PORT-AU-PRINCE -- The six-foot stainless steel tables were supposed to fit together like Lego pieces, creating a work station to roll out the 300 loaves of bread to be made every morning for the children whose families had perished in the earthquake or who had been abandoned at birth.
But a column stood in the way.
For Gene Singletary, who has spent years toiling in kitchens as a top Miami caterer, and Albert Ramirez, the guy chefs call when their ovens aren’t topping 800 degrees for their wood-burning pizzas, a little thing like a load-bearing column wasn’t going to stop them.
“I need a grinder,’’ Singletary barked.
It took only a moment or two for one of the Haitian men to run off and return with a circular saw and one of those school-bus-yellow-sheathed extension cords, the kind for stringing Christmas lights.
Singletary and Ramirez quickly went to work. They measured the column, marked a square on the table, moved the table outside, plugged in the saw, and cut through the steel, sparks flying like a knife slicing day-old bread. Ramirez, his right arm wrapped in a sling from recent rotator cuff surgery, used his left to bend the steel upwards, flush against the column as if it had been custom made.
And this is how four Miamians — Singletary and Ramirez along with sisters Laurie Weiss Nuell and Jennie Weiss Block — are helping to transform the lives of 61 Haitian children by building a bakery.
These are children who were orphaned or discarded by parents who couldn’t handle their children’s disabilities.
The children have found a haven in Zanmi Beni Children’s Home (“Blessed Friends’’ in Creole), with its leafy setting, Crayola-colored playground and hand-chiseled stone chapel flanked by mango and sugar apple trees.
“It really is a special place,’’ said Nuell. “I want for these children what I want for my own children.’’
The complex, with its red gates and yellow walls, is the work of two groups — Dr. Paul Farmer’s Boston-based Partners in Health and Operation Blessing International, a Virginia Beach-based charity that builds wells and water purification systems. (They also build fish farms and raise tropical fish — more on that later.)
“It’s the kind of place where you would want to live, and where you would want your children to live,’’ said Farmer, who for the past 26 years has delivered healthcare to millions of people in places like Haiti, Rwanda, Malawi and Peru.
Farmer will speak with Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat about his latest book, To Repair The World, at 4 p.m. Sunday at a Books & Books event at Coral Gables Congregational Church.
It was Farmer, who grew up in Brooksville on Florida’s West Coast, who led the Weiss sisters to Haiti. They are the daughters of the late Jay Weiss, who co-founded Southern Wine & Spirits, the nation’s largest liquor distributor and the folks who produce the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, with its star chefs and bacchanalian wine tastings on the beach.
Weiss, one of the champions of Jackson Memorial, Ryder Trauma Center and the University of Miami’s Sylvester Cancer Center, died in 2004. One of his lifelong dreams was to set up a program where doctors could make a career out of serving people in impoverished areas.
“This person was doing what my dad always dreamed about,’’ Nuell said of Farmer, who opened her eyes — and pocketbook — to Haiti.
Two months after the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, Partners In Health and Operation Blessing opened Zanmi Beni.
Prior to the earthquake, about three dozen children were crammed into rusted metal cribs at the state-run General Hospital. The children lived in what was known as the Salle des Abandons, the room of the abandoned ones.
After the quake, hospital administrators reached out to Loune Viaud, co-executive director for Zanmi Lasante, Partners in Health’s Haitian medical operation. They could no longer take care of the children.
That’s when Viaud called Bill Horan, president of Operation Blessing International, which had been working with Farmer on setting up water systems at his Haitian clinics.
“She called me up one day and said she found an ideal piece of property,’’ said Horan. “At first, I was reluctant. We don’t know how to care for children with disabilities. She said, ‘Don’t worry. We would staff and manage that. You just need to buy the property.’ ’’
First came a 30-bedroom, eight-bathroom dorm on the nearly four-acre site on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Cribs were filled with stuffed animals; a gazebo flanked the entrance.
Next came the kitchen and dining hall, with its red- and blue-checkered tablecloths, white tile floor and Haitian artwork gracing the walls. Then an arts and music center and a white stone chapel that sits majestically under the mango trees.
The vision for the home, however, was that it would be self-sustaining.
Enter the fish farm. Operation Blessing has built tanks, hatcheries and an irrigation system on the property to raise tilapia, harvesting more than 60,000 pounds of the fish, which it sells to the Haitian government and private fish farmers.
Best, the children are eating tilapia three to four times a week, an excellent source of protein. (The other days they eat chicken, also raised on the property.)
Operation Blessing is also raising tropical fish, selling them and installing aquariums in Haitian classrooms.
But it’s the bakery that is feeding the souls of the children and the Miamians building it.
“We love bread as a nation,’’ said Viaud, who approached Nuell about the bakery.
The idea was for the bakery to not only feed the children and caregivers, but to fund the home by selling the sweet, fluffy bread Haitians love.
“I didn’t know anything about building a bakery,’’ Nuell said. “I was thinking about it for two months, thinking I had to find someone to help me.’’
She then thought of Singletary, who had worked with her father for many years when he was a caterer. Curious, he took a trip to Haiti.
“I was hooked immediately,’’ he said. “I could envision the whole project within the first 15 minutes I was there.’’
Undaunted by the challenge, he recruited architects from the University of Miami and Ramirez, the owner of a Miami restaurant supply company and a longtime friend.
Together, they scoured auctions to get deals on the equipment: Two double-decker Blodgett ovens normally retail for $36,000. They got them used for $11,000. A 2,000-pound Hobart Mixer, which retails for $16,000, cost them $4,700 .
Then, they had to get the equipment to Haiti. The mixer was the biggest challenge; it literally weighs a ton. They shipped it from Miami to a Haitian warehouse on the property. Moving it 200 yards from the warehouse to the bakery took about two hours, as Singletary and his Haitian helpers shifted it from one plywood piece to the other. They then persuaded a guy who drove up with a crane to hoist it overhead.
“It was one of those moments when your breath stops,’’ Singletary said. “It took 10 men to grab it and land it.’’
Today, the bakery is nearly finished. The ovens heat, the mixer mixes, the tables are in place, and the steel shelves are lined with bread pans, mixing bowls, baking sheets and scales.
Singletary and Nuell are working on a logo: BOULANJRI BENI, or Blessings Bakery.
Later this month, they will return to start training the Haitian workers and children how to be bakers. They’re working with Think Food Group and star chef José Andrés. The plan: Make 600 rolls a day, so the children and caregivers could have bread twice a day.
Said Farmer: “The children are doing great, some scampering about, smiling and surrounded by animals and aquariums — all the things I would want for my child.’’