Simon O’Dell is a community conscious businessman, being involved in a variety of local clubs and organisations. He also does his bit for charity and has recently returned from a humanitarian trip to Haiti with his good friend Michael Crossland.
Your good friend, Michael Crossland, is involved in a passion project in Haiti. Tell us about the project and how you came to be involved?
Michael came back from a project in Haiti in January, where he was helping to construct a school in Bouvier. Michael was extremely passionate about the cause, and I could see that giving to the less fortunate was his passion and fuel for living. Amongst his many stories, Michael explained that across the street from where he stayed in Carrefour was an orphanage. Michael was emotional when telling me that the kids in the orphanage were living in extremely poor conditions. Minimal ‘beds’, made from steel frames with a sheet of ply for a mattress, or some kids were lucky enough to have a thin dirty foam mattress. The earthquake from almost 3 years ago caused damage to the roof and walls, so the children were exposed to the weather and other elements without protection.
After hearing Michael’s stories, I was very keen to get involved and help out where possible. Michael advised that he had been discussing the project with Cheryl Ward. Cheryl directs the odd charity and is part of the passion and organisation behind the projects. Michael and Cheryl had a plan to raise funds in Coffs Harbour and use the money to repair the orphanage building, add a bathroom, buy some new beds, mattresses and blankets. I started volunteering my time and resources to help make it happen.
And you went to Haiti with Michael a few months ago. What were you working on while you were there?
I wanted to film the trip, to make a doco and a montage video to help increase awareness and raise more funds. It was a good excuse to spend up on some new camera equipment. Michael and I were up filming each morning; the camera barely got a rest. In addition to the filming, Michael and I laboured on the building site for 4 of the days we were there. This involved concreting, sanding, painting, erecting beds and eventually making beds.
Essentially, you went to Haiti to help and inspire the less fortunate children who live there, but how did they impact upon your life as well?
I have spent time travelling the world, but nothing could have prepared me for Haiti. Living in Australia in our conditions is all we know, until we travel and discover where we sit compared to other nations. I left Australia and discovered how stoked I should be when I wake up every morning. I don’t have to spend my days trying to survive; I spend my days trying to have the most amount of fun. We lead very rich and luxurious lives compared to others. We have kids crying over what colour frog they got from the corner store; they have kids crying because they haven’t eaten in a week.
Through this perspective, I gained an appreciation for life and Australia. But I also gained a understanding on how politics, corruption and greed has gotten in the way of humans doing the right thing by each other.
The trip to Haiti has refined my character and given me an unforgettable perspective on what really matters and what I should be really caring about when I am experiencing my day to day challenges.
The children in the orphanage were very inspiring. In the face of despair, they would always be smiling and laughing. They have little but are very generous, and they have the right attitude.
I met a Haitian lady who is completing a doctorate in literature in Chicago, US. She was in Haiti to see her family and to conduct some research. I learnt from her that we should be giving the Haitians a ‘hand up’, rather than a ‘hand down’ – meaning the most effective way to give to the less fortunate is to empower them to help themselves, so the benefit lasts long after the help has gone. From that point on we had kids everywhere on the building site with sandpaper, concrete trowels and paint brushes, learning how to help themselves. The attitudes of the kids once you gave them a hint of confidence was amazing! They are hard workers with big hearts.
What were some of the major challenges you faced while you were over there?
It was hard seeing the devastation and the anger that some of the Haitians have. When you look at some of them, they feel like you are staring at them when they have been knocked down, so they take offence. I would possibly feel the same way if I was in their shoes. Generally speaking, the majority of people were really nice and inspiring.
It took no time at all to develop a bond with the children. They would follow you around, hold your hand, sit on your lap and look up at you. The expression on their face was one of hope, but also at times despair. It was emotionally challenging leaving them.
What are some of the positive stories that have come out of the tragedies in Haiti?
Various communities like the one we stayed in at Carrefour seemed galvanised by the hardship. A lot of them have turned to religion and embraced a giving way of life.
What is your vision for this project in Haiti – what would you like to see as the end result?
Plans are in place to revisit the orphanage to build another level on the existing building, so the girls and boys can have a separate bedroom, their own bathroom and have one child per bed.
Longer term, I believe that putting educational programs in place and providing tools to empower the community to help themselves is key. Also, continuing to support infrastructure projects. The majority of buildings in the capital and surrounding suburbs are still, 3 years on, either completely or partly ruined.
Will you be going back again?
Hopefully in April, if not later in the year. Despite the money you raise, you still need to fund yourself. I am highly motivated to go back and see Samuel, The Rock and Le Bron (our security team and great friends). I have seen how my contribution and participation makes a difference, so I would love to give more and continue to enhance the lives of others less fortunate.
How can local people become involved and support the cause?
Frontier Projects is facilitating all future Haiti projects. Keep updated at www.frontierprojects.org, www.michaelcrossland.com and Coffs Coast FOCUS for information on fundraisers that will be held early 2013.
Thanks to all the givers that made the trip a success – in particular, the lovely ladies who tirelessly knitted the blankets for the kids; they are very warm and comfortable thanks to you.