Community, Air Force team up to give Haitians bear hugs

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Brian Bahret
  • Joint Information Bureau Homestead
More than 3,000 Haitian earthquake victims have processed through Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., evacuating Haiti on military aircraft. The victims rely on Airmen and civilian community members to provide temporary relief until they can reunite with friends, loved ones or family members.

Among the Haitians who've processed through Homestead ARB, approximately 900 of them were children including orphans. Relief workers say the families and children traveling often arrive with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

"Our job is to get them back in the country and repatriate them with their families," said Maj. Larry Holbrook, the 482nd Services flight commander. They've been through an awful lot and it's been a tough (time) for these poor people."

Employees from the Air Force, American Red Cross, Miami 3-1-1, Florida Department of Children and Families, U.S. Customs and medical professionals from southern Florida are offering the evacuees immediate relief, medical attention, shelter, blankets, food, temporary beds, and access to phones, as they arrive here.

To compliment the efforts, Southern Florida community members have begun an initiative to offer children arriving here teddy bears as part of the Bear Hugs for Haiti relief effort.

"This program gives a little measure of security to the children," said Major Holbrook, who oversees the reception area where Haitians in-process through U.S. Customs and receive initial care.

"Something as simple as a teddy bear can mean a lifelong change for a child ... this gives them a sense of security," he said.

Michele Gillen, a CBS-Miami chief investigative reporter, is leading the Bear Hugs for Haiti drive. Through community donations, Bear Hugs for Haiti has provided 500 bears for Homestead ARB. Many more went to the Red Cross and Department of Children and Families.

Ms. Gillen has been working with the Florida courts system and emergency response officials for years to put similar bears in the hands of children throughout southern Florida.

"I know how much these bears can comfort children and how (it can be used as a tool) for social workers(and) military," she said. "When the horrible incident happened in Haiti, I knew so much more was needed."

Neighbors 4 Neighbors, a CBS-based non-profit organization, is the backbone of the Adopt-A-Bear operation. The organization encourages community members to get involved by adopting bears which will be given to Haitian children.

"It's a way for our community to do something," Ms. Gillen said. "With the government having so much to do now, bears would not be the first thing on the list."

Community leaders have already begun supporting the effort. Herbert Hoover Foundation officials donated $10,000 for the bear drive. United Parcel Service members flew approximately 2,500 of the bears from a manufacturer in California to Florida for distribution at no cost.

Major Holbrook said the bears offer hope for the children.

"You see the joy in (their) eyes right off the bat," he said. "They grab on to it and hold onto it and they will not let that bear go for anything. It's really symbolic that many of these children are coming to this country with hope; they have nothing, but they're ready to grab onto something and move forward."

On any other day, Senior Airman Eleanor Bravo, the 482nd Mission Support Squadron workgroup manager, supports Homestead ARB's mission by processing people in to the base and supporting their computer-based needs. Since the Jan. 12 earthquake, she's found herself fulfilling another role.

"I do anything they need help in, such as feeding the kids, helping hold the kids while the parents, if they have any, fill out paperwork," said the 25-year-old reservist. "We do anything the kids might need."

Airman Bravo was working when the first bears were given to the children present.

"I think any little warmth to their heart, they will remember it forever," she said. "The humanity needs to come out, and this is the best time to do it. It's wonderful when somebody steps up and starts something. Hopefully everyone will come out and take her example and do something."

Gilda Ferradaz, the Florida Department of Children and Families circuit administrator, said she's seen first-hand the impact the Adopt-A-Bear program has had on children in southern Florida and believes it will help the children of Haiti.

"For children who have gone through the trauma they've gone through any little thing comforts them," Mrs. Ferradaz said. "I've seen them here (at Homestead ARB) and I've seen them at the airport when they come in; they just hug it real tight. I think it makes them feel a little better."

"This is really the start of a new beginning for many of these children," Major Holbrook added. "It starts with a bear in hand."