The Miami native first saw the impoverished nation in 1980. He was a young man in the Navy, more interested in partying than charity work. Yet even then, the poverty and hopelessness of the tiny country made an impression.
I sent a postcard to my wife; I still have it. I wrote: `I can`t wait to get home. This is the saddest place I`ve ever seen in my life,” Shelnutt recalled.
More than two decades later, the situation is much worse. There is no longer a U.S. military presence in Haiti. Tourism, which used to be a boost to the country`s economy, is almost nonexistent.
The people are poorer and hungrier, and the AIDS rate is skyrocketing. One in every five Haitian children dies of malnutrition, dehydration or diarrhea. More than 80 percent of the country`s population live below the poverty level. More than half of Haiti`s residents are illiterate. Orphans are everywhere.
Shelnutt, too, has changed. He`s now a Baptist preacher who runs a home for people recovering from drug and alcohol addictions in Mississippi. And now, even though Haiti is still a “sad” place, Shelnutt lives for his biannual visits. He can`t wait for the opportunity to see the orphans he has helped find a home for and rescue others from the streets of Port-au-Prince.