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City Lights: Haiti still needs us

Remember Haiti? The impoverished Caribbean island became the focus of international attention in January when a 7.0 earthquake killed an estimated 230,000 people and left countless more displaced. For awhile, it was hard to open a newspaper without reading a story about relief efforts on the ground or a fundraiser in the classroom. Nowadays, with BP and Abby Sunderland dominating the headlines, you rarely hear it mentioned.

The title of the Los Angeles Times' series on Haiti this summer — "Living in Limbo" — hinted at how much work still needed to be done. So we should be doubly grateful for people like Matt Vecere, a former Huntington Beach resident who quit his job last month, booked a one-way ticket to Haiti and now spends his days assisting people whose poverty would shock the leanest parts of Orange County.

I heard about Vecere from former Independent City Editor Jennifer Frehn and managed to reach him by e-mail. The country, he noted, had spotty electricity, and he was lucky enough to have a generator to power his computer.

Vecere has the kind of resume that might point to a promising career. He's served as a magazine editor, worked for a surfboard and clothing brand in San Clemente, even written an autobiography that's awaiting publication. In between those jobs, he's led a second life of assisting those in need — starting in college, when he brought blankets and food to homeless Atlantic City residents.

When news of the Haiti quake hit, Vecere had recently lost his job at an Alzheimer's nonprofit and was working as a copy editor in Irvine. The images from Haiti inspired him to take action. He rounded up friends and coworkers to raise money for Waves for Water, a nonprofit that delivers water filtration systems to blighted parts of the world. The group planned to fly to Haiti to help install the systems, but one by one, the members dropped out until only Vecere remained.

"Pretty soon, I was on a plane to Haiti with a suitcase full of water filters and not much of a clue as to what I was going to do with them," he told me.

On his way to the Caribbean, Vecere stayed with a friend in Miami who knew some Haitian Americans, and through a degree of separation or two, the friend hooked him up with a driver. Soon, Vecere found himself staying at a relief camp overseen by actor Sean Penn, sleeping in a sweltering tent and learning the art of improvised building skills. At one point, he and his fellow relief workers ventured to a United Nations compound, took apart discarded flooring and used it to sculpt a roof for a doctor's clinic.

On Friday, Vecere was busy removing rubble from sites where houses had been destroyed by the quake, with the intent of building new shelters in their place. It was tricky work, he said, in part because bodies still lay under the debris and needed to be properly cared for.

Reading his accounts, I thought of the time after grad school I spent volunteering for a homeless shelter, whose director told me the weeks after Christmas were always the leanest time of the year. After the holidays, she said, "giving time" passed in many donors' minds, and her staff had to make do with less.

A similar thing happens with tragedies like Haiti's. In the days after a catastrophe, it's easy — and even fashionable — to raise funds and put on a show of support. But most of the time, the plight continues long after we've written our last tax-deductible check.

It's people like Vecere, who drop their comfortable lives to sift amid the rubble, who bring lasting healing to the world. And if you'd like to contribute to his cause, visit http://www.jphro.org and make a donation. There are thousands of people — many, many thousands — who still could use it.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at michael.miller@latimes.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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