Haiti Outreach Program is able to fly solar panels, vaccine refrigerator to Caribbean country in political turmoil
By Hiske Jones
A long-awaited flight landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on June 13, with unusual cargo: solar panels and a refrigerator to store life-saving vaccines.
According to Billy Stair, a longtime volunteer with the Haiti Outreach Program affiliated with the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, the idea to send the panels and refrigerator began more than a decade ago.
“In our initial medical mission to Bouly in 2008, we felt we had to do something to bring health care to an area that had never seen any doctors or nurses before,” Mr. Stair said.
Bouly is a remote village, accessible only by foot through rough mountainous terrain, usually a six-hour hike from Boucan-Carré, the small town that is home to St. Michel, Sacred Heart Cathedral’s sister parish.
On the 2008 mission trip, Mr. Stair, Dr. Dean Mire, who practices family medicine in Knoxville and serves as medical director of the Haiti Outreach Program, and several other volunteers made the grueling hike.
“It was very hot, just like East Tennessee in the middle of summer but with no shade anywhere. It was one of the hardest things our group had ever done,” Mr. Stair said.
Through word of mouth that American doctors were coming, more than 300 people were waiting for them in the hot sun. Surprised by the crowd, the Knoxville group immediately realized the dire need for medical care.
“On our last night in Bouly, sitting on the mud floor of our little hut in complete darkness—there was no electricity—we felt we had to try to do something to bring regular medical care to these people. The scale of the need was immense,” Mr. Stair recalled.
“So many people were severely malnourished and suffering from diseases such as malaria, cholera, and typhoid,” he added.
What followed took years of planning, but in 2013 a medical clinic was finished, complete with four rooms, including two examination rooms, a sleeping room for clinic staff, and one bedroom for guests.
From the outset, the team knew that to make a lasting impact they had to find a way to get vaccines to the clinic, no easy feat in a country like Haiti.
Fatal illnesses the villagers were experiencing are easily preventable through vaccines but they have to be handled carefully and require refrigeration and protection from light. In remote, rural areas where electricity is nonexistent, small solar-powered refrigerators are the only option to store the vaccines.
From the initial planning stages for the building of the clinic, the planning team, including engineers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, designed the building to be wired for solar panels, even though at the time they had no idea how they’d get the panels to Bouly.
Through fundraising, the Haiti Outreach team was able to purchase five solar panels and a small, energy-efficient refrigerator in 2019. Unfortunately, Haiti’s political situation quickly deteriorated, and lawlessness and gang activity made the trip too dangerous.
“Ever since we purchased the panels and refrigerator, we’ve been eager to get them to Bouly. We knew it was the only way to make a lasting dent in the horrific mortality rates, in particular among infants and young children,” Dr. Mire said.
Through a connection Matt Webster, chairman of the Knoxville Haiti Outreach Program, had with Joe Hurston, a pilot and founder of Air Mobile Ministries who had flown over 150 times to Haiti to deliver water purification systems, the plans were becoming a reality.
In early June, the panels and refrigerator were picked up from a basement in Alcoa, driven to Mr. Hurston’s home in Hancock County, then driven to Titusville, Fla., where Mr. Hurston’s plane, a turbocharged Cessna 337 lovingly called “Little Donkey,” was loaded for the flight to Port-au-Prince.
There, Mr. Hurston was met by a missionary from Mission Aviation Fellowship, who continued the journey by plane to Pignon, a small village 60 miles north of the capital and outside of gang control. In Pignon, St. Michel partners Father Michelet Lamare and Julio Geffrard drove the panels and refrigerator first to Boucan-Carré and then to the village of Sivol, and from there they were carried over the mountain to Bouly.
“We’re thrilled everything arrived safely! It is a testament of God’s will and people’s determination,” Mr. Webster said. “The panels and refrigerator are being installed now, and Dr. Olgenn Octave [the Haiti clinic’s doctor] is hopeful to procure vaccines quickly with the help of the Haitian government or through fundraising.”
To learn more about the Knoxville Haiti Outreach Program, and to donate, visit https://haitioutreachprogram.org.