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Amy Choate-Nielsen: Pilot working to get 130 children flown from Haiti to Utah

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 11:42 p.m. MDT

JIMANI, Dominican Republic — For every person Jeremy Johnson has saved in Haiti, hundreds more have died.

So he doesn't keep track of the many he's airlifted out of the country to safety, to shelter. He doesn't think of the ones he's already fed. He just loads his helicopter with food and keeps going. He doesn't stop. He doesn't sleep. He doesn't eat. He flies.

The 34-year-old St. George native would do anything to stanch the pain he sees coursing all around him, and the daily stabs of suffering he sees is like torture. So when it comes to bringing food to starving children, he'll steal it from the growing mountain of untouched aid at the airport and helicopter it to their door. He's even lined up a jumbo jet to evacuate 130 orphans and enlisted the help of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to try to get the orphans free.

The problem is, he can't always get there fast enough. He can't save everyone.

"Normally, I wouldn't go steal food. I wouldn't steal anything," Johnson says before he breaks down and cries. "But I can't go to another orphanage and find out I missed it by a day and one of the babies died. I just can't.

"One of them died yesterday of starvation," Johnson said. "I can't take any more of those days. I don't care if they put me in jail. I'm just taking food and I want to get it to people who are hungry."

His sobs are so gut-wrenching, he finds it difficult to speak. But there is good news. Today, he doesn't have to steal from the Port-Au-Prince airport and drag 100-pound bags of beans by himself, one by one, to his helicopter that's a block away. Today, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is opening its containers of food, stored safely a few miles away from the violent city center, to Johnson for distribution.

He is ecstatic. He will be able to deliver more food, and there's even powdered milk — a commodity almost impossible to find elsewhere — for the babies.

"I'm going to be able to do a lot tomorrow, more than any other day," he says.

Donations to help with Johnson's efforts — supplies to build shelters are now urgently needed — can be made online at utahhaitirelief.org or at any Zions Bank under Utah Haiti Relief.

Meanwhile, Johnson's group is working to secure the evacuation of approximately 130 children, but they need Utah's help.

Shurtleff said nearly 100 of the approximately 130 children are already in the process of being adopted, so Utah would be a temporary home, if they can make all the necessary arrangements. "We just need a place for them to be safe while they continue that process," Shurtleff said.

Shurtleff praised Johnson for his tireless and selfless efforts. Shurtleff said Johnson believes that because the governor of Pennsylvania was able to break through red tape and bring 53 orphans to his state, all it should take for Utah to do the same is the go-ahead from Herbert.

But as of late Tuesday night, Shurtleff said they were still working on permission, as well as the logistics of receiving the hundred-plus orphans.

This story was reported from Salt Lake City.

e-mail: achoate@desnews.com. Contributing: Sara Israelsen-Hartley

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company