By Amy Blakely
On a mission to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, Stacy Cox (Knoxville ’93) visited an orphanage in a small village in the mountains 50 miles south of the capital Port-au-Prince. There he met an 8-year-old girl named Onise.
Onise’s parents were living, but poverty had forced them to put her up for adoption in an orphanage in Coq Chante.
“The orphanage where she lived with 12 other girls collapsed during the earthquake, killing one of them,” Cox says. “Most of the kids were outside playing or it could’ve been much worse. After that, the girls moved to the orphanage where I met her.”
Cox spent a few hours with Onise and the girls. After he left, he says, he kept seeing her face in his mind. He texted her photo to his wife, Sara (Knoxville ’97), in Knoxville. “I said, ‘You need to be praying for this little girl,’ ” Cox recalls. “I knew that day we were going to adopt her.”
Cox is just one of many UT Knoxville alumni, faculty, staff and students who have made Haitians part of their lives.
Some have volunteered there for decades. Others responded to help after more recent disasters—the 7.2 magnitude earthquake that killed 220,000 people in 2010 and Hurricane Matthew, a Category 4 storm that killed thousands and destroyed homes, crops and livestock in 2016.
Completing a family
Sara Cox had a son from a prior marriage—Harrison Kincaid, now 23 and a senior in UT Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business. The Coxes had considered adopting a sister for Harrison. Onise, born in 2002, was the answer to their prayers.
A month after Stacy Cox returned, the couple traveled to Haiti to begin adoption. About two years later, they brought Onise home.
“She is now 14,” Cox says. “She is definitely my daughter. She is exactly like me. When I tell her that, she says, ‘Dad, I’m not even the same color as you.’ I tell her it doesn’t matter.”
Cox has traveled to Haiti 18 times since that first visit in 2010. He’s seen the challenges Haitians face living in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
During a 2016 event at the UT College of Architecture and Design, Cox, president of Studio Four Design in Knoxville, met Andrew Tarsi, a second-year master of landscape architecture student. Tarsi had designed a hut-sized kitchen pavilion with proper ventilation, efficient drainage and an elevated cooking surface.
“Andrew’s design for a kitchen pavilion was an answer to prayer,” Cox says. “The home and outdoor cooking pavilion belonging to my daughter’s Haitian family was destroyed during the hurricane.” Cox is now raising money to build a new house for the family using Tarsi’s kitchen design.
Low-cost X-ray machines
Knoxville physician Charlie Barnett (HSC ’75) made his first medical mission trip to Haiti in 1978 and has returned six times since the 2010 earthquake.
Barnett and a team from Knoxville’s Summit Medical Group flew to Port-au-Prince to treat earthquake victims. At a heavily damaged hospital, they saw doctors treating patients in tents and performing surgeries, sometimes without anesthesia, around the clock.
“You could smell the dead bodies in the rubble of the buildings,” he says. “It was like you’d imagine on a Civil War battlefield.”
In time, Barnett became a Haiti clinic medical director and discovered his real service wasn’t seeing patients. “I didn’t speak the language,” he says. “What I could do was get them supplies.”
With only four X-ray machines in the city, the clinic desperately needed one of its own.
Barnett partnered with then-student David Martin (Knoxville ’14), who helped develop a low-cost X-ray machine as part of a class project. They worked with the UT Research Foundation and Knoxville based SIPO Global to produce the machine, which cost about $30,000 to build—compared to the usual $150,000.
The first low-cost X-ray machine went into service in a Port-au-Prince hospital in June 2016. They hope to manufacture the machines for poor communities around the world and plan for at least the first 10 to go to Haiti.
Couple on a mission
“People waiting for our services are in the hundreds, and many have waited since early morning, often walking down from the mountains for three or four hours barefooted,” Susan DeBonis says.
“Haiti is hot, dirty, polluted—filled with human despair, dying children and everything bad you’ve ever heard about less-developed countries. I’ve been tear gassed, pushed and shoved, held dying children and photographed field surgery that would turn the stomach of most UT communications grads,” says Susan De Bonis (Knoxville ’78, ’86). “But I will go as long as I’m able. I guess it’s because God wants me there.”
De Bonis has made seven medical mission trips to Haiti since the 2010 earthquake. Her husband, Nick DeBonis (Knoxville ’87), recently made his third trip.
Susan and Nick DeBonis met during graduate school at UT and married in 1984. Susan spent most of her career working in the media, including the Los Angeles Times, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and Clear Channel. Nick worked in academia and as an international marketing consultant. They now live on St. Simons Island, Georgia, where Susan has started her own photography and multimedia company while Nick is “writing, consulting and trying to retire.”
The De Bonises travel with Hope Haiti, an independent medical missionary group supported by a church in Statesboro, Georgia, and the local medical community. The medical team often sets up in a church or school.
“People waiting for our services are in the hundreds, and many have waited since early morning, often walking down from the mountains for three or four hours barefooted,” she says. “They are left with a 30-day supply of prescriptions and over-the-counter medicines.”
During the couple’s latest trip, the team of four doctors and one nurse practitioner saw 1,300 patients in five days— an average of 340 a day.
“Earthquakes, hurricanes and floods only make these people worse off,” she says.
During their missions, Nick is part of the triage team doing initial patient evaluations. Susan chronicles the trips through photography and dispenses reading glasses.
UT Haiti Project
Since the 2010 earthquake, College of Architecture and Design Professor John McRae has led more than 70 faculty and students in designing structures to improve life in Haiti.
McRae first went to Haiti in 1985 on a mission trip, when he met the executive director of the Haiti Christian Development Fund. The two have stayed in touch over the years.
“After the earthquake, I asked him what our college could do to help,” McRae says. That conversation led to the UT Haiti Project.
“The UT Haiti Project allows students from various disciplines to work together, experience a different culture and help improve the lives of others,” McRae says.
The group’s first project was designing L’Exode Secondary School in Fond-des-Blancs. The first phase— five classrooms, restrooms and the cafeteria-meeting hall—was completed in 2012, and the school opened that fall.
When Hurricane Matthew ripped off the roof over seating at a school’s sports fields, the college collected about $6,000 to repair it.
The Haiti Project also designed a new steel gate for the school. The gate was built by a Knoxville artist, and a UT contingent led by McRae installed it in May 2017.
Also during their visit, the group shared its design for a preschool in a small village on a mountain outside Fond-des-Blancs.
The Haiti Project’s other efforts include the design of 14 houses—one already built in Fond-des-Blancs—and the overhaul and expansion of a medical clinic in Fort Liberté. Money is being raised for that project now.
Sororities & Circle of Sisterhood
From 2014 to 2016, UT Knoxville’s 13 Panhellenic sororities raised more than $40,000 to build a school in Astier, Haiti, through the Circle of Sisterhood Foundation, which partnered with buildOn, an urban youth movement.
The foundation encourages sorority women to raise money for projects to remove educational barriers for girls and women facing poverty and oppression. BuildOn aims to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations by building schools in the world’s poorest villages.
UT women raised the money but didn’t get to help build the school. “After we committed to funding the building, there was concern for our students to travel there due to multiple governmental travel warnings and a lot of unrest,” says Jennifer Pierce, assistant director of sorority and fraternity life at UT Knoxville.
Circle of Sisterhood and buildOn made great progress on the school’s construction until Hurricane Matthew. While most of the village’s homes and crops were destroyed, the school survived with only roof damage.
“Because of the devastation, it may be some time before the school is repaired or completed,” Pierce says. “The priority now is to ensure the people have food, water and shelter.
When it is time to repair the school, Pierce wants UT sorority women to help. “Right now, many are using the school as shelter,” Pierce says. “The school was able to serve a much greater purpose than originally intended, which I am incredibly thankful for.”