BY CARLI TEPROFF AND JOSE PAGLIERY / The Miami Herald
Five years ago, a group of three University of Miami graduates were sitting in a bagel shop near campus watching the shocking aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on television.
Within days, the three young men had chartered a bus, rounded up about 40 students through Facebook and made their way to help the Red Cross in Biloxi, Miss.
Fast-forward to 2010, when most of the students have since moved on to different states and careers. One is in law school in Pennsylvania, one is a nurse in Miami and another is running for public office in Orlando.
When the earthquake hit Haiti last month, some of the former UM volunteers mobilized — again through Facebook — to send aid and a brigade of volunteers to the ravaged nation. This time, they have a lot more people going and they call themselves The R.E.L.I.E.F. Foundation — Relieving and Embracing Lives Interrupted by Earth’s Forces — and have teamed with the Orlando-based nonprofit Clean the World.
On Friday, about 120 people from across the country, including Coral Gables Mayor Don Slesnick, will board a chartered plane to Port-au-Prince for a four-day relief mission.
“We knew right away that this was something we had to do,” said Peter Groverman, one of the three original organizers. “It’s amazing the kind of response we have received.”
For the past month, Groverman, Armando Gutierrez Jr. — an original organizer — and Lori Bailey, who went on the Biloxi trip, have been working out the logistics of sending a plane to Haiti, collecting supplies to take with them and confirming the number of people who are going on the trip. Bailey, who works as a nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital, has asked Dr. Barth Green — who has been in Haiti as part of the University of Miami’s Project Medishare program — for some tips.
“There has been so much to do,” Bailey said. “This is much, much bigger than what we did for Biloxi.”
But perhaps the most important thing that small grass-roots groups can do is communicate with the larger more established programs like Medishare and the American Red Cross, said David R. Adams, vice president for missions for Cross International.
“They can be most effective if they link up with other organizations,” said Adams, who was in Haiti when the earthquake hit and has been helping with the relief effort since.
Bailey and four other volunteers kept a brisk pace Thursday at the Port of Miami River Terminal, where they loaded boxes of supplies into a 20-foot metal crate.
Some boxes contained clothes, shoes, flashlights, hygiene packs and painkilling drugs. Others had backpacks filled with coloring books and crayons.
“They’ve gone through a tragic event, and we don’t want that to ruin their outlook on life. We want them to keep their childhood,” Bailey said.
Those supplies were set to be loaded onto the immense blue-hulled cargo ship Santé MANNA by sundown Friday, according to Santé Shipping Line’s chief operating officer, David Cardozo.
Since the earthquake, the company has dedicated the ship to Haiti relief efforts. When Bailey contacted the company last week, “We told them to bring it over,” he said.
Mike Lawson, a crew member of a charter fishing boat, said he couldn’t think of a better way to spend his day off as he carefully stacked the boxes five feet high.
“I was pretty good at Tetris,” he joked.
Supplies will also be packed onto the plane, which will depart from Miami on Friday. Each volunteer paid $500 to help pay for the flight and many will take supplies, including additional water, food and medical aid, Groverman said. As of Friday, there were only a few seats left on the plane and he was asking for a minimum donation of $1,000.
Slesnick said he is ready to shed his suit for comfortable jeans and shirts to get to work.
“I wanted to do more than just send donations and supplies,” he said. “This was the perfect opportunity.”