Mission to Haiti loses a founder

Published April 18, 2006

MIAMI - Don DeHart liked to think he was different from most missionaries.

"I don't run. If there's trouble, I want to be there," he told me the last time I saw him two years ago at the small charity he ran in Cap Haitien on Haiti's northern coast.

Sure enough, a few hours later gunfire erupted as a violent rebellion swept away yet another government.

Mr. DeHart, 71, who died of cancer Saturday (April 15, 2006) at his home in Palm Harbor, had predicted the dramatic events to me a week earlier by phone. "You better get down here as soon as possible," he said, describing the restless mood in the city and mounting rebel activity.

I knew Mr. DeHart kept his ear to the ground, so I immediately started making travel plans. A no-nonsense kind of guy, if he said things were bad, you knew they were.

I had visited him a decade earlier to write about his missionary work for the small charity For Haiti With Love he started in 1982 with his wife, Eva. In a small medical clinic, I watched him lance baseball-size infected boils on kids' faces, and delicately apply cream to burn victims.

Poverty is everywhere in Cap Haitien, Haiti's second largest city, with a population of more than a half-million. The DeHarts kept 2,000 of the city's neediest people fed on rations of beans and rice.

When Mr. DeHart was born in Indianapolis in 1935, his father was in road construction. Mr. DeHart started out in his family footsteps. "He was driving a dump truck by the time he was 13," Eva DeHart said. Armed with three engineering degrees, Mr. DeHart went on to be the successful general manager of a large Midwestern road construction firm, paving major interstate highways.

But Haiti was already taking up a larger and larger part of his life, thanks to a Christian calling. Mr. DeHart had been volunteering as a pastor in rural Indiana. But he got tired of watching local congregations spend their budgets on creature comforts. "He felt there was more to God's work than thicker cushions on pew seats," Eva said.

He made his first mission trip to Haiti in the winter of 1968-69 to help build a youth camp in a remote village. "He got hooked on the loving nature of the people," Eva said.

He never let go.

After founding For Haiti With Love, the DeHarts moved to Florida in 1982 to be closer to their mission work. That meant Don was away for long periods of time while Eva managed the fundraising and shipping of supplies from home.

They built a loyal group of donors who helped them purchase rice and beans and medical supplies, including the $40 jars of SSD (silver-sulphurdiazine) burn cream.

Though not medically trained, Mr. DeHart became a burns expert, saving many lives in the process. He learned how to treat shock, as well as prevent bacterial infection.

Sadly, he had a great deal of practice.

In a city of wooden shacks, fire is a great hazard. With virtually no electricity, most families use charcoal for cooking and candles for lighting. Often cookpots overturn when the charcoal shifts.

One of his patients, a 9-year-old girl named Roseline, needed more than the clinic could provide. To treat a crippling spinal condition, the DeHarts arranged to bring her to the Shriners orthopedic hospital in Tampa. After Roseline's mother died, they adopted her.

Now 22, Roseline has been preparing to take over her father's work in Haiti. A graduate of the Palm Harbor University High School medical magnet program, she spent her summers in Haiti. Last September she went back down to take over the mission after her father became ill with renal cancer.

It was Mr. DeHart's second battle with the disease. He was successfully treated for brain and bone cancer in the early 1970s.

When I last saw him, it was only a day after rebels stormed into Cap Haitien in a blaze of gunfire, and Mr. DeHart was already back at work building a house for his night watchman, Max Inocent.

That morning he had stitched up the head of a youth hit by a rock in the market, and treated a boy who fell into a charcoal fire and burned his neck and shoulder.

Wearing a U.S. Special Forces cap he picked up during the last U.S. military intervention in 1994, Mr. DeHart was busy measuring interior walls for the sturdy, half-built four-room home.

Inocent, 35, a look of disbelief in his face, eagerly followed instructions. "I always dreamed of a house like this," he said, adding that his current home was a wooden shack, which he shared with his wife and three children, 8, 7 and 4.

Carrying on the mission without Don's fearless presence will be a daunting task for Roseline, says her mother. Only 4 feet 3 inches tall, Roseline is disadvantaged in a society where men are not used to taking orders from the opposite sex.

But Mr. DeHart leaves behind a loyal and dedicated staff to help her, including Inocent, who has since been promoted. "Our promise to Don is to do our utmost to keep For Haiti With Love rolling in his honor," said Eva.

A memorial service for Don DeHart will be held at 2 p.m. on April 24 at the Dunedin First Presbyterian Church, 455 Scotland St.

Donations may be sent to For Haiti With Love, P.O. Box 1017, Palm Harbor, FL 34682. More information can be found on the Internet at: www.forhaitiwithlove.org)