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Penguins forwards Joe Vitale and Matt Cooke thought they had at least some idea of what to expect when they traveled to Haiti this past week for a humanitarian trip organized by team chaplain Brad Henderson.
After all, they’d heard stories from others who had visited the country devastated by an earthquake in January 2010 – namely former teammates Max Talbot and Mike Rupp – and had done other types of research before their trip.
But hearing stories just truly cannot compare to seeing and experiencing the living conditions of the Haitian people firsthand.
“You talk about what to expect and you see things on TV and read about things, but the whole group was so taken aback by our first ride when we went from the airport to the orphanage,” Vitale said. “We were riding on the back of a pickup truck and just looking out. It was pretty quiet; everyone was pretty quiet. It was just so overwhelming, from the trash and everything that we saw.”
Garbage was strewn around the dirt roads and in the nearby bodies of water, from which a rotten odor emanated while people ran chaotically through the streets. Many homes and businesses do not have electricity or even running water, and the heat and humidity was almost too much to bear.
“I think it was just too much to comprehend,” Vitale continued. “I think our silence pretty much said it all.”
The contingent who made the trip (which was made possible with the generous support of James Bouchard and the Esmark Corporation) also included Cooke’s wife Michelle and oldest daughter Gabby, former Penguin Jordan Staal and his wife Heather and Ian Rosenberger, the CEO of Pittsburgh-based company Thread LLC. Vitale’s wife Brianna did not go since she is expecting their second child.
That sobering first ride took them straight to the EBAC orphanage, which has been run by Fayette County natives Kathy Gouker and Alice Wise for the past 35 years. And the moment Vitale, Cooke and the others met the kids, their spirits were instantly uplifted.
“That was honestly the highlight of the trip,” said Vitale of spending time with the orphans. “So much of being down there was just very sad and gave you kind of a depressed feeling. But spending time with the kids and seeing their smiling faces and the way they laugh – the kids are just so enthusiastic about life.”
The Penguins and Reebok donated t-shirts for the kids along with hockey sticks and soccer balls, and the athletes worked up a sweat playing sports with their new friends.
“We used pretty much all of our time and energy with the kids playing hockey,” Vitale laughed. “(Cooke) was like the MVP of the trip. He was just running around the kids, just sweating constantly.
“They’re unbelievable kids down there and they’re so appreciative of what little they have. They touched all of our hearts in a special way.”
Not only was spending time with the children inspiring, but so were their trips to the newer IDADEE orphanage and the area’s first recycling center, which opened last week.
The construction of the second, smaller orphanage had actually been completed with substantial funds raised by Talbot through his foundation, who was so touched by his own journey that he vowed to help in any way he could upon his return.
“It’s cool to know what Max and Mike did a couple of years ago and then to kind of see the benefits of everybody’s hard labor and other work and their dedication to this,” Vitale said.
And the Pittsburgh Kids Foundation (of which Henderson is the president of) partnered with Thread LLC and Executives Without Borders to create the recycling center in Cap Haitien, the country’s second-largest city (roughly the size of Pittsburgh).
The center is creating jobs and cleaning up the environment by providing allowing Haitians who don't have a source of income the opportunity to collect discarded bottles to take care of their families. The project is called "Ramase Lajan," which means "picking up money" in Haitian Creole.
That’s especially inspiring to Vitale because it made him realize that he really, truly can make a difference in people’s lives down there.
“To kind of actually come together is really encouraging because it starts with an idea,” he said. “And then for those guys that put forth such a great effort and to actually see the results is encouraging to me because I know Matt, Jordan and I want to do things – do great things – down there. When we see the benefits of other people’s labor, you know it’s a possibility that what we do can benefit others down there as well. So it’s a very encouraging thing.”