My fourth grade teacher asked us to name our hero. Simple for me. Thomas Paine. I had just read his biography and was enchanted with the man who had so much influence in the founding or our country without raising a weapon. I was a pacifist before I could even spell the word.
Thomas Paine suited me well as my hero for years. He was a singular figure, claimed by few others, literate and influential. In graduate school I added Charles Corea, an Indian architect who mentored at MIT. To my mind he has the most perfect architectural practice – designing significant public buildings, small gems of art, mansions for the wealthy and a strong body of thoughtful work for the poor. It would be difficult for one architect to design such a broad range of buildings in the United States, where we cultivate specialization.
I never considered why I selected these two men as my heroes until I listened to the 1988 Bush/Dukakis debate. Each contender was asked to name their personal hero. Bush announced Jaime Escalante, the inner city math teacher immortalized in the movie Stand and Deliver. Dukakis wavered in fuzzy liberal fashion and eventually landed on Jonas Salk. That was the moment I knew Bush would win the election. Salk was better known and arguably did more for the greater good than Jaime Escalante, but a lab scientist is a lame choice as a hero. Heroes are not measured by their statistical influence, rather how they touch individuals in a positive way. They must be human, they may even stumble and fall, yet they achieve the outer reach or our aspirations, and that makes them worthy of emulation. I decided my two heroes still fit the bill pretty well.
In the past two years I have gained three more heroes, an unexpected bounty. Each of my heroes is different yet each shares a common approach to how they inspire. First, they work outside systems of government and institutions. Second, they work local. Just as Lean process improvement in business focuses on an endless series of continuous improvements, so the ongoing effort to improve the conditions of our earth succeeds by concentrating on one small, achievable part rather than tackling an entrenched system. Third, they do what they know. The doctor doesn’t build roads, the builder doesn’t teach English, the teacher doesn’t treat illness. Fourth, and most importantly, they are patient. All of my heroes work in Haiti, and if there is any lesson that Haiti can teach the world, it is that the individual has little control, but with patience change can occur.
I met John Mulqueen in 2008 in response to an office email looking for help to design a clinic in Haiti. John is a pediatrician in Gardner, an hour west of Boston. He lives in a big, doctor-size house, is married to Paula, a nurse, and has a couple of children in their teens and twenties. About ten years ago John and Paula began going to Haiti and ran clinics in open fields and churches. Eventually, they focused on an area around Les Cayes, the third largest city, started an organization called Forward in Health, and in 2008 bought a piece of land to build a permanent clinic. There are enough mementoes around their house in indicate that the Mulqueen’s are religious, which may influence their dedication to Haiti, but that is never transmitted to anyone who works with them. The first thing Paula tells new visitors to Haiti at her orientation is, “We are not going to change Haiti.” It is deflating to an earnest volunteer, but it needs to be said, and when you travel to Haiti with Forward in Health, that dictum takes heart. We work hard running clinics, but we also take rest afternoons, spend a day at a beach, even go to a night club. All work is no play is antithetical to the Haitian experience, and the Mulqueen’s perspective emphasizes that our role it not to parachute in and save people, but to be among Haitians, to witness their lives, to influence positively where possible and accept where it is not.
Almost ten years on, Forward in Health owns a parcel of land outside of Les Cayes with a ten foot wall around it and the foundations in place for Phase 1 of the clinic. They have been stymied by lack of money and lack of technology as well as by flood and hurricane and earthquake and revolt. They accept that they do not know when their clinic will be finished. They accept that the there are many unresolved aspects to the work. They also accept the benefits that follow disaster – money is more available in Haiti since the earthquake and they have expanded their clinic plans to include operating rooms, tossing me the challenge of how to provide reliable power for anesthesia in an area with no power grid. In the meantime they hold clinics for the community under the mango tree on the site a few times a year, they take Gardner high school students to Haiti on exchange visits, and they have spun off a group to develop a separate orphanage. They see a need, they address the parts they know how to handle directly and delegate the rest.
It takes about two seconds to warm up to John Mulqueen, and once you do you would never consider saying no to anything he needs. He tells great stories, loves a good drink, banters freely and seems so easy going you would never guess he has the determination to take on this remarkable, unlikely endeavor. He laughs off every setback and always finds a work around that allows progress, which is why I am sure he will eventually succeed.
Lexidam Edme was one of those children who benefited from a kindly woman who sent $10 a month to support a deserving child in a foreign land. Her investment has paid off in returns unseen on any financial market. Lex grew up on Gonave; the large island in the middle of the Gulf of Gonave, the forms the wide backwards ‘C’ that defines Haiti. He is one of seven children, but the benefits of his sponsor set him apart. He learned to read and write, received proper nutrition, and in his twenties he departed for the United States, like many other Haitians of advantage. After ten years or so, having married an American missionary he met as a youth and reunited with in Massachusetts, Lex and Renee returned to Haiti and founded the Mission of Hope in the town of Grand Goave, ninety minutes from Port-au-Prince, along the shore overlooking Isle de Gonave. Grand Goave has a mayor and a government, but as far as I can tell, Lex is ‘the man’. Mission of Hope is what we might call a Settlement House. There is a church, with Lex as pastor, and a school, with Lex as principal, and an orphanage, with Lex as the father, and a food distribution center, with Lex as disperser, and a transitional housing construction project, with Lex as the superintendent, and a fresh water system, with Lex as… well you get the idea.
About seventy people work for Lex, everyone in towns knows Lex, and he carries off his role with a wonderful mix of pride and humility. He is a talented, gregarious, open-hearted and demonstrative. In the same two seconds you take to appreciate John Mulqueen’s unassuming earnestness, Lex captivates with charisma. He has a million projects and dreams and even if only a fraction come true, Grand Goave will be immeasurably improved. In a country lethargic from heat and malnutrition and scant opportunity, Lex is lightening rod of action.
Len Gengal is not the kind of guy I typically like. He is big, I mean big, and loud and occupies whatever space he’s in with so much energy you feel pushed to the wall. He develops subdivisions of big single family houses in central Massachusetts, so his environmental impact is anathema to my Cambridge sensibilities. Education is not his strong suit; his success is in making the deal. But when Len Gengal’s qualities are channeled on a mission, he is a force of nature awesome to behold.
The tragedy of Britney Gengel, who died in the Haitian earthquake January 12, 2010, is well documented elsewhere. Since I don’t watch much TV I had never heard of the Gengel’s, or their tragedy, or how they became the personal face of the earthquake for many Americans. I met the Gengel’s through the Mulqueen’s and offered to help them design the orphanage in honor of Brit. Within two seconds of meeting you like Len, not because he is earnest or charismatic, but because he simply will not have it any other way. The first time he bear hugged me I shuddered, then I got used to it; now I look forward to it. Len grows on you so fast you can’t remember when he wasn’t there.
Whenever I am with Len I wonder, if something happened to my daughter, the same age as Britney, would I have the strength to do something so public, so ambitious, in her honor? Len inspires me to think I could though hopefully I will never be put to that test. He is a media impresario. By keeping Britney’s story in the public eye, Len not only raises money for the orphanage, he also keeps his daughter present. He cajoles the newscasters, politicians, and the building community for assistance with a story so heartfelt we are honored to play a part in realizing the dream. But what is most heroic about Len Gengel is his naivety. The first time Len ever left the United States was to visit Haiti ten days after the earthquake. As his wife CherylAnn once told me, “Before the earthquake, we could not have found Haiti on a map.” Now the family has been there four times in one year, they have bought a piece of land, imported a truckload of supplies and intend to build one of the most earthquake resistant structures in the country to house 66 children they have never met. Len has none of John Mulqueen’s patience. This orphanage is going to happen and he is going to make it happen soon. That is why Len is in Haiti as I write this, and why next week I will be there to stake out his daughter’s orphanage and start the foundations. The ground breaking will take place before the first anniversary of the earthquake; a notable feat for a charitable project in any country, a miracle in Haiti. The only reason is it happening is that Len refused to listen to those who said that is couldn’t.
I feel so fortunate to have three heroes in my daily life whom I can assist. They inspire me, they teach me important lessons. Think small, stay the course, do what you know. You can make a difference.