As a teacher of high school history and geography, Eric Johnson's goal is to get students thinking beyond what's happening in his classroom. It isn't easy to get a bunch of teenage flatlanders to understand the scope of something as big as Mount Everest or comprehend how one little shift in the Earth's crust can demolish an entire country. But current events can provide important lessons, so when the earthquake hit Haiti in January, Johnson turned the focus south.
Little did the Hudson High teacher know that focus would take him on a three-day trip to the devastated island nation, where he would compile a first-hand account of the injured and those tending to them so his students could see how their efforts could save lives elsewhere.
Initially Johnson's lessons were about things like the fault line that Haiti sits on and how the tectonic plates had shifted, causing the quake. They also spent some time watching news clips of the devastation through Cable in the Classroom, Johnson said.
"But even though we saw the footage, we didn't really understand the scope of the need," he said.
Rumblings started about a week after the earthquake. Some of Johnson's students wanted to do something. But what?
A clothing drive was the first idea. But medical supplies were in greater need. The students got a list from the Red Cross Web site, and amended that to include only the items they were allowed to bring to school, such as disposable wipes, gauze and eyewash. Rubbing alcohol and aspirin, for instance, were out.
The students collected donations, setting up tables in the school's common area. While many were willing to help, some questioned the effort, asking, "Why aren't we helping people here?" or "What have they ever done for us?"
"That was a lesson in itself — seeing how different people react to a crisis like this," Johnson said.
Sasha Chase, 14, said she was moved to bring one of every item on the supply list after watching the news footage in Johnson's class. "I thought it was just horrible and I wanted to help," she said.
"I thought it was important for us to help out," added Heather Richeal, 15. "Nothing that drastic has ever happened here since I've been alive, and if the same thing happened to us, I would want people to help us. And I think it's important to help the children. Some of them are having amputations without anesthesia, and people are dying because of that. It brought me to tears."
No doubt, students and faculty members were motivated.
"I was expecting to fill a few boxes," Johnson said. "We got truckloads."
Even so, there was still an issue of how to get the supplies to Haiti.
"We had heard reports that medical supplies were not getting off base and the kids were worried that if we sent stuff, how would we know that it got there?" Johnson said. "We didn't want kids to put it (donations) on a table and have it disappear. We wanted them to know that what we were doing was making a difference. We wanted them to see the faces of the people they were helping."
Johnson heard on the radio about Agape Flights, an independent Christian Ministry in Venice that had been serving the people of Haiti for 30 years. Not only would they take the supplies to Haiti, but they also allowed Johnson, a former Marine who had worked in disaster relief efforts, to ride along in a World War II era cargo plane — provided Johnson made a video documentary of the relief efforts and got his own ride back to the states.
Word spread to parents and the community, and pretty soon Johnson got calls from two local clinics, Suncoast Eye Care Center and the Center for Bone and Joint Disease. Turns out they had supplies that they wanted to donate: antibiotics, hypodermic needles, IVs and immobilizers.
"You should have seen the nurses (in Haiti)," Johnson said. "When they got those antibiotics they were stoked."
Students learned about that, and about the little boy at the University of Miami's clinic in the Port-au-Prince airport who had no bed — only a stool to sit on. They also heard about a 6-month-old girl named Nerda.
"I played with her for two days," Johnson said, tearing up. "And on the third day I came back, they told me she had died of a respiratory infection. They didn't have the steroids to help her."
True to his word, Johnson took video of the trip so students could see the Army unloading boxes of supplies labeled "Hudson High" and bringing them to the staging area.
"In one or two hours, 25,000 pounds of supplies was gone," he said.
Johnson also took footage off-base, venturing to the island's main road and to the mountain areas where he met missionaries and helped distribute supplies before hitching a ride back to Fort Lauderdale on a private plane.
Last week, students sent another load of supplies to Venice to be shipped to Haiti.
"That pretty much wraps it all up," Johnson said. "But I've heard the school's Interact Club is planning on sending tools down to help the people rebuild Haiti. You know, kind of along the lines of that old adage: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.' "