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09/10/08 5:55PM By Leora Dowling
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(HOST) Recent news of the hurricane damage in Haiti has reminded commentator Leora Dowling of a life-changing journey she took almost 40 years ago.

(DOWLING) Haiti is back in the news and that's almost never a good thing. Rarely have I heard or read anything happy or hopeful about Haiti. Hurricanes, deforestation, political corruption, violence, and the core problem - poverty - has made Haiti a source of bad news for decades.

Haiti is so near - just an hour by plane from Miami - yet so far from anything most of us know about poverty.

You have to see it to believe it. And what you see in Haiti you never forget.

I was there on a family vacation when I was 14 years old. The trip also included Barbados and Antigua - don’t ask me what my parents were thinking! But there we were, the Sparapani family from suburban Rocky Hill, Connecticut at a resort outside Port au Prince.

I’d packed an outfit for every occasion: poolside, casual lunches, formal dinners. My handbags and shoes were color-coordinated. I remember how I looked because of the contrast between me and the Haitian girls my own age.  They had no shoes. And their dresses were faded and torn.  I suppose the fact that their mother's washed those dresses on rocks in a river - a river that served as communal bathtub and dumping ground - had something to do with that.

When I stood on the balcony outside our hotel room I could hear music being played far below me on hand-made drums, by child musicians who - for the sake of our security - were kept on the far side of a high wall.

My father gave me coins to throw down to them.

In the early 70’s it was safe to travel into the countryside, so we did. We went into the still-lush hills, and to Gonaives, a town that’s just been flooded again by hurricanes. Sometimes the guide would stop so my parents could take pictures, and we would immediately be surrounded by Haitians desperate to sell their primitive art. Hours spent carving - sold for a dollar.

It was on that vacation that I realized how lucky I was to be born who I was, where I was, when I was. And that the old adage "Give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime" works only if there are fish to catch, both literally and metaphorically.

In Haiti I started thinking for myself when it came to politics, but I was young and powerless back then. Now I can vote. And I understand that, as an American, when I put a mark on a piece of paper in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, I’m impacting the lives of every living thing on the planet earth, including those beautiful and desperate people in Haiti.
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