Lakeland resident Cindy Skop has been a photographer for New York Times Co. publications, including The Ledger, for more than 10 years, and has photographed a wide variety of subjects during her career.
But the photo assignment that stands out the most in her mind was the experience of accompanying Ledger religion editor Cary McMullen to Haiti in February, where the two shadowed Auburndale businessman and philanthropist Mike Wnek on his effort to deliver aid to the earthquake-devastated country. It was on that trip that Skop documented a level of human desperation and need that she never saw before.
"While we were in Haiti, we followed Mike around while he was giving out supplies, mostly food - rice, juice, boxed milk," Skop, 41, recalls. "This was only three weeks after the earthquake and so many people were displaced. What I saw were people who were hungry. The commerce had basically stopped. Everything had come to a halt and no businesses were open. Those that were had only a few items and not enough for the people. What we were seeing were people pushing each other out of the way to get a cup of rice or a small 12-ounce bottle of juice. Basically that's what my images are - a lot of desperation and hungry faces."
Skop will showcase a collection of photographs from her experience at a benefit at the Polk Museum of Art on Thursday, with proceeds benefiting Hope for Haiti Healing, a ministry outreach of the First United Methodist Church of Auburndale led by Wnek. The organization will use the money raised (along with donations that can be made immediately via PayPal at http://HopeForHaitiHealing.com) to build hurricane- and earthquake-proof structures for displaced Haitians in the northern part of the country. Skop has set a personal goal of raising at least $20,000 to assist the organization's efforts.
"One structure will house nine people and cost about $7,000 to build," she said. "I want to raise enough money to build two of these structures and dig a well, so basically I want to raise $20,000-$25,000. If we can house people and make drinking water for them outside their door, I'd be so excited."
The exhibit will showcase 40 of Skop's eye-opening images - many taken in the Haitian towns of Croix-des-Bouquets and Ganthier - that depict residents of all ages in need of food, medical care and comfort. Skop anticipates that some of these images, especially those that show the devastated living conditions in which some Haitians were living (and may still reside), will really resonate with the benefit's attendees.
"One of my favorite images was taken at an orphanage in Croix-des-Bouquet," Skop said. "The side had fallen off of the building, so you could actually see inside the orphanage where their bedrooms were. (By the time we got there), they were staying in a makeshift tent. I hate to call it that because it's not really a tent; it was a bunch of sheets and whatever kind of material they could get their hands on to make this 20-foot by 15-foot structure that (an adult) couldn't even stand up in. This was their bedroom, their kitchen and their schoolroom, and their caregivers were staying in there as well. When they saw us coming, they came out of this tent and all stood there and looked at us. There's a look on their faces of excitement and joy for visitors, but also because they'd possibly be getting something to eat."
Skop saw similar tent-and-stick dwellings in other parts of Haiti, and will not only include photographs of them in the show, but will actually reproduce them as a form of mixed-media art to include in the exhibit.
"The part of my exhibit that is very unique is I'm building a three-dimensional, life-sized structure of what the people in the town of Ganthier were living in," she said. "They were using bed sheets, tying them to sticks and creating something the size of a cubicle. I'm building two complete structures of what these people were living in and some of my images are going to be printed on the sheet."
According to Adam Justice, curator of art at the Polk Museum of Art, Skop's collection of photographs and installation pieces are a great example of using art to create awareness.
"I think with any exhibition the prime focus is education, and I think this serves a dual purpose," Justice said. "We can help Cindy in educating the community on what's still going on in Haiti. Because like most world events, the news picks it up for a while and then drops it, and if you're far removed from it you can kind of forget about it. She's keeping awareness going about what's going on down there and the fact that it's still not positive down there."
Skip Perez, executive editor of The Ledger, says he's pleased to see Skop's work put to good use, as doing so is in line with the mission of the newspaper.
"We're a New York Times Co. newspaper and the first words of our corporate mission statement are 'to enhance society,'" he said. "There's no better way to enhance society than to help those people who are less fortunate than we are and who find themselves in dire need through no fault of their own, and The Ledger lives by that corporate mission statement.
"Cindy's photographic coverage and video coverage of that horrible situation in Haiti for us was world-class work. It stands among the best photojournalism I've seen in a long time," he added.
The benefit will feature guest speakers, and Haitian food and entertainment. Patrons will have the opportunity to purchase photographic prints of the work on display. A donation of $35 for admission is suggested but not require, Skop said.
"If they can pay $5, or $1, that's fine. I'm more interested in people coming and seeing what I saw. I'm hoping they'll be moved by what they see and if they can pay, that's fine. If they can't, that's fine too."
By Meg Laughlin, Times Staff Writer
Friday, February 26, 2010 4:13pm
You see them reflecting the sun by day and car headlights by night, as people hoist themselves along roads, thankful to be vertical. Gleaming Vs of aluminum poke out from rice bags and plastic jugs on tap-tap roofs. They lie in truck beds among bundles of cane and wood strips.
What you don't see are artificial limbs.
Nearly two months have passed since a catastrophic earthquake killed an estimated 230,000 people and made amputees of some 4,000 survivors. Those victims are discovering that a rehabilitative process that under less dire circumstances would have begun almost immediately after surgery has barely started for them. And some are discovering that process might never start at all.
Mackendy Francois uses his crutches to catapult himself down a dirt path in a refugee camp near the border of the Dominican Republic, which is home to over 250 patients, most of them amputees. Nearby, Mona Isma watches from a wheelchair.
Of the two, Francois, 22, is the lucky one because his below-the-knee amputation makes him a likely candidate for a prosthetic leg.
"I'm making myself strong for a prosthesis to get my job at the T-shirt factory back again," he said.
But Isma, 38, had a different view: "I know it is bad for my future that my amputation is high."
In this world of earthquake injuries, hierarchies form quickly. A crushed limb is enviable because the limb is still intact. A below-the-knee amputation is preferable to a mid-thigh one because of the knee's ability to control a prosthesis. What was shame over a partial leg amputation only a month ago has turned into the promise of an artificial limb, if the leg cut isn't too high.
"At least I have one leg. Some people lost both," said Isma, placing herself in the hierarchy.
The fate of people like Francois and Isma may rest in the hands of Handicap International, a French-based charity charged by the UN with bringing nonprofit agencies from around the world together to help people with limb injuries. By mid February, about 250 doctors, rehabilitation technicians and organizers connected to Handicap International fanned out across Haiti looking for amputees and treating them.
They check for infections and hand out crutches and walkers. They teach strengthening exercises and give pep talks. Temporary prosthetics, which just became available on a small scale in Port-au-Prince at the end of February, look like plastic cups connected to a metal pole with a rubber stopper for a foot.
"I hope to get one soon," said Francois.
• • •
On. Jan. 12, Francois was stitching necklines at the Palm Apparel T-shirt factory in Carrefour, the earthquake's epicenter, when the walls buckled. More than 300 people died in the factory, and hundreds were critically injured.
Twelve hours later, Francois' brother used a hacksaw to cut his left leg off at mid-shin to free him from the factory rubble. The brother then tied newly stitched T-shirts around the wound to stem the bleeding, and drove Francois to an overflowing hospital in Port-au-Prince. A few days later, he was trucked to the public hospital in Jimani, a border town in the Dominican Republic.
When Francois arrived at the Jimani hospital, Isma lay on a mattress on the floor in a hallway, her right leg amputated at mid-thigh. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she described herself to visitors as "ugly" and said she didn't want to live.
In Haiti, where life is even a struggle for the healthy, it is all but impossible for amputees who are ostracized and often shut out of schools and jobs.
"To have a chance at life, I think I must leave Haiti," said Isma.
She was at home in Petionville when the earthquake hit, and a wall fell on her. At the Jimani hospital, doctors planned to amputate both legs to save her life. But Mike Wnek, an Auburndale developer volunteering in Haiti, arranged for her to get strong antibiotics that saved her remaining leg. Wnek also got her a wheelchair.
Weeks later, when government officials in the Dominican Republic ordered Haitians who were no longer in critical condition back to hospitals and camps in Haiti, Isma and Francois were bused to the Fond Parisien refugee camp. The camp had sprouted up on the grounds of Love a Child Orphanage founded by Riverview couple Bobby and Sherry Burnett.
In the week after the earthquake, the orphanage was overwhelmed with hundreds of injured people and only a lone licensed practical nurse to treat them. But by late February, it had become a full-fledged medical compound called the Love a Child Disaster Relief Center run by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and staffed by surgeons, primary care doctors and emergency room doctors from all over the United States. Handicap International staff visit regularly.
"In those early days right after the earthquake, I'd see people and know they were going to die," said Sherry Burnett. "Now, I see the same people getting around on crutches, waiting for prosthetics and doing fine."
• • •
Situated on a shady ridge east of Port-au-Prince, this amputee center has potable water, flushing toilets, electric lights and nightly soccer games for the families of the injured. There is even ice in the fruit punch.
Tim Budorick, an orthopedic surgeon from Virginia Beach, Va., operated on Francois here two weeks ago to clean up his stump and prepare him for a prosthetic.
"If someone loses a leg or part of a leg," said the surgeon, "you need to move quickly to walking before neurological adaptive behaviors and balance are lost, and that's what we're trying to do here."
On this Friday afternoon in late February, primary care physician Marye Lois McCroskey from Maryville, Tenn., walks around the camp showing patients how to wrap stumps to prepare them for fittings. Many ask when they'll get limbs.
"That's a good question, but we don't know yet," the doctor tells them. "There's a huge need to be filled."
Francois pauses under a cluster of trees where amputees sit on mattresses, doing leg exercises. He nods and smiles.
"We try to encourage and motivate each other to get to the next step," he said.
If Francois gets a prosthesis in the next few months, he plans to return to Carrefour, where the Palm Apparel factory was and where supervisors are taking applications for future work.
"You can bet we'll be waiting for him to give him a job," said Palm Apparel factory owner Alain Villard.
In the shade of a mango tree, Isma lifts her intact leg up and down to strengthen it — even though she is not a likely candidate for a prosthesis.
"If I can just get on crutches ..."
Times staff writer John Barry contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@ sptimes.com.
By Meg Laughlin, Times Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2010 10:54pm
"We have seen no one, no U.N., no U.S., not anybody with food and water for the people out here," said Calas Jean Guteau, a Petionville policeman, who helped with what he said was the first distribution in the area.
What Wnek did on the streets of Petionville — bankrolled by the First United Methodist Church of Auburndale, and helped by a team of 10 people from Calvary Chapel in the States and a couple of volunteers from Haiti — was something that the huge agencies concentrating on the rescue effort have yet to do.
In Jimani, a border town in the Dominican Republic, Wnek, part developer and part free-wheeling negotiator, wrangled a large flatbed truck that rents for $900 a day for $400. Next, he went to a bodega on a side street and talked the owner into selling him dozens of cases of water, juice, sodas, crackers and cookies at a discounted price. He also got the owner to donate used clothes and shoes.
About noon, a small pickup, an SUV (carrying the Calvary Chapel team) and the flatbed took off for Port-au-Prince. Wnek made the three-hour trip over gravel and pocked cement roads in the bed of the flatbed, standing on top of the supplies. By the time the team reached the fringes of the capital, he was bright red and his hair was thick with dust.
In some ways Port-au-Prince is just as it was last Tuesday morning before the earthquake. Too many people walk too rapidly on the streets. Men strip cane stalks on corners and women line the roads cooking over open fires in vast aluminum bowls. And, as always, walls are sprayed with graffiti that tells who to vote for and how to get security.
But along with the bustle, ingenuity and madness that is always this city, there are signs of tragedy on every block.
People wear surgical masks or wrap T-shirts around their faces because the smell of burning charcoal sometimes gives way to the smell of rotting bodies. In Petionville, known as the most elite address in all of Haiti, the occasional body lies on the side of the street, partially wrapped in ripped, black plastic. A face shows. A mouth is open. People step over it and keep going.
Sheets on every block are painted in blood-red letters with the same plea in English, Spanish and French: "We need food, water, medicine." Two- and three-story concrete buildings are a half-story, broken facades expose lives that were normal a week ago: hardback books on a wooden shelf, yellow sheets on an unmade double bed.
People sleep outside of closed luxury hotels and restaurants known for lobster Creole and rum drinks.
St. Pierre Park, across the street from where Wnek and the team will distribute their items from the flatbed, is crammed with hundreds of tents fashioned out of beach umbrellas, sheets and tarps. The truck stops in front of the Petionville police station, across from the park.
Within seconds, hundreds of people have gathered. In a few minutes there are about a thousand. Some form a line wrapping around the block. Others circle the truck, their hands outstretched. Police take off their belts, slapping at those who step out of line. No one rushes the truck. No one demands anything. The team passes out shoes, clothes and shampoo, orange juice and water along with everything else.
"Merci" is softly repeated over and over.
In less than an hour, all but a few cases of supplies are gone and the team heads out, with Wnek standing in the bed of the supply truck.
On the outskirts of town, the small convoy stops because the big truck is spewing steam from overheating. No one knows what the breakdown means, but Wnek doesn't care. People begin to gather and he pitches out — one by one — the bottles in the two remaining cases of juice.
Hope For Haiti Healing has entered into a strategic alliance with the United Aid Foundation, a New York City based foundation dedicated to helping victims of disaster worldwide. Michael Wnek, Director of Hope For Haiti Healing, has been appointed to the board of directors of United Aid Foundation (UAF) and will focus on developing synergy between the two organizations to expand the opportunity to raise money and deliver aid to those in need. Wnek states “The philosophical operating premises for both organizations are in synch. Every effort is made to deliver every dollar of aid directly to the victims of disaster. All officers of both organizations are volunteers, and most staff and service suppliers of both are volunteers as well. Active participants in both organizations spend significant time on the ground in disaster areas and have found the most cost effective ways to cut through red tape and get aid to the needy consistently, and at the lowest possible costs. UAF brings a broader reach, organizational structure and experience in reaching out to suppliers that are willing to help, but want the comfort of dealing with an international team with proven results. Together we can make a significant difference in thousands of lives. We are proud to be offered the opportunity to join forces with UAF.”
Michael, John Alex (president of United Aid Foundation) and board member Mary Jane Alex met in Haiti, cooperating to deliver tons of food, water, and medical supplies beginning 3 days after the earthquake. They were the first to arrive in areas of Petionville, Port au Prince and Croix des Bouquet days before any of the traditional aid agencies or U.N. help arrived. At night they worked in the Jimani, Dominican Republic border hospitals, feeding patients and medical staff as well as organizing procurement and delivery of much needed medicines and equipment through the UAF medical network led by Domingo and Sandra Nunez.
JD Webb, one of the most famous wakeboarders in the world, has stepped up and asked his friends and fans to help rebuild homes for Haitian earthquake victims. He has volunteered to travel to Haiti personally and begin homebuilding in the next 4-6 weeks, depending on when the building materials clear customs. He is also appealing for financial aid. You can make a difference whether you donate a dollar or a thousand dollars. You may not even have a dollar but you can do your part by posting this appeal on your facebook page and asking your friends to do the same. You can help us get over 300,000 kids out of wet, muddy tents and into a secure home.
The mission team of Mike Wnek, Ricky Rowe, Ryan Alex, and their Haitian support staff of Josue Thelusmar, Ederson Pierre-Luis, and Frantz Vil had an incredibly productive trip delivering over 300 tents, clothing, shoes, and even soccer balls, but it was all overshadowed by Mona.
Mona Izma is the 38 year old mother of a 12 year old boy who had a wall colapse on her outside her home in Port Au Prince causing life threatening injuries. She was airlifted to the Jimani Hospital on the Haiti border with the Dominican Republic with severe trauma to both legs, head, teeth, and jaw area. The immediate response was to amputate her left leg above the knee and set the break in her right leg and bind it. The medical staff then laid her on a rubber mat on the floor of the overflowing ward, and went on to tend to the hundreds of other trauma cases overwhelming them.
That night of January 17th, Mike Wnek returning from delivering aid to Croix des Boquet took a 4 year old girl with a 105' fever and a young lady with a crushed shoulder to the hospital. Mike says "I was totally blown away by the amount of severe injuries and "civil war" medical conditions at the hospital. While holdng the four year old who was resisting the anti-biotic shot she so despeartely needed I was an arms length from a man enduring chest surgery with the only pain relief coming from a bottle of Vodka, and 5 feet away an elderly lady having a severe leg break set with no pain relief at all. Leaving my 2 "charges" with a nurse I wandered the halls in shock.
That's when I found Mona and knelt down beside her. She reached for my hand, held it tight and looked me in the eye with an intensity I have never experienced and I can only describe the experience as "connecting at the soul". We prayed together, and I found myself crying profusely at an emotional level I am not sure I have ever experienced. I promised her I would come back and see her every night while I was in Haiti, and an unbreakable bond was formed. We spent the rest of the evening (and every night of our trip) ministering to the patients and medical staff bringing them boxed juice and bread".
On the third night Mike and the mission team returned to the hospital only to find Mona and her brother and sister who were attending to her, in an emotional panic. The doctors had decided that it was easier and less expensive to amputate Mona's other leg than to try and treat her for recovery. That's when Wnek went into overdrive. "I went to the hospital administrator and used every persuasive bone in my body to enlist his help. I offered to pay for any expense for drugs or other aid. He was well aware that we had been attending to his staff and patients and had just delivered suture kits and antibiotics earlier that day. He agreed to have her upgraded in priority and directed me to a couple of volunteer doctors from New York to enlist their aid. Everybody pulled together and Mona's leg was saved!"
Mona was later moved to the Love a Child Recovery Center where Mike and the mission team have stayed in contact. On this, the third trip since the earthquake, Mike stopped to check in on Mona and delivered a new wardrobe his wife Peggy had picked out for her. Mona had just finished physical therapy and was overjoyed when Mike and Ricky Rowe met Mona and her sister and brother at her tent. After hugs and kisses and being overjoyed at the reunion, Mona told us she had a surprise of her own. She reached under her bunk and pulled out a walker and after a couple of false starts rocked herself to develop momentum and stood up in her walker and walked across the tent floor.
Tears of joy were flowing everywhere. Mike said "I have been blessed in life and experienced several "peak" events but only a few that I have experienced a spiritual epiphany. I will never forget that moment as long as I live".
By Meg Laughlin, Times Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011 3:45pm
The players: former Tampa Bay Bucs placekicker Martin Gramatica, his brothers Bill and Santiago, and Mike Wnek, an Auburndale developer who has helped build schools and orphanages in Haiti for more than a decade.
The Gramatica brothers, all former kickers, are now in the building materials business in Sarasota. Their "structural insulated panels" — sandwiches of a cement composite with polystyrene insulation in the middle — will be used to build a half-dozen new homes in the seaside community of Simonette.
"More than anything, it's the children in Haiti that take my heart and keep me going back," said Wnek, who raised the money for the homes. "In spite of unimaginable tragedy and horrible conditions, they never lose hope."
• • •
Wnek, 59, flew to Haiti to join in the relief effort two days after last year's Jan. 12 earthquake.
Despite conditions that stymied most aid workers — rubble in the roads and no transportation or supplies — he managed to get from the Dominican Republic to Port-au-Prince in a big flatbed truck loaded with bread, juice and water.
The story of how he fed hundreds of starving people was told in the St. Petersburg Times a week after the earthquake. When the Gramatica brothers read about Wnek, they knew they wanted to meet him.
"He cares about people in need. He gets things done under tough conditions and he's a builder — all things that matter to us," said Martin Gramatica.
The Gramatica name is familiar to football fans everywhere. Martin, 35, kicked for the Bucs for six years, including the 2002 Super Bowl season. Bill kicked for the Arizona Cardinals, New York Giants and Miami Dolphins, and Santiago set numerous records at the University of South Florida.
In 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina, Martin signed with the New Orleans Saints. He was struck by the lingering, widespread hurricane damage in the city and the slowness to rebuild.
When he retired because of injuries in 2008, he and his brothers decided to research safe, easy-to-build homes for people displaced by natural disasters.
They formed Gramatica SIPS International; SIPS stands for structural insulated panels. They rented a warehouse in Sarasota, hired a staff of designers, project managers and engineers, and set to work.
A few months after the Haiti earthquake, Bill Gramatica made an appointment with Wnek to show him the panels.
"When I saw them, a light went off in my head," Wnek said. "They're durable but lightweight like wood. They're rot-proof and termite-proof, and easy to put together — perfect for Haiti."
• • •
On Friday, Creole translator Frantz Vil parked his SUV on a dirt road in Simonette, a seaside community of 300 people about 25 miles northwest of the capital. With a Times reporter on the other end of his cell phone, he walked past wandering cows, banana and mango trees and plots of rubble, describing it all as he went.
Along the way he talked to families living in crude tents and tin sheds, waiting for their Gramatica homes to be built.
The three-room homes will have front porches, a cistern for water and three electrical outlets. They cost about $15,000 each, everything included. Wnek raised $45,000 from friends and associates for the first three, and the Gramatica brothers are furnishing the panel sandwich walls and treated wooden roof boards for less than their cost. Once these homes are up, they plan to build three more. All six foundations have already been laid.
The families spend part of each day on the foundations, sitting on the cool slabs or putting rickety tables and chairs on them to play dominos. Children bounce balls on the smooth concrete.
"They are our homes before they are built," Chilande Raymond, 37, told translator Vil.
A year ago today, Raymond, a fish vendor in the local market, was cooking dinner for her four children in her house — a mini-vault of concrete block with a corrugated tin roof — when the walls caved in, knocking her 12-year-old son unconscious. The boy still has terrible headaches.
On today's anniversary, the people of Simonette will pray and sing, Raymond said, but "mostly lie down and mourn."
Calling the Gramaticas and Wnek "those white men from New York" (though they're not from New York), Raymond asked to have wood, not cement, in her home.
"Tell them we are afraid of cement in Haiti now," she said.
Wnek said he understands her fear because so many poorly reinforced cement homes and buildings in Haiti crumbled in the earthquake. But he stands by the Gramatica cement compound panels, saying they are "much safer" than the cement structures that caved in.
"If a panel happened to fall on you, which is unlikely because of the strength of the fasteners, ties and steel spines holding it in place, it might bruise you up a little, but it's lightweight and won't kill you," he said.
Andre Filiatraut, director of earthquake engineering research at SUNY Buffalo in New York, is one of 10 American inspectors sent by the United Nations to figure out how Haiti should be rebuilt, given the possibility of hurricanes and earthquakes.
The challenge, Filiatraut said, is to prepare for both, which requires "opposite building principles." With wind, you want a heavy roof to prevent overturning, but with an earthquake you want lightness. "The key is in the anchoring," he said.
In a conference call, University of Miami structural engineering professor Gerry DeMarco quizzed Wnek about the Gramatica buildings. He asked detailed questions about the anchoring — the fasteners, foundation and materials for the 12-by-40-foot houses.
DeMarco's conclusion: "They're certainly adequate and much better than what people in Haiti had before," he said.
• • •
As Vil walked down a dusty path in Simonette, Many Aristile came out of the tin shed where she stores the charcoal she sells. She has slept in the shed since her home caved in a year ago. In Creole, she asked where "the big man with the loud voice" — Wnek — was, and when he would bring his "friends," the Gramatica brothers, to help them build their homes.
Aristile was outside when the earthquake hit. But her children and grandchildren were inside her cement block house, and she thought they had been killed when it crumbled. For days, she bellowed with grief — until they were found alive.
"A year later," she said, "everyone who went through the earthquake is still a little crazy."
A World Health Organization report says that many Haitians still think they feel aftershocks and have regular panic attacks. Like Aristile, they also have insomnia and nightmares.
"If I am in a safe, beautiful home with my family, I think I might rest again," she said.
In early February, the Gramatica brothers and Wnek will send the materials for the new houses by ship to Haiti. When the goods clear customs, they will go to Simonette, hire villagers and teach them how to build the homes.
"We can't wait to get these people out of the mud," said Martin Gramatica.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
810,000 People still living in 1,150 tent and shack encampments, according to U.N. estimates
3,600+ Dead from cholera and more than 155,000 sickened since an outbreak began in October