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Seattle PrideFest Director Egan Orion Takes a Trip to Haiti, Builds Houses

by Shaun Knittel
Contributor
Saturday Jan 5, 2013
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When the images of the Jan. 10, 2010 earthquake near Port-au-Prince, Haiti were broadcast, Seattle PrideFest organizer Egan Orion watched in horror at the massive destruction and ensuing suffering. Like many of you, he contributed to the Red Cross to help Haitians recover from the disaster.

Over time, Haiti started to fade from his memory. Orion is the festival director at Seattle PrideFest, the biggest free Pride Festival in the country. He is also known to locals as the "Mob Boss," because of the popular flash mob events he’s produced with his company, One Degree Events (100 mobs, 15 million video views, 5,000 mobbers).

Occasionally, Orion would see a news story about the slow rebuilding effort in Haiti. But mostly, he says he felt helpless to do anything. But then something happened that would change the course of Orion’s life forever.

"I chanced upon an application for Habitat for Humanity’s Carter Work Project in Haiti," Orion told EDGE. "I applied, was selected as one of the 600 volunteers, raised the requisite $5,000 for the trip, and on Thanksgiving night made my way to Atlanta to join the other volunteers before taking a charter flight to Port-au-Prince that Saturday."

It was fitting they should head to Haiti on Thanksgiving weekend, Orion remembered thinking because, "here at home, people were surrounded by food, family and friends.

"When we landed in Haiti and started to make our two-hour trip to our camp and build site in Léogâne (the epicenter of the earthquake), what I saw that afternoon was the polar opposite of the bounty I’d experienced at my family’s Thanksgiving table," said Orion. "Extreme poverty, suffering, slums that went on for miles and a complete lack of sanitation. I knew now why I’d come to Haiti."

After seeing poverty on a scale that most Americans couldn’t comprehend, Orion told EDGE he began to wonder if the 100 homes they’d build during the weeklong work project would do any good at all.

"The problem was so big, the suffering so great; how would my contribution be any more than a drop of water in an ocean of need," he said. "I’m used to a more manageable problem-solution equation."


A History of Helping the Community

In 2007, when it looked like the Pride Festival wouldn’t happen at all, Orion felt that the community needed the annual celebration so much that he stepped up and made it happen. It was a nearly insurmountable task to accomplish just six weeks before Pride weekend. By enlisting the help of others, he made it happen. Under Orion’s direction, Seattle PrideFest has grown into one of the largest Pride festivals in the country.

Orion and One Degree Events didn’t stop there. Over the years, they’ve raised tens of thousands of dollars for community non-profits -- including $13,000 for Washington United for Marriage, the campaign credited for the ballot win to bring the freedom to marry to Washington State.

So when he arrived in Haiti, he’d seen challenging problems and been part of creating a solution, and yet as they drove through the slums of Port-au-Prince, the challenge of creating a festival from scratch in six weeks or even passing same-sex marriage seemed easy compared to what was unfolding before his very eyes.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and 80 percent of its 10 million citizens live in extreme poverty. The 2010 earthquake made this worse, and more recently, Hurricane Sandy wiped out two-thirds of the country’s crops, which led to food riots and a lot of hungry people.

"As we drove through Port-au-Prince, I could see the result of decades of dictatorship and crushing poverty from my cushy seat in an air-conditioned bus," said Orion. "Corrugated roofs as far as the eye could see marked the breadth of the slums, side-by-side to lean-tos with little defense from the wind, rain, and sun, and certainly no protection from the next earthquake."

"Rivers that wound their way from the mountains to the coast converged in Port-au-Prince with a chaotic deluge of garbage, sewage, goats, cows, chickens and a mass of humanity," he said. "People bathed in tainted puddles as the dark grey plumes of burning garbage rose from the earth, spoiling the air and staining the sky."

"Earthquakes, Cholera, poverty, and hurricanes," Egan thought, "would the people of Haiti ever get a break?"

Those first few hours in Haiti turned Orion’s earnestness into feelings of helplessness. Soon, the group arrived at their camp, surrounded by barbed wire and secured by armed guards, and settled in to their new home.

"We slept on cots in big tents, ate less-than-inspired meals in a big mess hall, dodged tarantulas and mosquitoes, met new friends, took our anti-Malaria medication, and began adjusting to the heat and humidity of Haiti," said Orion.

The next day, the workers were transported in buses (again, by armed guard) to the build site a half hour away from camp. There, a hundred enthusiastic soon-to-be homeowners and a hundred concrete foundations and stacks of construction supplies greeted them. They were put into teams of 8-10 people alongside President and Mrs. Carter, Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood, and people from around the globe, began to build.

"Yes, it was just a drop of water in an ocean of need, but it took an army of enthusiastic volunteers working eight or more hours a day for six days to build 100 houses for families in desperate need of safe housing," said Orion.

The houses they built were all single-story 14x14’ structures (about 200 square feet) with two internal walls to form a small bedroom, a solid roof secured with hurricane straps and clips and insulated from the intense Haitian sun, as well as a community well and latrine. No running water. No electricity.

"As many of six or seven people would live in each tiny house, but for those with inadequate or unsafe housing, this tiny cottage represented safety, and ownership and the future," Orion told EDGE. "When you’ve been living in a lean-to covered by a tarp, the Habitat houses probably look like mini mansions to you."

"For the applicants of our two houses -- two strong Haitian women named Sonia and Marie -- it would be the first time they’d live in a house they could call their own and be safe from earthquakes and hurricanes," he said. "Sonia was younger than me, and already a grandmother. Marie, younger still, hammered with more vigor than some of the men on our team. All week, they worked alongside us to help build the houses they’d be living in."

As their homes took shape, you could see the dreams they had for their family -- once hopeless and dire -- begin to take shape, Orion said.

"When they hugged us each morning, you could tell it was with genuine love and gratitude," he said. "Haitians are used to be being promised many things that are never given, but this promise was being built before their very eyes. Each of them had an ocean of need between them, but it wasn’t beyond my power to help them and when we finally left Haiti, I knew that Sonia and Marie’s lives would be changed forever. I knew they would thrive. Even as I knew that my contribution was nearly invisible against the endless black sky of hopelessness in Haiti, I could see that for these two women, my help was everything. That alone was enough for me. I’d actually done some real good, and I felt it."


Taking His Experiences Home to Seattle

As one would expect from a guy like Orion, he brought his experience back with him to share with others so that they might learn something from it all.

"There is much work to do here at home, in our own neighborhoods and within our own communities," he told EDGE. "And there are many places like Haiti around the world, some nearby, others oceans away. As we look forward to our newly-won marriage rights in Washington State, some of you may be asking, "What next?"

"For me, that answer is to look out into the world, to find the suffering, inequality, and injustice, and to seek out the Sonias and the Maries of the world," he said. "For you, the need may be closer to home."

"Your Haiti may be just down the road or on the other side of the world," he continued. "Know that service takes sacrifice. It takes time to make things better; it takes money to fund important projects. But I know from my volunteer work in Haiti that my time and money were nothing compared to what I could do, or what we could do as a community if we came together to serve our communities and the world."

Orion went to Haiti looking to do some good in the world. Who he found was Sonia and Marie.

"Now I pass my intention to do good onto them, and onto you," Orion concluded. "Consider giving your time to something bigger than yourself. Our fight for equality and justice goes beyond what we want for our own community to the great big world beyond. Now that we can say ’I do,’ we should start thinking about what ’We do’ as a community. Because others pitched in to help, our community is now filled with more promise than ever. Now it’s time for us to start to pay that promise forward."


Shaun Knittel is an openly gay journalist and public affairs specialist living in Seattle. His work as a photographer, columnist, and reporter has appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the Pacific Northwest. In addition to writing for EDGE, Knittel is the current Associate Editor for Seattle Gay News.

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