An aerial view of a tent city in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, four days after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake that rocked the country. Master Sgt. Jeremy Lock, USAF, photo
In a poor Catholic country like Haiti, faith has long been the greatest healer of broken souls.
But for Danny Yates, a young Richmonder who rode the same earthquake shockwaves that tore the Atlantic island nation apart earlier this year and left it poorer than ever, prayer is a planning phase — things don't get done if hands stay folded and heads stay bowed.
"I guess I do believe in the power of prayer, but I see more the benefit of direct action," says Yates, an earnest, baby-faced 19-year-old graduate of Maggie Walker High School, who was in Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, participating in an exchange program through the College of William & Mary.
Now Yates wants to continue to help a group of Haitian university students who lost everything in the quake — including the university classrooms where they'd been studying in Port-au-Prince.
Shortly after returning home, he founded Hinche Scholars, dedicated to putting nine of those students back in classrooms here in the United States. Next week, Yates returns to the still shell-shocked country on a mission to bring those students, all of whom live in the hilltop town of Hinche, back to the United States to complete their studies.
Richmond magazine will follow Yates on that return trip with online updates starting next week. The visit will include an audience with Carlene Dei, the head of USAID's Haiti mission, arranged by Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor. Former Gov. Tim Kaine also has helped Yates, working to streamline the process to receive security approval from the various federal agencies that oversee and tightly control foreign student visas since the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The visit will also include a survey of efforts to restore the country.
"Dei [with USAID] is in charge of all the purse strings; she has billions of dollars in her budget," says Yates, who sees her as a potential answer to the prayers of the students he's acting to help.
Since securing an agreement with Barber-Scotia College in Charlotte, N.C., to accept the Haitian students, Yates has been fighting an uphill battle to raise about $70,000 that would pay for the first two years of school there for all nine of them.
By Yates' figuring, getting the Haitians back to their studies is vital to rebuilding the country. All of the 20 or so universities in Haiti were located in Port-au-Prince.
"All the universities were destroyed," he says, acknowledging that education is a luxury when weighed against the greater immediate need in the country for simple relief like food, clothing and clean water. "But 50 years from now, if we don't still want to have this problem … these kids, they'll just be able to open doors over there for others in their own families and in their community."
All nine of the students Yates is working to help have signed agreements to return to their home country to help rebuild after they complete their studies.
It remains to be seen if USAID's purse strings loosen, but Yates' efforts, which began just days after the quake, seem finally close to paying off for the fellow students he's trying to help. As of today, he's raised $24,000.
"Fundraising has been a little slow, and as of now everything has been running out of my basement," says Yates, who estimates he's less than a quarter of the way to meeting his fundraising goal. But that all could change with recent high-profile successes.
The first came earlier this summer, after Yates stated his case on Lite 98's Bill Bevins Wake Up Show and drew the attention of Ken and Gail Henshaw, founders of the I Have a Dream Richmond Foundation. Yates' efforts have since moved out of his basement and under the umbrella of the Henshaws' nonprofit, which is now providing needed administrative help and real fundraising credibility.
The next success came more recently, after outreach efforts managed to pique the interest of representatives from former President Bill Clinton's foundation. Clinton was appointed the United Nations special envoy to Haiti in 2009 and has been a tireless champion for the island and of efforts to aid it. Yates has been asked by Clinton's foundation to apply for one of its grants as another potential source of funding.
Through it all, Yates has remained the unlikely spokesman for his nine students. But as those students wait to find out whether Yates' efforts on their behalf will bear fruit, it's faith that sustains them.
On Jan. 20, just a week after the initial quake leveled Port-au-Prince, a 6.0 aftershock rocked the country. Yates called the parish priest in Hinche to see if the village had been spared.
"It happened during 6 a.m. mass," Yates says. "He said that they just went outside and continued the [church] service."
If prayer keeps Haiti going, it is a vision of the future that keeps Yates at it: "I just keep dreaming of the day they get off the airplane in Richmond."
For information on how to donate, visit the Hinche Scholars project's website .