Luke Montgomery admits there wasn’t really a plan when he and Nate Gudias headed down to Haiti. But less than two days after the Jan 12 earthquake devastated the island nation, the couple was on a plane.
“We didn’t know exactly what we were going to do,” says Montgomery. “We just wanted to help out as best we could.”
Montgomery, a longtime gay activist, had a personal connection to the island. Four years ago, he helped to found an orphanage for children with AIDS in Jacmel, a town of roughly 40,000 people on the island’s southern coast. When there was no word about whether it had survived the quake, the Flagstaff, Arizona, resident decided to see for himself.
Raising more than $10,000 from friends and family members, Montgomery and Gudias booked a flight to Santo Domingo, capital of the neighbouring Dominican Republic. Once on the ground, they began buying bandages, disinfectants, antibiotics and other medical supplies they knew would be in short supply in Jacmel.
“We crammed every inch of our big rented SUV full of supplies,” said Gudias. “Every bag we had was overflowing.”
They drove all night to the Haitian border, where they planned to hire a fishing boat to take them to Jacmel. But a local government official convinced the crew of a naval ship to accept them and their supplies. Since then, they have made six trips back and forth across the border.
The couple found the orphanage had been damaged in the earthquake, and two of the 13 children living there had been injured. None were seriously hurt, however. But the surrounding neighbourhood was in shambles.
“Thousands of people were living on the street,” says Montgomery. “The house where I lived when we were setting up the orphanage was a pile of rubble. I couldn’t believe it.”
Although they had planned to focus on the orphanage, Montgomery and Gudias realized that the local hospital was in worse shape. Most of the facility, including its AIDS ward, had been destroyed. Their next several trips were for supplies for the hospital.
“We switched gears and put our resources into bringing in supplies for the hospital,” Montgomery says. “Whatever they needed, we brought.”
With the rainy season just weeks away, Montgomery and Gudias are changing their focus yet again, this time to purchasing tents for families still without roofs over their heads. They have arranged for 50 family-sized tents to be shipped from Pakistan to the Dominican Republic. From there, they will shuttle them across the border as quickly as possible.
The couple plans to head back home sometime in March. But they intend to return to Haiti within the next few months with other gay people who have expressed an interest in helping them with the relief effort.
“We aren’t missionaries; we’re just queers on a mission,” says Montgomery. “Lots of people have told us that they want to get involved. They want to roll up their sleeves and make a difference.”
A marketing consultant, Montgomery knows how to get the word out about his work. Armed with a digital camera and two laptop computers, he and Gudias put together a website called Cause Commandos that documents their journey so far and solicits donations for their ongoing work. They say their own costs have been taken care of, so 100 percent of donations go to relief efforts.
Montgomery, remembered by many as the activist who shouted down US President Bill Clinton during a speech on World AIDS Day in 1993, says this kind of work isn’t as daunting as it might seem.
“If you had asked six weeks ago, it never would have occurred to me that I would be doing something like this,” he says. “But it isn’t hard. Just buy an airplane ticket and do it. It’s amazing that just by being there you can get things done.”