Jeff Lozama still remembers the image that launched his and his siblings’ annual humanitarian mission to Haiti nine years ago this month.
“There was a storm and it was raining hard,” said Lozama, a South Florida businessman, who was attending an aunt’s funeral in Haiti when his brother Ed, a well-known Creole-radio journalist, “saw this kid playing in the mud with a makeshift car, and pointed him out.”
Both brothers’ hearts were already heavy. Two months earlier, their philanthropist mother Evanne Lozama, known as “Man Dodo,” had died of cancer, and the Lozama brothers and their two other siblings had been thinking about how to honor her memory and keep alive her giving spirit. The image of the muddy boy struck a chord with them.
That December, the Lozamas were back in Haiti with a suitcase full of toys. They set up shop in their grandparents’ shack in the southern Haiti town of Cavaillon and began distributing the toys as Christmas presents.
“We are from Cavaillon and we remember how vividly our life was growing up,” Lozama said. “Seeing that kid brought back memories of when we were playing with the same makeshift toys. Life has never really changed for the kids in Cavaillon.’
But life has changed for the Lozamas, who are using their success and connections to help provide healthcare in some of Haiti’s most remote villages.
Since 2009, the Man Dodo Humanitarian Foundation has been sponsoring an intense two-day medical clinic in Haiti. Every year, the mission trip attracts dozens of South Florida volunteers, from emergency room and administrative nurses to doctors to non-healthcare professionals, who pay their own airfare and hotel bills to bring healthcare to people with no access to a hospital, much less to medications.
“The toy drive is the last leg of what we do,” said Lozama, recalling how the decision to run a health clinic was made during a 2008 visit to his mother’s hometown, the coastal village of Morency outside the city of Les Cayes.
While the group was distributing food, a nurse volunteer saw a distressed mother with a child. After approaching the mother, the nurse realized that the child was ill.
“We didn’t have anything to give,” Lozama said. “Eventually, she found vitamins and left them. That’s when we decided we wanted to do something much more impactful the following year.”
On the health clinic days, patients walk for miles and stand in line for hours, waiting to get their vital signs checked and to receive donated medication. Many suffer from diabetes and hypertension, but don’t fully understand their illnesses, said Lozama’s wife, Marjorie, a nurse.
“We do a lot of teaching. A lot of them do not read, so we develop a system: a picture of the sun means they need to take their medication in the morning; a picture of the moon, we explain, means to take it in the evening,” she said. “You’re the nurse, the nutritionist, and pretty much filling many different roles there.”
Marjorie Lozama, the current president of the Haitian American Nurses Association (HANA) of Florida, said that during her first medical mission, she thought, “I was going to help people, but you come back a different person.”
Lynn M. Hood, a nursing volunteer, agrees.
“Over the holidays you realize how blessed you are, and what you have and how there are so many good people in Haiti who haven’t had the opportunities and blessing we have had,” said Hood, who as vice president of HCR ManorCare manages 67 nursing and rehabilitation centers in eight states, including Florida. “It’s just a great experience, and it’s the ultimate giving back without any hidden agenda, no wasted money because of large overhead.”
Hood first traveled to Haiti shortly after the country’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake, she said, to help administer healthcare to the family members of employees, one-fifth of whom are Haitian. Then, two years later, she was recruited by HANA, which has been supporting the foundation’s efforts since 2010.
This December, Hood will be on her third mission trip with Man Dodo. The foundation will travel to Haiti Dec. 11-15 with about 50 volunteers to provide assistance over two days to more than 1,500 people in the village of Picot, where the group visited last year. The group is returning after it discovered that the majority of people suffer from severe hypertension.
“For me, it’s been the healthcare piece of the mission that really has the most impact and gives me the most joy,” Hood said. “It’s been a lot of fun to touch patients again.”
Not all of the volunteers are medical professionals. Marilyn Rousseau is a Davie engineer who grew up in Haiti but never visited the country’s southern region until two years ago, on her first volunteer trip.
“For me, the organization has been a vehicle to accomplish what I always wanted to do, which is to help my brothers and sisters I left back in Haiti,” said Rousseau, who serves as a translator between the doctors and patients. “I know we are not going to permanently change their lives, but I can can feel we bring hope to them.”
In addition to HANA, the foundation receives support from groups in Haiti like the Fritz P. Brandt Foundation, food company Bongu and Jedco Services, which provides portable toilets during the visit. Heartland Pharmacy, in Pensacola, donates some of the medications while others are purchased in Haiti.
Last month, the foundation sponsored a fund-raiser at North Miami’s Moca Cafe hoping to raise $25,000 toward its effort. It got only $4,500, said Jeff Lozama. It will take more than a slow fund-raiser, however, to discourage them, he added.
“Kids who never receive gifts now do, and they know when we are coming,” he said. “And in terms of healthcare, we know the disparity and lack of health services especially in rural areas of Haiti. The testimonies we get are people telling us ... how we have changed their lives because we come with the professionals and medication.”
How to donate
To contribute new toys, newly purchased medication or cash, send them to the Man Dodo Humanitarian Foundation, 3333 NW 168th St., Miami, FL 33056.
For information, visit www.mandodo.org.