AKRON—John Krajewski decides who gets health care in Haiti.
It's a concept the 48-year-old regional sales manager for Kumho Tire U.S.A. Corp. coped with for five years since he began making annual trips to the poverty-stricken country with the group Friends of the Children of Haiti, known as FOTCOH.
Started in 1985, the group first consisted of founder Richard Hammond and five others who treated more than 500 Haitians in their first mission trip. Now the Chicago-based nonprofit organization runs six teams of 15 to 20 volunteer medical and nonmedical personnel each year, providing medical care to thousands of Haitians at the 6,000-sq.-ft. clinic in Cyvadier, which it hired Haiti residents to build.
As head of crowd control, Krajewski is the gatekeeper who decides who receives aid. So many people with health problems from scabies and chicken pox to diabetes and poorly treated cuts makes it a difficult job, he said.
“That is the thing, and I've gotten a little hardened to that, and you have to have thick skin,” he said.
“It's most important to take care of chronic pro- blems, but from there it's a crap shoot.”
Krajewski joined FOTCOH after some “gentle arm twisting” by a pharmacist he knew from his church. At the time, he was working for a distributor that today is owned by U.S. Oil Co. Inc. Five years later—as an outside salesman for Kumho tires in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula—Krajewski continues to devote his time to FOTCOH, logging six trips to Haiti and even leading teams for the last three years.
“My job complements and provides the opportunity for me to help the people of Haiti,” he said. “I have many customers that provide financial support for FOTCOH. My employer is also supportive of my efforts.”
Krajewski said he likes helping people solve their problems, whether it be a tire for their business or medical help for a child.
He said the organization offers many opportunities to help the Haitian people. Most volunteers outside of the medical staff serve to keep the crowd organized, but others may work as pharmaceutical assistants or help by taking temperatures and blood pressures.
In his last trip in March, Krajewski's team treated about 1,900 patients over the course of two weeks.
Fearing the unknown
Krajewski wasn't always so upbeat about entering a country that the U.S. government still designates as an area where Americans should not travel.
“The first year I went there, literally there was no leader installed and it was very chaotic,” he said. “I was very apprehensive.”
He described his first image of Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, as something out of a movie, with droves of people yelling, touching others coming off the plane and asking to carry their bags. However, there were no violent outbursts.
“This community we go to, we're pretty much the only blondes (Caucasians) they see, and they realized we're there to help them,” he said.
Krajewski had his share of expectations and stereotypes about Haitian people, but many of those turned out to be unwarranted, he said.
“I thought they were gonna be a little gruff and different from anything I ever encountered, but when I got down there (I saw) they're just people,” he said. “When it comes down to it, they're just like us.”
The Haitians wield machetes as they walk down the street, but “those are like their pocket knives,” Krajewski said. “They're so poor that there really isn't a lot of theft, and there's no drug addicts because there's no drugs.”
In general, the people of Haiti are much kinder than he expected them to be.
“In their culture, and this is just unbelievable, they always want to show you their little houses,” he said. “They bring you there and they always have one nice chair and they sit you in the chair. If they have enough food for one person, the visitor always eats before the people who live there. In America, who would do that?”
Even when FOTCOH shuts down the clinic at the end of each trip, and hundreds of Haitians waiting outside are still left untreated, they thank the group.
Though Krajewski said no one has died in the clinic during his trips, in a country where the average life expectancy is about 50 years and many children never make it to adulthood, a lot of patients don't return.
“I wonder if I'd still be alive if I was raised there,” he said. “The biggest picture, first and foremost, is I was born and raised in America and given all these opportunities that I take for granted. There are a lot of countries where, no matter how hard you try, there's just no infrastructure and ability to have all this comfort.”
When Krajewski needs to motivate himself for his next trip to Haiti, one thought jumps into his mind—an old man and a pair of sandals.
In his first outing to the country, FOTCOH had been giving out shoes to the local residents, many of whom were walking around barefoot. Eventually the crew ran out of shoes to provide, but Krajewski noticed an old man who was still waiting for a pair. Instead of giving him the disappointing news, he slipped off his own sandals and gave them to the man.
“He gave me a hug I'll never forget,” Krajewski said.