When artist Jonathan Nash Glynn landed his single-engine Cessna on a dirt strip in Jacmel, Haiti for the first time after the devastating 2010 earthquake that killed some 250,000 people and destroyed or damaged about the same number of residences, he found himself facing what many would describe as hell on earth.
What was already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere had suffered “remarkable devastation,” according to Glynn, who had made the precarious journey with a cabin full of gas cans to get him home, in what was essentially a flying bomb—with a smooth landing far from guaranteed—just to see how he could help.
Glynn has since dedicated his life to Haiti’s children through Wings Over Haiti, his not-for-profit organization that is raising money for the cause with a special Hamptons Artists for Haiti benefit on Saturday, August 7 at East Hampton Airport.
“They were doing amputations with carpentry saws and they didn’t have any anesthesia—it was brutal what I saw,” Glynn recalls of the traumatic scenes that committed him to the relief effort. “I spent the next 17 days going to Dominican Republic, going to Puerto Rico, wherever I could, to get surgical supplies and anesthesia,” he adds, describing his small plane as a “valuable tool” that made it possible to get supplies in and out of the country.
Plenty of money and goods were coming in from various charities, groups and individual donors, but they had no way to get the vital donations to those who needed them.
“I was securing these supplies, they paid for it, and we were delivering it all over the place for a while,” Glynn says of the three weeks that dramatically altered the course of his life. “Everything worked like clockwork—it was the strangest, almost spiritual experience that I ever had I my life,” he continues. “I wasn’t sure what I was doing, and then, all of a sudden, everything came in place. I hadn’t changed my shirt for 17 days, I didn’t know where I was sleeping. I slept in the plane a lot. Food always seemed to come, and water. Otherwise, it was so devastating, your mind went on automatic just to try to help out. … It changed my life completely.”
That was 11 years ago. In the decade that followed, Glynn expanded his operation and sharpened his focus toward educating and feeding the impoverished and food-challenged children in the country’s poorest and most remote regions. “I did it by myself, but then, through Facebook, it got out there into the Hampton community and the people started raising money,” he says. “It’s a remarkable thing that happened.”
With help from partners and donors, including Port Jefferson middle school teacher Melissa McMullen and Chad St. Louis, a Haitian-American high school guidance counselor, Wings Over Haiti opened their first fully sustainable school in Port au Prince in 2010. Today it’s thriving with a 25-person faculty and more than 215 students, from nursery to 7th grade, who are now eating two meals per day and getting opportunities that would be rare, if not miraculous, without the program.
Hamptons Artists for Haiti will help fund Wings Over Haiti’s (WOH) next step—a second school in the mountains of Ranquitte. Magalie Theodore, a Haitian who lives and works in New York City, was so moved and encouraged by WOH’s first school, she gave the organization a seven-acre plot of land with the condition that they rebuild the dilapidated school that once stood there and fill it with kids. They’ve already completed one building with four classrooms for 51 students, but there’s much more to be done.
Glynn is the first to say that none of his organization’s work would be possible today without his co-director and “main man” Arthur Bijur, a former advertising executive with a strong background in the not-for-profit world.
“I went to Haiti and I was in,” Bijur says of how he came to join his friend Glynn and WOH four years ago. “It’s an eye-opener,” he adds, describing what he found in the still-ravaged country more than seven years after the earthquake. “It was amazing that there was still rubble in the streets, there was still destruction visible everywhere … it’s an intense place to visit, you just feel it.”
Both Bijur and Glynn explain that the people in Ranquitte live in mud huts with tin roofs and dirt floors. They will turn their mattresses sideways to sleep five or six to a bed, if they’re lucky enough to have a mattress. “They really, really are desperate,” Bijur says, noting that the poverty is painfully visible. And with rising political turmoil and gangs taking advantage of the situation, things are only getting worse.
He cites a UN World Food Programme study that says Haiti has one of the highest levels of food insecurity in the world, with nearly half the population—4.4 million Haitians—in need of immediate food assistance. Among those people, 1.2 million suffer from severe hunger, and more than 1 million are classified as being in an emergency situation. The UN also points out that two children out of 10 do not attend primary school, and the literacy level is just 61% for the population over 10 years of age.
“It’s a mess, the people down there are really suffering … it’s gone from bad to worse,” Glynn says. “There are tens of thousands of disenfranchised kids who hardly eat and have no education.” Wings Over Haiti, however, is bringing something beautiful to these struggling families in Ranquitte. “Our goal in a short period of time is to feed, give medical attention and to educate 400 kids in this particular area, and we’re well on our way now,” he continues.
The fourth annual Hamptons Artists for Haiti benefit, which will be held across three airplane hangars at East Hampton Airport, hopes to significantly advance WOH’s funds for the Ranquitte project. The event will include a silent auction with more than 40 works by local artists in all mediums. Bijur’s wife and folioeast gallery founder and curator, Coco Myers, gathered the selection from artists she represents, along with donations from friends of the cause. “They’re all Hamptons artists,” Myers says. “There are some great pieces … I’m happy with the mix.”
Alec Baldwin is this year’s honorary chair, and the event’s honorary committee includes Donna Karan, Patricia Arquette, Eric Fischl, Maria Bello, Molly Channing and Emily Wickersham. “What’s happening right now to the people of Haiti is tragic. There is so much suffering, and the children there can’t be forgotten,” Baldwin says. “When I learned about the Wings Over Haiti school and their efforts to feed and educate so many kids, and give them a real shot at a better life, I jumped at the chance to help in any way I could.”
Guests will enjoy an open bar, music by DJ Gian Carlo (and possibly a Haitian band), hors d’oeuvres, raffle prizes and more. The benefit will also debut a new buddy program that allows donors to sponsor individual students throughout their educational journey at the WOH school.
“If you save a life, you save the world,” Glynn says, noting that WOH’s goal isn’t to save Haiti, though he imagines his students might one day effect change there. “The goal is to give kids a chance.”
Visit wingsoverhaiti.net for tickets and info.