Special to South Florida Times
Salusa Basquin has not been able to bring himself to go to his homeland and face the devastation caused by the worst earthquake ever to hit Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010.
“I have not been able to rack up my nerves to go back home,” said the Port-au-Prince native who now lives in West Palm Beach.
But on Wednesday, exactly one year later, the 43-year-old former soccer player mounted a bicycle and rode across three counties in one day, making stops along the way, to call attention to the plight of Haiti and to raise awareness of the country’s many needs in the wake of the natural disaster tragedy that killed an estimated 230,000 people and left more than one million homeless.
Galvanizing sponsors and supporters, Basquin and about a dozen others donned bright orange “Save Haiti” t-shirts and bike shorts and began the trek around 5:30 a.m. with a prayer in Lake Park, just north of West Palm Beach, and ending at Miami’s Little Haiti community.
State Rep. Mack Bernard, D-District 84, also of Haitian descent, reorganized his schedule to take part in the event with his friend. The Legislature is in session in Tallahassee but Bernard was excused so he could commemorate the anniversary of the earthquake with his constituents.
Although arriving in Palm Beach after midnight Wednesday from Tallahassee, Bernard was greeting Basquin and the other bikers and attendees at the opening ceremony in Lake Park. Dressed in sweats and t-shirt, he was prepared to ride a bicycle for miles – something he said he’d never done but was glad to do for the occasion.
“This is something that is good for the community and it’s a healing process. I’m glad to be a part of it. It’s good to see the young people who want to see change in Haiti but they also understand that they must do their part here, to be a part of the process,” Bernard said minutes before the caravan got underway.
Basquin, who came up with the idea for the ride, said he wanted to acknowledge those who have played a part in the rebuilding of his native country and to encourage South Florida Haitians to take a more active role in the process.
“We have had so much support from the American community –people, radio stations, organizations, churches, policemen, firefighters, nurses, nearly every segment of South Florida — so many have gone out of their way to go to Haiti to support. We really wanted to do this as a way to say, ‘thank you.’
“And we also wanted to rekindle the relationship to let everyone know that we’re still in need. The country is still in need. And the most important reason we wanted to do this is so that the Haitian community, the Haitian Diaspora, starts taking responsibility for what is going to happen in Haiti.”
The caravan stopped along the way at various Palm Beach municipalities, to be greeted by well-wishers and welcomed by noted individuals and governmental officials.
Lake Park Mayor Desca DuBois welcomed the group just before they started their journey. In West Palm Beach, Arthur Bullard, executive assistant to Mayor Lois Frankel, welcomed the bikers with a proclamation designating January 12, 2011, “Haitian Earthquake Memorial Day.”
“When the earthquake happened, we felt like it happened to us, as well as them,” Bullard said. “We raised money, food, and clothing. We have a large Haitian population here in West Palm Beach, and we wanted them to know that their problem is our problem.”
Also in West Palm Beach, Bernard read the names of some of the earthquake victims, honoring them.
A couple of hours later in Boynton Beach, the group visited Toussant L’Ouverture High School for Arts and Social Justice, whose student population is almost entirely Haitian American. Basquin was presented with a $500 check by the school’s co-founder, Retired Army Major Joseph Bernadel. The students raised the money for the cause.
Earthquake survivors Wikenson and Jerlyn Jestine of Boynton Beach gave a moving address. The couple and their children were in Port-au-Prince when the earthquake struck. Wikenson Jestine, who was born in Haiti but spent much of his life in the United States, had returned to Haiti to work, saying he wanted to make a difference.
Wikenson was at a meeting at his job and Jerlyn and the children were in the car waiting for him to get off work when the earthquake struck.
“I didn’t know what to think at that point,” said Wikenson, 30. “I had never been in an earthquake before. I never would have thought I would have experienced an earthquake in Haiti.”
Although he lost some close family members, his immediate family was spared. He believes God spared his family for a reason and he decided to remain for a while to help with the recovery.
Now he and his family are back in South Florida trying to rebuild their lives. Jerlyn is a registered nurse. Wikenson is looking for a job where he can put to use his experience in business administration, finances and management.
Jestine said he welcomed the bike ride that Basquin organized and the opportunity to tell his story at such an event.
“I didn’t think we had any such thing going on in the community, particularly involving the Haitian community,” he said. “When I learned they were biking all the way to Miami, I said, ‘Wow, that is great.’ These are the things we need in the community to help out and to bring the community together and to raise awareness.”
Basquin said that was his goal.
“This was not necessarily an effort to raise money but more of an effort to raise manpower. We’re looking forward to not only raising $1 million but also to raise one million individuals with the awareness of the plight.”