|Boston Local Builds Hospital, Lasting Relationships in Haiti
Maybe it was the Marine Corps that best prepared Fletcher Fuentes, a Boston Local 103 journeyman wireman, to go to one of the world's most impoverished nations to lead a group of young electricians who speak a different language and share next to nothing of the consumer comforts that surrounded him at home.
After months in Haiti, away from his wife and three young children, Fuentes, a former infantry mortar man, reaffirms the sentiments of 41 Local 103 volunteers — including retirees and active workers — who have traveled to the Caribbean to support a renowned nonprofit organization, building what will be the region's largest hospital.
"It's been an eye-opening experience that has changed the way I think about life," says Fuentes, a second-generation IBEW member who topped out as apprentice of the year last year and has been working for Sullivan and McLaughlin Companies, New England's largest electrical contractor, for six years.
Local 103 Business Agent Lou Antonellis says it was a "no-brainer" when Local 103's Business Manager Mike Monahan and SullyMac's principal, Hugh McLaughlin, were asked by contractor Jim Ansara to help build a 320-bed hospital in Mirebalais on Haiti's central plateau, about an hour and a half from its capital, Port-au -Prince, still in dire circumstances since the horrific 2010 earthquake.
"The hospital sector has given so much to the contractors and members of Local 103 and our families," says Antonellis. "We are not only provided with access to the world's best health care facilities, we are literally performing millions of man-hours building and maintaining the electrical systems in over 50 hospitals in our jurisdiction."
The Mirebalais project is sponsored by Boston-based Partners in Health, founded more than 30 years ago by Harvard-educated Dr. Paul Farmer, a visionary advocate who has been profiled on "60 Minutes" and currently disperses $50 million in annual funding for medical projects in many parts of the world.
The complete contrast between living and working conditions in Boston and Mirebalais even shocked Local 103 volunteers who have witnessed stark cultural and economic differences in other places and times.
"This place will bring a tear to your eye. It's humbling," says 45-year member Larry Richmond, a semi-retired SullyMac electrician who recruited fellow U.S. Navy Vietnam Seabees veteran Jim Pimental, a retired Local 103 journeyman, Bill Zimkin, a retired member of New York Local 3, and Tom Shreves, manager of the Greater Cleveland Chapter of the National Electrical Contractors Association and a member of Steubenville Local 246, to travel to Haiti.
Pimental had heard before arriving in Haiti that, without a hospital nearby, sick residents sometimes travel on foot for an entire day to seek medical care. But the poverty he saw on the way to the airport before leaving Haiti left an indelible image. "There was a traffic jam, so our driver took a shortcut through a neighborhood that hadn't been damaged by the 2010 earthquake." Even outside of the earthquake's devastation, he says, "what people are enduring is unbelievable." Pimental, who spent a year in Vietnam, says, "That country wasn't as devastated as this one. In Haiti, there are tent cities everywhere. This is a war — a war to survive."
Pimental said he is proud that IBEW members are passing on valuable skills to Haitian workers while letting them witness union brotherhood firsthand. "They know that union membership leads to better wages and working conditions, which means a better overall way of life. And God knows, they need it," says Antonellis.
Leaving not just physical structures, but trained medical professionals behind is a hallmark of Partners in Health programs, says Brian Scott, PIH's site supervisor at Mirebalais. Passing on trade skills to help Haitian workers build Mirebalais' outpatient clinic, birthing center, dental center and women's clinic, say Local 103 members, is part of the same mission.
"I love helping these guys out since I know it is a source of pride for them to build this hospital," says Fuentes. "Haitian electricians are great to work with, always willing to learn and do anything," he says. Whether digging a ditch in 95-to-100 degree heat, cutting concrete to install a box, or working in a pit full of water, they are willing to get the job done, he adds.
At the beginning of the job, Fuentes used an interpreter to translate his instructions in Creole.
After that, he says, "I used my 'SpanglishCreole' to get my point across." He says teaching electricians to read blueprints gets past any language barrier. And fair treatment is essential. "I don't micromanage our Haitian brothers," says Fuentes. "I allow them to make mistakes and fix them without having someone standing over them yelling." But completing the first phase of the project on time in February also meant crossing other unfamiliar barriers.
"There isn't a supply house down the street, so most of the material is either carried down by volunteers on the plane or shipped in containers that take six to eight weeks to get to Mirebalais and clear customs," says Fuentes.
The Mirebalais project encompasses all phases of electrical construction. In a nation where shoddy, dangerous electrical installations are everywhere, IBEW electricians are familiarizing residents with National Electrical Code methods, the wiring of intricate life safety systems and installation of X-ray and CT-scan machinery.
One of the Haitian electricians, Iguenson Joseph, 27, began working at Mirebalais as a laborer and security guard. In an interview on Partners in Health's Web site, Joseph, a former teacher and father of two, says his work is about helping his country and his family. Joseph helps translate Creole and English for workers at the hospital. He says, "I want [my children] to go to school and take the hard subjects, and to continue on to university. I was studying physics but had to stop before graduation. I want them to be able to finish."
Hugh McLaughlin says of his company's commitment to Mirebalais, "Professional fulflillment is not just about winning work. It's something more. This is a great opportunity to work in Haiti and give back to the community by working with Partners in Health and Local 103."
Chuck Richmond, a 35-year Local 103 member and operations officer at SullyMac, has been to Haiti six times and is responsible for all technical and logistical support.
Phase 1 of the Mirebalais project was dedicated by Dr. Farmer on January 10. Phase 2 is expected to be completed by April 30. Antonellis expects that by the project's end, 75 Local 103 members will have participated, with eight making multiple trips.
Bob Crehan, a 16-year Local 103 member, was hesitant after first being asked to travel to Haiti. Today, Crehan is pleased that he overcame his doubts.
"Volunteering in Haiti was the most rewarding experience of my life," says Crehan, who plans to return for the second phase of the hospital's construction. He says Haitian people are some of the most positive people he has ever met, but electricians are severely lacking in tools and training. While he is proud that Local 103 and SullyMac helped his new co-workers acquire good quality tools of the trade, Crehan still thinks about the difficulty of life in the surrounding countryside. "It is quite a sight to watch a 10-year-old girl carry a five-gallon bucket of water on her head up hills over long distances," he says.
Antonellis says the Mirebalais project takes the slogan of the 39th IBEW International Convention, "Brotherhood Beyond Borders," to the next level. "I'll be forever grateful for the lessons I learned about basic humanity and helping my neighbor. Projects like this exemplify the IBEW's commitment to the electrical industry and brotherhood around the world."
Local 103 and SullyMac have produced a video about the building of the Mirebalais hospital. Visit.