Charlotte couple helped Haiti before the earthquake

'You ... fall in love with the people.'

04/28/2010 12:00 AM

04/28/2010 3:32 PM

Before CNN's Anderson Cooper solemnly reported the destruction in Haiti; before actress Angelina Jolie brought her considerable star power; before the telethons and news crews, Peter and Lucie Tonon were part of a group from Charlotte that is trying to make a difference in the beleaguered country.

The Jan. 12 earthquake that ravaged Port au Prince, Haiti claimed more than 200,000 lives in a country already the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

The Tonons' involvement in Haiti began because Lucie, 50, wanted to make a mission trip after battling breast cancer. The Tonons' first trip was to Jamaica, where the head of the Haitian mission persuaded Peter Tonon, 49, to come to Haiti in June 2007. With several other volunteers, Peter went to help the Missionaries of the Poor, a group that helps the poorest of the poor.

"The first time we landed there, I looked outside the window at the airport and there were U.N. pillboxes there with soldiers manning machine guns," he recalled. "I'd never seen so much poverty, so much filth, but there was an interesting thing with the people: They were incredibly calm considering the mayhem they lived in."

Even before the earthquake, conditions were difficult, said the couple.

"Haiti seems like a country that has suffered a war and no one has helped them ever," said Lucie, who first got to Haiti in November 2007. "The streets are rubble. The electricity goes down in the middle of the day. It affects their ability to maintain the basic necessities of shelter and lighting and food."

The mission was in bad shape, so the group got together to fix it - and they got hooked. They cared for the residents - giving baths, serving food, mopping floors and doing laundry.

"It's very addicting," said Lucie. "You kind of just fall in love with the people. They're a very joyful people. They have a lot of dignity."

Peter estimates he has visited Haiti five or six times; Lucie has gone three times. Their two oldest children, Lauren and Peter Jr., have also gone to help.

Together, Lucie and Peter Tonon - who live in Providence Country Club - kept going back, and each time, they saw tremendous needs. Back in Charlotte, they enlisted their friends and other committed volunteers to organize the Starthrowers Foundation to raise money for education in Haiti.

The following year, they hosted an event called "Hands for Haiti."

"We wanted to help children like our own, who were able to go to school, who could turn the country into something better a decade or two decades from now, so we want to help with education," Lucie said.

The Tonons did not go to help with earthquake rescue because they didn't want to be a burden to those already trying to respond to the disaster.

"I'm not a doctor," Lucie said, "I'm not trained to do what they needed."

Instead, they helped other volunteers from St. Matthew Catholic Church gather supplies to aid in the recovery efforts.

While the Tonons where distressed by the earthquake, they said they hope the plight of the Haitian people will finally get the world's attention. Once the television cameras have gone home and the celebrities have found another "cause du jour," the needs in Haiti will still be enormous, they said; they wonder who will help then.

They plan to go back this summer to help the Missionaries of the Poor.

"The tiny bit we can (help) through a nonprofit is so small. Maybe with government agencies coming together, they can help repair the infrastructure.

"We couldn't do that," said Lucie.

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