Penguins players' trip to Haiti 'life-changing'


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Getting to Cap-Haitien, Haiti, was the easy part. Esmark donated a private jet for a group with Penguins and Pittsburgh ties.

Then reality hit.

"Nothing prepares you for what you witness," Penguins center Joe Vitale said Friday, a day after their three-day mission trip.

"Traveling from the airport, we were in the back of a truck. We were very quiet. The filth, kids running around, sewage, the trash in the ocean ..."

"You've seen pictures, but when you're smelling it, seeing it, that's when it's real," said Michelle Cooke, wife of Penguins winger Matt Cooke.

Then another abrupt shift, when the group arrived at EBAC, an orphanage run for decades by Western Pennsylvania natives Alice Wise and Kathy Gouker.

"All that matters to those little kids is that they hold your hand and get affection that they don't really get from adults," Matt Cooke said.

The visiting group also included former Penguins center Jordan Staal and his wife, Heather; trip organizer Brad Henderson, Penguins and Pirates chaplain and president of Pittsburgh Kids Foundation; Ian Rosenberger, CEO of Pittsburgh-based Thread Corp.; and Gabby Cooke, 19.

With the heat and humidity of a Caribbean island and sporadic power and running water, it wasn't a trip that would seem to appeal to all women.

"It's not about perfect makeup and perfect hair," Matt Cooke said.

"We went because we want to help, be hands-on," Michelle Cooke said.

Besides, Vitale said, it would be difficult to complain about anything after visiting those children and playing sports with them, thanks to donated soccer equipment from Wilson and donated street hockey gear and T-shirts -- many of them Jordan Staal No. 11s, which became available after he was traded to Carolina in June -- from the Penguins, Reebok and the Pirates' Neil Walker.

"I'd call what we played dirt hockey because it was on fields with rocks the size of your fist and shards of glass, and they're running around barefoot, laughing," said Vitale, whose wife, Brianna, stayed home because she is expecting their second child, a son.

"Kids were getting bonked in the head, rocks flying everywhere. Their overall toughness was incredible."

At times, heartbreaking.

Vitale asked one boy about his family. The boy said he once had a sister.

"What happened?" he asked.

"She died," the boy said.

"How?"

"I don't know."

Vitale was shaken.

"Death down there is an everyday occurrence," he said. "Pain, they tolerate it so well -- which was really kind of hard for me to hear."

Vitale has plans to start a charitable foundation to help the Haitians. Cooke's family has a foundation and wants to do the same.

The visitors also spent time at a newer, smaller orphanage that was finished in part because of money raised through charitable work done by former Penguins winger Max Talbot, who, along with former Penguins winger Mike Rupp, made a trip with Henderson two years ago.

Staal was supposed to make the trip in 2010 but a foot infection nixed that. Henderson said Staal quietly has raised money to help feed Haitian orphans for four years.

"For all these guys, I think they see it as a life-changing trip," Henderson said. "Unless you've really experienced that kind of poverty and seen it firsthand, you really can't comprehend it. It leaves a lasting impression."

The visitors hope to help raise funds to add another floor to the newer orphanage, which is home to babies and very young children, two of whom had a story that touched Matt Cooke.

"They were brought in because they were so far gone that they thought they were going to pass, and they thought it would be better if it happened in someone's arms," he said. "But they made it."

The group also helped at Cap-Haitien's first recycling center, which opened a week ago and is expected to benefit the area in a number of ways. The center was created by Pittsburgh Kids Foundation, Thread and Executives Without Borders.

The city, roughly the size of Pittsburgh, has no refuse collection or management, so the center gets recyclables off the street. The plant provides much-needed jobs. And anyone can collect and redeem items -- it takes about 25 bottles to fetch one Haitian dollar.

Until a processing plant can be added, Rosenberger and Thread will ship the recycled material to Pittsburgh, use it to make fabric and eventually return goods made of that fabric to Haiti.

"It's going to be a huge success," Matt Cooke said.

penguins

For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: shanderson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1721. Twitter: @pgshelly. First Published August 18, 2012 4:00 AM


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