POF-gagnonHe thought the Jan. 12 news report about the earthquake in Haiti was a mistake. Claude Gagnon couldn’t comprehend the damage suffered by the small country he’s been traveling to almost every year since 1988.

“I mean, I sat and listened and heard and thought of all the people that I know that I may never see again….” said Gagnon, a 79-year-old retired building materials distributor, in an interview with your Catholic Herald. “It just hit me really bad. I have a friend that goes to Haiti and he said the same thing. He said he just felt numb and helpless.”

Gagnon, who returned from his most recent trip in early December to receive treatment for the mosquito-borne Dengue Fever that causes flu-like symptoms, was recovering at his Wauwatosa home, not in Haiti, when the earthquake struck.

“Chances are that’s where I would have been because I was waiting for the equipment, bakery equipment, to come and then when it came up we were going to install it….” Gagnon said, speaking of the project on which he was working to help support three orphanages – St. Joseph’s Home for Boys, Wings of Hope and Trinity House – for the two-fold purpose of creating jobs and providing food for the poor. “So, in that respect, I’m fortunate.”

Claude Gagnon

Name: Claude Gagnon

Age: 79

Parish: When at his Wauwatosa home, he frequently attends St. Therese, Milwaukee

Occupation: Retired building materials distributor

Book recently read: “Pillars of the Earth,” by Ken Follett; Tim Pigott-Smith

Favorite quotation: “To comfort the disturbed, disturb the comfortable.”

(Catholic Herald photo by Tracy Rusch)

In 1988, Gagnon, whose black eye patch is a reminder of an accident on a sailboat years ago, traveled to Haiti for 10 days through his involvement in Rotary International, an organization dedicated to worldwide service. The group planned to put 40 freshwater wells in Haiti’s central plateau, but discovered problems existed on the foreign soil. When Gagnon went to check it out, he learned the primary problem was hunger.

“I went down to Cité Soleil, which is always referred to as the poorest slum in Haiti, and I went down with a Haitian friend and observed that, and it was just mind-boggling for an American who had never seen anything like that, you know, to see that kind of poverty,” Gagnon said, explaining how the short trip sparked his long-term interest, “and that was just overwhelming and I think it’s seeing something like that and realizing that maybe we could do something to help.”

The more trips Gagnon took to Haiti with different Wisconsin groups, the more he fell in love with the country and wanted to help. Ten days grew into 10 months of the year, costing Gagnon, who now makes the yearly trips on his own, about $600-650 roundtrip.

In the more than 20 years that Gagnon has spent time in Haiti, he has helped out at St. Joseph’s Home for Boys in Port-au-Prince, an orphanage where boys are taken off the streets and educated through their senior year of high school; Wings of Hope, a home for mentally and physically disabled children; and Trinity House, a home for “older street kids” that serves the poorest children in the neighborhood and educates them in the day school, Lekol Sen Trinite, and in the newest outreach, Restavek School program, for restaveks, children forced into domestic service, a form of childhood slavery.

Recently, Gagnon said he’s been developing coffee as a product to sell and developing a bakery, which was near completion before the earthquake hit. “We had the building built. We had the generator installed. We were waiting for the bread equipment, baking equipment,” Gagnon said. “You know, different pieces of machinery that you need for making bread and don’t know where that is now. I mean, it was on the way – I don’t know where it ended up.”

Gagnon said he will continue to develop the coffee and a bakery when he returns, but he doesn’t know when that will be as some of the buildings were damaged in the earthquake.

“I think it’s going to have to wait until things get a little more under control there,” he said. “I’m not a medical person. I don’t have any talents along that line and so I feel if I went, I’d probably be just in everybody’s way, so I’m going to wait until things settle down.”

His Feb. 6 remarriage to a Canadian woman he met while working in Haiti, also has him tied down in Canada for the next four or five months until he receives his application for permanent residence to Canada. Once the process is final, he will be able to move freely between the U.S. and Canada while maintaining his U.S. citizenship. Before Feb. 6, Gagnon, was a widower to his late wife, Mary Lou, who died of cancer in 2002. Married for 49 years and parents to their seven children, five of whom attended Catholic schools, Gagnon and his wife raised their children as his parents had raised him.

“I don’t think they were kind of excessive in any way, (they) saw to it that we had a Catholic education and went to church,” he said.

Gagnon also said that his faith had a hand in his work in Haiti and changed because of it. “I would say that it was definitely motivated by my faith as a starting point….,” Gagnon said. “I think any experience like that tends to make (faith) stronger.”

Those wanting to help the Haitians should prepare to share.

“I guess the one main thing that you have to have is a strong interest in the people and what they’re doing,” Gagnon said.

“We think the production of coffee puts our kids to work, same thing with bread is that it’ll put some of our kids to work,” Gagnon said. “Our idea is that we can make bread and sell it to the hotels and restaurants, to individuals and then we would also be giving bread to people who are really poor, can’t afford it.”

Gagnon also urges people to not only donate money, but also their time by going to Haiti.

“I think it means more to the people to see people actively involved in trying to help,” he said, explaining that people should go when they can to see what their money has done to improve the lives of the Haitians.

The hands-on work is rewarding for Gagnon, who said the tragedy is a blessing in disguise.

“Making people aware of the situation is a big part of getting something accomplished. The thing about the earthquake is that it’s probably going to sound rather strange, but in a way, it’s a blessing, because nobody knew anything about Haiti. Now, everybody knows about Haiti and their needs and what they need to (do to) help,” Gagnon said.

Before Jan. 12, anytime people asked Gagnon where he was going, he said they misheard him as saying “Tahiti,” which would warrant comments like, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to go to Tahiti.”

“I found very little understanding of people that had any idea how bad things were in Haiti before the earthquake….” Gagnon said. “People were starving in the streets then, people were shot, you know, so that was before the earthquake and before anybody really knew what Haiti was all about and so now I think (we) won’t have to explain to anybody what Haiti is or where it is – people are going to know. Now, that’s a tough way to have to learn, I grant you that, but at least that’s the blessing I see out of it is an awareness of the rest of the world of a country called Haiti.”