Little Paul and his crew are planning to build a concrete shower so the kids can keep clean. They run to us as we arrive, clamouring for hugs, nothing else. One 4-year-old boy is in a dirty shirt with the words “Daddy’s Little Hero.” The nurses examine the kids, and start medical charts for them. Murdock goes out to buy 75 mangoes. U.S. religious backed aid groups provide the orphanage with food and water.
“Getting supplies isn’t difficult,” said Morgan Wienberg, a waif-thin 18-year-old from the Yukon who has been living there for almost eight months. “Making sure those supplies go to the children can be difficult.”
A little while later, an adult worker at the orphanage will make off with most of the mangoes.
Little Paul tries to conscript local kids to help with the building to make them take ownership, but enthusiasm fizzles quickly, so LP’s Haitian workers take over most of the shovelling. The sand truck he has booked doesn’t show up.
I ask Paul again. Why? Why do this? He pauses.
Growing up poor in Tallahassee, Fla., LP lived in trailer parks and projects, slept in cars sometimes, running the heater to stay warm. His father died when he was 13, and his mother hooked up with “some loser-ass crack addict who abused her.” When he was 19, his mother died of an aneurysm. His little sister was growing up through “the same garbage” he had, so he took over raising her.
If he had stayed in Tallahassee, he’d be like many of his friends, he says – in prison for life, or worse. His cousin was shot to death over a “penny-ante $6.35 robbery.”
He went back recently. Nothing’s changed.
“I made it through that. I was able to do it.
“It wasn’t as bad as this,” he says, gesturing to the nothingness around us. “But it was pretty bad. If I could do it, so can these kids.
“There’s a purpose for me here.”
People ask when he is going to come home, settle down, have kids.
“I’ve got about 1,000,” he says, an easy smile breaking out. “I’m good with that. I’m straight with that.”
On LP’s left shoulder is a tattoo of the back side of a Haitian tap-tap bus, decorated with the symbol of Haiti called Neg Mawon, a runaway slave blowing a concha shell to rally his comrades to freedom. The licence plate reads PNH 12126, LP’s prison ID number.
The tattoo on his right shoulder shows the front of the tap-tap. It’s being driven by a zombie baby.