Vanessa Carpenter runs a medical mission in Haiti from an unlikely place: a suburban two-story in western Roanoke County. Photographer Jeanna Duerscherl and I spent weeks following her last year for a Mother’s Day story about her life’s work: helping underprivileged children. Mama V spends an average of a week a month in Haiti, and not a day goes by when she isn’t there in spirit and on the phone, coordinating life-saving surgeries and fundraising and generally trying to help people compensate for the fallout of being born in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.
She started out in southside Chicago, fostering and later adopting crack- and alcohol-addicted babies that no one else was willing to take on; some of whom were not expected to live; some of whom cried 22 out of 24 hours a day. Those children now do things like go to college and sing in the Roanoke College children’s choir.
Several years back, a friend in Chicago asked Mama V to join her on a mission trip to Haiti, a visit that Tom Carpenter would come to call the beginning of “her latest frontier in mothering.”
“What state is that in?” Carpenter wanted to know.
Since that first trip in 1999, Carpenter has coordinated thousands of surgeries for children in makeshift surgery centers and aboard U.S. military boats. She’s talked dozens of Roanoke surgeons into donating their time to the Haitian kids she flies here because their conditions are too complex for Haitian surgeries. She’s talked airlines and God-only-knows-who-else into pitching in for supplies, airfare, housing and anything else she thinks these sick, scared children might need when they’re thousands of miles from their homes and, often, their families.
Initially set up to coordinate life-saving surgeries for Haitian babies in the United States, Angel Missions Haiti now includes three medical clinics in Port-au-Prince including a surgery center. Mama V told my Roanoke Times colleague Matt Chittum this morning that at least one of the mission’s buildings — an eight-story shelter for street children — collapsed in yesterday’s earthquake.
“She’s moving mountains, one stone at a time,” Moneta physician Kitty Humphreys said, not unlike the amazing Cambridge humanitarian Dr. Paul Farmer, the subject of Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” (Here’s an update on what his organization, Partners in Health, is doing in response to the earthquake.) “It’s like she’s got a whole country to mother.”
Mama V will be moving those same mountains in the months ahead, as the country struggles to dig itself out. If you’d like to be part of that effort, tax-deductible donations to her mission can be made through her Web site. You can follow helpers in Port-au-Prince, too, via her Angel Missions blog.
I’ve watched this lady in action: stuffing cans of Enfamil into her carry-on bags; pleading relentlessly with bureaucrats about visas and surgeries and military rules. What I mean to say here is this: Mama V is the real deal. I have no doubt that any donation to this organization will be money well-spent.