*This post originally appeared as an editorial in the Global Business Travel Magazine’s July/August 2014 issue. *
Convention is a place to learn, to build your business, or to be inspired by an amazing array of speakers. But for me, Convention will always be something more.
On January 12, 2010, a devastating earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale struck the small island country of Haiti. The earthquake hit some of the country’s most populated areas, affecting more than 3 million people and leaving more than 1.5 million homeless. The initial earthquake, coupled with more than 50 severe aftershocks, killed as many as 160,000 people and orphaned over 750,000 children.
The earthquake exacerbated Haiti’s existing problems. The poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti suffers from widespread unemployment. The median household makes only $350 per year. The country does not have free public education. It has very few social services and regularly suffers from poor public health conditions; many of the post-earthquake deaths were attributable to an outbreak of cholera. Haiti also has suffered from poor political leadership, with its residents subjected to years of dictatorships and widespread corruption.
After Haiti’s earthquake, we were discussing potential keynote speakers with Vic Pynn from Amadeus. Amadeus had committed to be our Wednesday lunch sponsor for the 2011 Convention in Denver. During those discussions, I learned that several Amadeus employees came together on their own to see how they could help the Haitian people. They initially raised over $100,000 in personal donations and began working with the Great Commission Alliance (www.gcanet.org), an organization that had plans to build an orphanage in the country.
Shortly thereafter, Academy award-winning actor and director Sean Penn was on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, profiling how he had become an influential voice on the rebuilding of Haiti. Days after the earthquake, Penn founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organization, which focuses on debris removal, medical aid, security, and the relocation of homeless individuals and families. He was an ideal choice for our Wednesday speaker. His personal dedication was truly inspiring.
I was intrigued by what many throughout the travel community were doing to help in Haiti. So as Convention drew near, I felt compelled to go and better understand the aftermath first hand. Along with some of my GBTA colleagues, we traveled to Haiti. Nothing could have prepared us for the extreme devastation and severe poverty that we saw.
My wife and I became personally involved with the orphanage after that trip. GCA’s story is a quiet and heroic one, led by their executive director, Brian Kelso, and a tireless and highly dedicated staff. They work in an extremely difficult environment, one characterized by compromised security, corruption, complex legal issues, and even kidnapping. The civil society that we take for granted in the developed world simply does not exist in Haiti. Yet GCA is a beacon of hope, continuing to push forward with their dreams and goals of a better world for the Haitian people.
For the past several years, GCA has been focusing its efforts in Mirabalais, a town 40 miles outside of Port au Prince, Haiti’s capital. It is working to build a community where more than 100 orphans can live and go to school in safety. In addition to the orphanage, GCA has finished construction of four classrooms on the second floor of a new school, hired school staff, and registered 280 students. They pushed forward to develop a much needed medical clinic and a church/community center on the property as well, thereby helping to build the human and social capital of the broader community.
The GCA story of hope became tragically derailed in this past year, when corrupt Haitian locals took over the GCA campus by force leaving the future of the orphans and students in doubt. Fortunately, under Brian’s brave and persistent leadership, GCA has been now able to regain legal and physical control of the campus. Now the difficult task of rebuilding begins.
Convention is personal to me for many reasons, as I have formed many lasting relationships there over the years. But the 2011 Convention, in particular, always will hold a special place in my heart because of my introduction to the children of Haiti.