When Jeremy Johnson, 34, of Washington County, was watching the aftermath of the earthquake that ravaged Haiti on his TV, he felt prompted to go there and help. "I have to be there," he remembers thinking.
During an interview with him recently at his home office in St. George, he added, "I'm so glad I did it even though there were many reasons not to do it."
A press release Johnson later e-mailed me tallied the good they'd done. "(The Citation X [Johnson's personal plane] )…completed 40 missions, carried 254 passengers, including injured children and surgeons, and moved over 25,000 pounds of cargo and supplies," he said. "Our three helicopters flew hundreds of missions and … moved nearly 100,000 pounds of food, medicine, supplies."
Now on Thursday, Johnson will deploy for his next and third relief tour — of which I'll be along to document the five-day tour — with a goal to find a place where he can secure land to eventually build houses.
"They just need basic shelter," he said. They're scared to live in brick houses now. We could take one of their worries away by providing houses. Even a tin hut they would be thankful for."
Johnson's mission is to come up with a plan to build houses, ultimately, before the rainy season. Until then, tent cities may have to suffice.
"They have two basic needs: eat and sleep. If we can take one of those away," he said, shaking his head with emotion after being overcome with thoughts from his two relief tours. "I feel like, what do soldiers have when they come back from war?" he asked.
"Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?"
"Yeah," he says choked up, "but it's not that. It's just that you're not prepared for what you see. There's so much suffering. You just want to stop the hurt so bad."
I sat there watching and listening to this gentle spiritual giant, a man who has it all — loving and supportive family, a successful Internet business and a self-made millionaire, who uses his own private plane and helicopters to shuttle doctors and supplies into Haiti, and adoptees and the injured out. He reminded me not of the prince who when Christ asked him to give up all his riches and follow him, refused, but of another kind of prince who not only shares his wealth, but time and service and does not hesitate to follow Christ. Not in the least bit.
"None of this stuff means anything anymore," he says, pointing to things around his office and perhaps alluding to his home and even other material possessions.
"We all gave them our extra clothes and our shoes," he says humbly. "We flew back barefoot. Now every time we go there, we need to leave our shoes … it's a ritual."
Prior to the earthquake, Haitians were a people enabled by world aid. But Johnson's solution is to teach these people self-sufficiency.
Namely, bring young Haitians to Utah, in some kind of foreign exchange program, and teach and train them skills that they can take back to their villages to rebuild the Haitian economy. If all goes as he plans, after first talking to state government officials, he envisions lining up perspective host families and is even in the process of putting an application together.
"Agriculture is key to the future of Haiti. They have to grow food they can eat," he says.
And for those skeptics who wonder why Johnson and others are jet-setting off to help Haitians when they're not providing aid domestically, Johnson's got an answer: "There's so much opportunity in our country. We have a choice. We can at least get a job at somewhere like McDonald's. They don't have a choice. A lot of people there just want an opportunity. They just want a job. They want to work. People beg us for a job."
Johnson alludes to a LDS hymn, says, "Because we have been given much, we too must give," and smiles.
"If we could just realize that our hardships are nothing. It's hard when you heard these words, but when you see it," he said, pausing again because he's overcome with emotion. "How lucky all of us are that we have a government and education and jobs even if they're not the best jobs. Complaining about our next meal or not having hot water, working 60 hours a week — most of the things we complain about are blessings."
Later this week I will be in Haiti following and learning from this man, while documenting our experiences, with plans to leave the Haitian people with not only love and support, but my extra clothes, and shoes, too. I'll then fly home barefoot because it would be rude to break a tradition.
To help with Haitian relief efforts go to Utah Haiti Relief at www.utahhaitirelief.org/.
Cynthia Kimball Humphreys is a professional speaker and trainer. She writes a column for weekly newspapers in southern Utah and is a southern Utah correspondent for Deseret News. She can be reached at [email protected]. Her column, "GR8NESS," appears on deseretnews.com monthly.