— DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — Harry Hames, a mild-mannered Church of Christ deacon and retired medical equipment company executive, didn't mean to — not really — get involved in Haiti. He certainly never expected that his first trip about a week after the 2010 earthquake that devastated the already impoverished country would become the first in an on-going series of work visits to the country.
"I was semi-retired, and something about the news from Haiti made me wonder if our company couldn't help," said Hames, who works in Haiti both through Healing Hands International, an aid organization headquartered in Nashville, and through his own Harry's Kids. "So I got in touch with Healing Hands International. A week later, I flew to Port au Prince with a planeload of medical equipment."
Hames had pictured flying in with the equipment, delivering it, and returning home with the good feeling of knowing people have been helped. Long active in mission and service project from his home church, Beltline Church of Christ, Hames never suspected that trip was the first in a life-changing adventure that now keeps him in Haiti about half of most months.
"There are amazing stories — God stories — that happened that totally changed me as a person," Hames said.
One of the most memorable, and one that led to his enduring friendship with the Haitian President Michel Martelly and his wife, Sophia, began on the tarmac of the airport. The cargo load of hospital beds Hames had brought was stopped with customs and airport bureaucracy. As Hames and a friend were discussing the delay, an elegant woman stepped closer.
"May I join the conversation?" asked the lady - as it turned out, the future Haitian First Lady Sophia Martelly. "You have hospital beds? This Friday, we are opening a hospital this Friday, and we have no beds."
Gift of a child
Hames can tell these and other stories of receiving help just when he needed it with same kind of matter-of-fact voice someone would use to deliver a treasurer's report during a meeting. But there's one that gets him every time he thinks about it.
Hames had been working at one of the Helping Hands stations to hand out food to people who had lined up all day. The food ran out. Hames looked up and saw the face of a man who was just realizing that the food was gone. The man told Hames that he hadn't eaten in three days.
"This won't do," Hames said to himself, and began digging in his backpack for his own snack bars and a can of Vienna sausages. He followed after the man, who was holding a child by the hand, and offered the food that he had.
"The man, without a word, put the hand of the child in mine," Hames said. "I didn't know what he was doing — I thought maybe he wanted me to take his picture or something."
No, the translator told him. Both of the child's parents had been killed in the earthquake. The man was giving Hames the child so that the child would have enough to eat.
"I was still trying to separate myself from the situation, and not get emotional," said Hames, who still has to push at his eyes to keep the tears from leaking out when he tells the story. "But that did it. We found a place for the child."
|Harry Hames of Healing Hands International speaks to the Delmas 28 Church of Christ as Jean T. Elmera translates. (Photo by Erik Tryggestad)|
Since then, Hames, through Healing Hands and through Harry's Kids, his own non-profit that he operates as a mission of his home church, has found a place for hundreds of children.
His work has helped drill 55 wells and build four schools, two hospitals and an orphanage for 300 children. He has also helped to set up a cement block factory with tougher standards for the blocks than many made in Haiti and a sewing shop to make school uniforms. Those shops are providing income for men and women.
Schools and churches in Decatur and the North Alabama area have heard about his mission - Hames has been featured in the Decatur Daily and the Christian Chronicle. Groups and individuals have begun drives to collect funds, shoes, toys and new clothing and books for him to take with him when he goes. Others sign up as a sponsor for a child.
Sidelined since March as he recovers from open heart surgery, Hames can't wait to return to Haiti next week. He loves arriving at the orphanage and schools, he said. The kids pour out to greet him with smiles and hugs.
"My mother taught me — we can always give back, we can always help," Hames said, relating how he'd watch his mother parcel out everything she had — $5 and change — so that Hames and his two brothers each had an offering to take to church before she'd take the remainder to the grocery store.
"In my four years there? I'm getting more than I give," Hames said.