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Dream builders Local volunteers help build a hospital in Haiti

Joyce Miller, of Boscawen, N.H., checks expiration dates on products donated to the International Medical Equipment Collaborative. Joyce Miller, of Boscawen, N.H., (left) checks expiration dates on products donated to the International Medical Equipment Collaborative. Above, a view of the hospital earlier in the construction process, and workers laying the pavers at the entrance. Work on the hospital is expected to wrap up this month. Joyce Miller, of Boscawen, N.H., checks expiration dates on products donated to the International Medical Equipment Collaborative. Joyce Miller, of Boscawen, N.H., (left) checks expiration dates on products donated to the International Medical Equipment Collaborative. Above, a view of the hospital earlier in the construction process, and workers laying the pavers at the entrance. Work on the hospital is expected to wrap up this month. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff (left photo)/Partners In Health Photos (above))
By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Globe Correspondent / August 26, 2012
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NORTH ANDOVER — In this sprawling 150,000-square-foot warehouse that once belonged to Lucent Technologies, volunteering usually means testing or packing donated medical equipment en route to the developing world. But for the past two years, more than 1,000 local volunteers also have been handling something more: construction materials, from pipe fittings to steel doors.

NORTH ANDOVER — In this sprawling 150,000-square-foot warehouse that once belonged to Lucent Technologies, volunteering usually means testing or packing donated medical equipment en route to the developing world. But for the past two years, more than 1,000 local volunteers also have been handling something more: construction materials, from pipe fittings to steel doors.

NORTH ANDOVER — In this sprawling 150,000-square-foot warehouse that once belonged to Lucent Technologies, volunteering usually means testing or packing donated medical equipment en route to the developing world. But for the past two years, more than 1,000 local volunteers also have been handling something more: construction materials, from pipe fittings to steel doors.

Now, 63 shipping container loads later, they have a world-class hospital in rural Mirebalais, Haiti, to show for it.

“Everything we send, we know is needed and used,” said Ann Freeze, a Rye, N.H., retired nurse who volunteers for the International Medical Equipment Collaborative, a nonprofit that collects used medical equipment and sends it to hospitals in 18 countries. “Nothing just sits on the dock. Everybody knows where it’s going and what to do with it.”

This month, workers are expected to finish building Mirebalais National Teaching Hospital, a 320-bed facility that has become a symbol of hope for Haiti. Soon, the hospital will begin offering a range of services — from neonatal intensive care to digital radiography — that have never before been available in a public hospital in Haiti.

As construction wraps up and medical teams arrive to train in new work stations, Haiti’s pride is being felt and shared on a personal level north of Boston. That’s because the region has made outsized contributions through in-kind gifts of time and materials, solicited largely by James Ansara of Essex.

“The participation from the whole Boston area has been incredible,” said Ansara, the unpaid director of construction at Mirebalais hospital for the nonprofit Partners in Health. “There have probably been 150 construction volunteers who’ve been there. These are not corporate executives going out for a week. They’re working men and women who are giving up a week or two of wages in order to help.”

Mike Biasella of Revere, for example, was one of 30 local carpenters who spent a week or more on site in Haiti. He heard about the opportunity through his union, the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, and went for two weeks in the fall of 2011. At the time, he and his family worried about security issues, but he’s glad he could help by installing doors and building molds for staircases.

“I was shocked when I got to Haiti,” Biasella said. “There were shacks everywhere, corrugated metal shacks in the hills. [But] this hospital is going to be a safe and healthy environment. I was proud to have a part in that. And my family was proud of me for doing it.”

Ansara brought local volunteers into the Haiti effort immediately after the quake hit in January 2010, killing an estimated 310,000 people. He hopped a cargo plane within hours of the disaster and soon found himself knee-deep in rubble, drawing on his electrical background to repair generators and other machinery.

As the dust settled, Ansara signed on to oversee Mirebalais hospital construction, and soon realized he had gotten into more than he expected. The project’s scale tripled after the quake, because the country’s primary hospital at Port-au-Prince was severely damaged and largely decommissioned. He began calling his local business contacts to get involved.

He reached out to Mark Richey, founder and president of Mark Richey Woodworking in Newburyport. Richey, who is one of Ansara’s rock climbing buddies, visited Haiti with him and returned home with a mission: to outfit the hospital with cabinetry and countertops. Woburn’s Atlantic Plywood donated materials, Richey said, and his staff put in hundreds of hours. He estimates that in-kind contributions were valued above $250,000. Now, nursing stations throughout the hospital bear the Newburyport firm’s fingerprints.

“When something like this [earthquake] happens, you want to help, and you wonder: Should we send money to some organization?,” Richey said. “This was a way that we could help by doing what we do best.”

Partners in Health needed every bit of help, since building in central Haiti meant navigating layers of complexity and hindrances. Heavy rains and high rivers meant Ansara, who travels back and forth to Haiti every week, and his crew sometimes couldn’t get out. Though Haitian and Dominican tradesmen were skilled, they had never worked with many of the materials, which meant bringing in international crews to lead training. Even the country’s electricity infrastructure needed an upgrade. These factors and others delayed the project more than a year.

Yet because so many organizations and individuals made in-kind contributions, Ansara said, the $16 million price tag was $8 million less than it would have been otherwise. Gifts came from all over, he said, but those in Greater Boston and points north in particular played instrumental roles.

The equipment collaborative’s North Andover location fast became the project’s hub in the United States. As volunteers and staffers applied their “suite” packing system, which involves placing like items together and mapping out precisely where to deliver them, they ensured that materials never sat idle in Haiti. As the project grew into the organization’s largest ever, it scaled up its efforts by enlisting more volunteers. Meanwhile, the collaborative sent staffers to study the construction site, assess needs, and shoot film for volunteers back in Massachusetts.

By late July, volunteers were loading some of the last containers destined for the Mirebalais hospital. On a Wednesday morning, as a truck waited nearby, a forklift driver lined up stacks of scrub sinks, storage cabinets, chairs, and tables.

“Where we send equipment, babies go from being born on a dirt floor to being born in our beautiful infant facility with a bassinet,” said Kathy DeMontier of Amesbury, workshop supervisor at the equipment collaborative. “That’s already happening in other parts of Haiti. So when we show those video clips, we can tell volunteers: This is what you’re working for.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald can be reached at g.jeffrey.macdonald@gmail.com.

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