The Cambrian

Cambrian helps build hope for Haitian high school

Imagine for a moment enrolling your child in a high school that has no books, no paper, no pencils, bare walls and very few chairs. The teacher stands in front of a blackboard with chalk, her voice, her courage and her knowledge. That’s it. The nine makeshift classrooms are jammed with 50 or more students, most of whom have precious little healthy food or clean water at home.

This is the pitiful, painfully hopeless situation that Brent Hopkins of Cambria witnessed during his humanitarian pilgrimage to earthquake-ravaged Haiti earlier this year. And this particular school, in the Seguin region — several hours’ drive into a mountain plateau from Port au Prince — has become the focus of Hopkins’ passion to provide resourcefulness and funding to a specific project in Haiti.

Just giving money to a charity organization in a feel-good gesture, to do with what they will in Haiti, is not always satisfactory, Hopkins explains. But homing in on one specific Haitian need is a positive, albeit small, step towards helping worthy young people survive and learn.

Hopkins is fine-tuning a PowerPoint presentation to share this fall with schools in San Luis Obispo County, with service organizations and church groups, in the hopes of raising a modest amount of money for books and supplies for the beleaguered high school.

Ideally he would like nonprofit groups and schools “adopt” this particular Haitian school, establish communication with school Principal Charisnet Excellus and with the students, and cooperate in an ongoing commitment of support for these young people.

Taking furlough from his job as a psychiatric nurse at Atascadero State Hospital in order to administer medical help to earthquake survivors in Haiti following the powerful earthquake was a revelation for Hopkins.

“I have always wanted to do something more in the community,” he told a reporter. “This tragedy struck me. Something inside me said, ‘You’re going to do something’.”

So, he did. Three weeks after the deadly, magnitude 7.0 calamity in Haiti, Hopkins flew to Miami, joined up with a medical group

called “Flight to Crisis” — later linking with the “Community Coalition of Haiti” — and put his passion into action. His group landed initially in the Dominican Republic, then flew by small plane to Jacmel, Haiti. He spent a week working in Jacmel, in a rubble-strewn hospital (St. Michel’s) that had been “90 percent destroyed” by the quake.

“I was apprehensive,” he explained, because he had served as a psychiatric nurse for 20 years, but his clinical experience, he feared, was perhaps too rusty to be helpful. But those fears were allayed as

he and another nurse —

plus two physicians — worked eight-hour shifts seven days a week, serving long lines of people patiently waiting outside.

Most of the hundred or so patients they administered to daily suffered from malnutrition or dehydration, Hopkins reports. Some needed to have broken bones reset (bones had healed the wrong way) and other patients suffered from infections that resulted from “suture techniques that weren’t very sterile.”

The room Hopkins and his healthcare colleagues worked in was 30 by 30 feet. “I’ll never see anything like that in my life in the United States,” he said, his concerned facial expression adding poignancy to his descriptions. “The world has ignored Haiti forever. It’s in my heart to help now, and I’m not going to back out.”

In his second week, he came into contact — and worked with — the school that he now is on a mission to support in Seguin. The credibility of the school’s principal, Mr. Excellus, is “above reproach,” Hopkins assures. “There is something about the people in Haiti. They have so little, next to nothing, yet they can be so positive and loving. There’s something actually unnatural about them, to be frank,” he smiled.

If others in Cambria could see what Hopkins has seen, they would come away with the same amazed response, he asserts. Courage, resiliency and positive spirits in the face of

overwhelming odds — these characteristics have had a compelling effect on Hopkins, and he plans to return to Seguin early in 2011.

“People would say, ‘Oh, you did a lot over there’. But I feel I did very little in comparison to what I got out of it,” Hopkins continued. “I gained a million times more than I ever gave,” he said. “It’s incredibly rewarding.”

Now his task is to bring others on board in order to provide those high school students with the tools for learning — something parents, teachers and students take for granted here in California.

Those interested in learning more about Hopkins’ high school project in Haiti can reach him at 927-0114.