Saturday, August 18, 2012

Penguins players' Trip to Haiti 'life-changing' - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

Getting to Cap-Haitien, Haiti, was the easy part. Esmark donated a private jet for a group with Penguins and Pittsburgh ties.

Then reality hit.

"Nothing prepares you for what you witness," Penguins center Joe Vitale said Friday, a day after their three-day mission trip.

"Traveling from the airport, we were in the back of a truck. We were very quiet. The filth, kids running around, sewage, the trash in the ocean ..."

"You've seen pictures, but when you're smelling it, seeing it, that's when it's real," said Michelle Cooke, wife of Penguins winger Matt Cooke.

Then another abrupt shift, when the group arrived at EBAC, an orphanage run for decades by Western Pennsylvania natives Alice Wise and Kathy Gouker.

"All that matters to those little kids is that they hold your hand and get affection that they don't really get from adults," Matt Cooke said.

The visiting group also included former Penguins center Jordan Staal and his wife, Heather; trip organizer Brad Henderson, Penguins and Pirates chaplain and president of Pittsburgh Kids Foundation; Ian Rosenberger, CEO of Pittsburgh-based Thread Corp.; and Gabby Cooke, 19.

With the heat and humidity of a Caribbean island and sporadic power and running water, it wasn't a trip that would seem to appeal to all women.

"It's not about perfect makeup and perfect hair," Matt Cooke said.

"We went because we want to help, be hands-on," Michelle Cooke said.

Besides, Vitale said, it would be difficult to complain about anything after visiting those children and playing sports with them, thanks to donated soccer equipment from Wilson and donated street hockey gear and T-shirts -- many of them Jordan Staal No. 11s, which became available after he was traded to Carolina in June -- from the Penguins, Reebok and the Pirates' Neil Walker.

"I'd call what we played dirt hockey because it was on fields with rocks the size of your fist and shards of glass, and they're running around barefoot, laughing," said Vitale, whose wife, Brianna, stayed home because she is expecting their second child, a son.

"Kids were getting bonked in the head, rocks flying everywhere. Their overall toughness was incredible."

At times, heartbreaking.

Vitale asked one boy about his family. The boy said he once had a sister.

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