Three Pittsburgh athletes find friendship and hope among the young survivors of a devastating Haiti earthquake
Penguins team chaplain Brad Henderson, left rear, and players Max Talbot and Mike Rupp visit an orphanage in Cap-Haitien, Haiti.
John, one of the orphans, was a particular favorite. Said Mike Rupp: "He was a character."
Sean Casey holds a baby with AIDs.
Orphans gather at porch of EBAC orphanage with (from left) Max Talbot, Brad Henderson, Sean Casey and Mike Rupp. At right are Alice Wise (left) and Kathy Gouker, missionaries from Dunbar, Fayette County, who have run the orphanage for 32 years.
The Penguins' Max Talbot shares a laugh with one of the children at the orphanage.
Left to right, Max Talbot, Sean Casey, Mike Rupp, Brad Henderson on trip to Haiti.
The Penguins' Mike Rupp hanging out with some of the children at the orphanage.
Work progressing on new orphanage in Cap-Haitien, Haiti.
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Of all the people they met on a three-day mission trip to Haiti, four men with Pittsburgh ties were drawn to John.
He lives on the street, doing what he can to find food, a place to sleep, a soccer game to join.
"He was a character," Penguins forward Mike Rupp said Wednesday.
"Total Mr. Personality," added former Pirates first baseman and Upper St. Clair resident Sean Casey.
John is maybe 6 years old. His parents are dead.
He is surviving, which makes him more fortunate than a lot of children in Haiti, where poverty, AIDS and an oppressive government made for a difficult existence even before a devastating earthquake struck the Caribbean nation in January.
"There are kids starving to death every day," said trip organizer Brad Henderson, chaplain for the Penguins and Pirates and president of Pittsburgh Kids Foundation.
Some of the most fortunate children live at EBAC orphanage, outside of Cap-Hatien, run by Alice Wise and Kathy Gouker of Dunbar, Fayette County. Henderson has joined with several adult former EBAC residents to get a second orphanage built.
"My first real impression was when we pulled into the orphanage and 25 kids came running at you," Penguins forward Max Talbot said. "You're thinking, 'What do they want?' They just want to hug you and get love."
EBAC is bursting at the seams with nearly 100 children. The three athletes, first-timers to Haiti, played soccer, ball hockey and basketball with the children and had their hearts touched.
Talbot, whose Canadian French was fairly compatible with the Haitian Creole, struck up many friendships -- he already had e-mail Tuesday night when he got home to Montreal -- but especially liked Samuel, who is 11, and admired a family they met who has adopted 11 children, including twin infants who are HIV positive.
"They know they don't have much and that the government is corrupt, but they still live their life," Talbot said. "I didn't see one dirty dress. Little girls go to church and do their hair. They take pride in what they've got.
"In three days, I didn't see one kid cry or one kid complain."
They experienced some of the everyday living conditions.
There was the heat that left them constantly dripping, tap water so unhealthy that Rupp wonders if he erred in brushing his teeth with it, spotty electric service that went out one night, leaving the four men to roast without their fans in their cinder-block hut with little ventilation.
Sunday, they ventured to the countryside. For the experience and because the trip was a short interruption for Talbot and Rupp's offseason workouts, they hiked up a mountain to find a picturesque scene of good-spirited people living extremely modestly.
The athletes found out what sturdy people the Haitians are -- "There's an 80-year-old woman passing us with a huge bag on her head," Talbot said -- and how well known Henderson is, even away from the EBAC orphanage.
"A couple kids are coming down, and they're like, 'Hi Pastor Brad!' Others did, too," Casey said. "It would be like Max Talbot walking the streets of Pittsburgh."
Rupp met a man named Nelson and his beautiful wife and two young children. Nelson's father sold the family cow to raise the equivalent of $100 U.S. for this school year so Nelson can study English in Cap-Haitien. Nelson walks 21/2 hours to school, then takes a tap-tap, a local cab service where patrons sit in the back of small pickups, back to the base of the mountain and climbs back home.
They also visited the construction site of the new orphanage. Henderson said since the earthquake, the goal of completing the first floor by January has escalated to finishing the whole project over the winter. They have raised $350,000 of the $500,000 needed.
He has heard there were more than 850,000 orphans in Haiti before the earthquake.
"Now, the number would be staggering," Henderson said. "The urgency went way up, and more people got interested in the project."
Including the three athletes who joined him on this trip after hearing Henderson talk about Haiti and its people's spirit.
"The kids absolutely loved them," Henderson said of the athletes. "Max has the effervescent personality that everybody loves. Sean has that personality, too. And Mike is just a big lovable guy."
Talbot, Casey and Rupp hope to continue to stay involved and help, even with things as simple as providing soccer cleats for the children who now play barefoot, or paying for a school year for Nelson.
They also want to see the new orphanage completed for children such as John, who hangs out at the EBAC orphanage -- which always is open -- but does not live there.
"As soon as we get that orphanage done, I want John to be the first one there," Casey said.
First Published August 26, 2010 12:00 am