I started my travel industry career as a tour director in Switzerland in 1964 and have been in this industry for 45 years. I'm originally from the U.K., but immigrated to the United States in 1969, and this provided me with many excellent career opportunities.
Studies of charitable giving show that most European countries delegate charitable giving to their governments, but the American "pioneer tradition" of directly assisting those who need it continues, people to people. As a very young boarding school student in Britain during World War II, I personally experienced the generosity of the U.S. troops en route to France. I have never forgotten.
As a tour director with Caravan Tours in the 1960s I also saw how Americans, in particular, always seemed willing to help others immediately, rather than wait for governments to intervene.
And I've always felt that people in the travel industry, perhaps because they've seen with their own eyes living conditions in many parts of the world, have special insight into the needs of the less fortunate. This industry, especially, has helped open closed societies and exposed the world to American ideals.
I have read with dismay the criticisms leveled against Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. for its decision to resume calls to its private destination in Labadee, Haiti, after the devastating earthquake. I know firsthand how much RCCL has done for that unfortunate country.
Back in March 2004, near-civil war raged in Haiti. About that time, my family and I made the decision that it was time to "give back" to the world in the American tradition, with direct involvement. I read a news article about Timkatec, in Petion-Ville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, that included comments from the Rev. Joseph Simon, who ran a home for abandoned street children. My wife, Judy, had taught special education in inner-city Chicago, and we understood some of the tremendous issues he must have been facing. I contacted him, asked what he needed and a received a packet, with plans to build a trade training school. We agreed to raise the funds for the building and, later, to fund the operations of the school.
My good friend, former Action 6 and ASTA President Mike Spinelli, joined me in the Timkatec schools effort. I had only visited Haiti once before 2004; since then we have each made several trips there, most recently to present graduation certificates to 57 newly trained plumbers/electricians.
In 2006, we recognized the need for a school bus for Timkatec. Within a month, we had acquired a renovated bus donated by Laidlaw. I called RCCL and asked for help in getting the school bus to Haiti. Maria Sastre, since retired from RCCL, was a Laidlaw director, and Craig Milan and John Weis, who work for RCCL and focus on Labadee, got deeply involved and made it happen. The bus was carried to Cap-Haitien on an RCCL supply ship.
Mike Spinelli and I have, over the years, met with Haiti tourism officials and know that most tourists to Haiti arrive there thanks to RCCL. Labadee provides hundreds of Haitians with employment, both in Labadee and onboard ships, in a country where unemployment is estimated at 70%. Ill-considered critiques of RCCL's Haiti operations can only be made by people with no concept of the value that this cruise line has brought to that society for more than 25 years.
The original school for boys at Timkatec has thrived, as has a second trade school; a third school, for girls, was opened last September. From the original 90 kids, it has expanded to more than 500.
The earthquake, however, has dealt a setback. The four buildings weathered the quake fairly well, but we have been unable to contact many of the kids since.
We hope that many have gone to the country or to relatives. There were several deaths among the staff members and their families, and many lost their homes. Our first objective is to help them find accommodations so they can track down the students while we seek food to feed the 70 kids found so far.
Simon, a retired Haitian priest and the founder of the school, is an inspirational man who touches us all. He is indefatigable at 80 years old, and he is ably leading his kids through the bedlam of Haiti today. We have absolute trust in him to manage, as we raise funds for his plans to expand the education and training of Haiti's homeless youth. Schools will reopen on Feb. 8.
Updates on Timkatec are available at www.timkatec.org, or by emailing me at [email protected]; information on how to donate, via an arrangement with Catholic Relief Services, is also available on the site.
Patrick O'Shea is a travel industry veteran who has held executive roles at companies in the car rental, air, tour and GDS sectors. He currently is the principal for TMS Advisors.