My dad asked me to go to Haiti with him many times, but I never did. He’d usually go for two weeks in the summer, but there was always some conflict that kept me from going with him — usually preseason or a practice when I was at LSU. And my schedule only got crazier after I made it to the NFL.
I just was never able to make the time for a trip like that. I couldn’t make the time to go to Haiti.
“Sorry, Dad. Next time I’ll see if I can make it.”
My dad’s family is Haitian and I’m from Miami, not far from a part of the city called Little Haiti. So, yeah, I sort of grew up surrounded by Haitians. Folks around town would hear my last name (Francois) and expect me on the spot to speak Creole. If another Haitian comes up to you and you can’t speak Creole? Well then you’re gonna get in a full-on argument — for no other reason than you can’t speak Creole.
I’d picked up a few words here and there, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Sitting at a table of 20 Haitians and not understanding anything they were saying made me feel weird and out of place, even around my own family.
So once I got to college, I took it upon myself to learn — about our history, our independence, even some of the crooked politicians. Haiti, well, it’s a complicated place. But for everything that I read or asked my dad about, it always felt like there was this gap. Something missing.
I didn’t think that the gap would begin to close because of a text on a bus ride home from Baltimore last month after a victory over the Ravens. Honestly, even though Hurricane Matthew had just hit, Haiti was probably the farthest thing from my mind — we were finally on a good winning streak after starting the season 0–2. I was locked in on football.
Then my phone lit up. It was a text from Pierre, who was on the other bus. I was thinking that it had to be something about the game. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Hey, Rick, Dan Snyder is lending his jet out to us to go to Haiti. You down?”
I was surrounded by my teammates. I had to get up and go sit in the back of the bus, where it was quiet.
Dan Snyder is gonna let us use his jet? To go to Haiti? What?
I looked at my phone for a moment and starting typing back.
Once I got back to my house in Virginia, I had another message from our p.r. guy, Tony, at about 11 p.m. The plane was going to depart the next morning. We’d spend a few hours in Haiti where we would deliver some medical supplies provided by the Redskins’ training staff.
“At 10 o’clock, we’re taking off,” Tony told me.
Not a lot of people know this, but Dan Snyder has got a big heart. He’d already sent his plane down to the Bahamas to deliver medical supplies there. Now he was offering the plane to the two players on his team who were of Haitian descent, and who had family in the country.
This may seem silly considering Haiti is a third world country and it had just been devastated by another natural disaster, but the first thing that gave me anxiety was what I needed to pack. We were only going to be there for a few hours, but I knew we’d be visiting a hospital. Did I need a suit? My jersey? Our team fleece? And then suddenly about a thousand more emotions hit me all at once.
This is my first time in Haiti. I don’t know what I’m about to see. Am I going to freak out?
I just tried to breathe, and then I called my mom. I knew my father would still be at work, so I told her what was about to happen.
“Tell my dad I’m going to Haiti.”
After a sleepless night, I went to airport. Waiting for me on board the plane was Pierre.
Man, I could tell right away how nervous you were.
Ricky Jean Francois
You had been to Haiti before. But yeah, you’re right. You were the relaxed one. I was trying to keep it together.
Although, I don’t think you were as bad as Tony. He’d never done anything like this before — escorting two players to Haiti. But yeah … I still have a lot of family down there, so I had been a few times. I still don’t think it prepares you though for what you’ll see.
I remember you said that whatever I could do to make myself calm, I might wanna try and do that. But once we got all the boxes loaded, it was basically three hours to the equator and my heart was pounding the entire time.
How many card games do you think we managed to fit in?
Not enough to make me any less nervous! I kept trying to get my mind right, but looking out that window as we approached … man, it was insane.
You could hear the sound of Chinooks taking off and landing before you could make out anything on the ground. A lot of the roads had been destroyed, so helicopters were being used to get supplies and aid to other parts of the island.
As we started our approach, I turned my camera on. I don’t think I put it away until we got back on the plane. There seemed to be thousands of people just waiting in line — for food and rice, or just medical attention. I had seen stuff on the news, but to be up in the air like that looking down it was just—
It hits you in the gut, for sure.
Yeah, and then there were homes that had just been completely destroyed on the southern part of the island. My brother, who lives in Port-au-Prince, described to me what it was like after the earthquake in 2010. He said it was as if someone had taken a small hammer and just knocked everything down.
You wouldn’t know it if you’ve never been to Haiti, but there wasn’t much destruction in Port-au-Prince. It looked very much like it always does, which isn’t saying much. But once we touched down at the airport, you could see how bad things were.
Making our way to the hospital was probably the most eye-opening moment for me. Military guys were already waiting to take us there. Looking out the window, I saw one woman washing clothes in this water that other people were drinking from. It was just very humbling.
And then when we got to the hospital—
—It was like nothing you’d see in America. First of the all, the boxes we brought I don’t think had even hit the floor before nurses just started taking whatever they could use. Gauze, bandages, anything. It all got used right then and there.
People just kept arriving — and not in like ambulances, but like hanging on the edges of Toyotas and trucks. And inside, people were just waiting. Waiting for information, for any kind of help, waiting to see a doctor.
Picture what you expect when you go to a hospital in America. Then erase all that. In Haiti, beds were just squeezed into tiny rooms. I mean, damn, docs couldn’t even turn their body around to get to the next person. Like, How can y’all even operate?
We were there in our jerseys, so we got a lot of stares from people. We were hands down the largest guys in there. But we we wanted to let the doctors and nurses know that whatever we could do to help, we would.
I think just us being there, took them by surprise. You hear and read that all these donations are going to Haiti, but to have two guys there, NFL players, on the ground? I think it meant a lot to them.
Didn’t you ask one of the nurses what had been the most difficult part of has been?
Oh yeah, basically she said having to tell patients, “We can’t help you.” Can you even imagine? Like, literally, telling a woman that there is nothing they can do for her child, or a man that they just don’t have the resources to take care of him. Where do those people go?
I don’t know what I would do if someone told me that. There were just so many people in need of help. They even told us as we walked around, “If you’re not used to smelling flesh, then don’t go in there.”
That was enough of a warning for me. I can’t handle blood or anything like that, so I stayed out of the room, but you went in, I don’t even know how.
Yeah, they were having people just coming out of operations, but not enough bandages to cover them, so just stitches right out in the open. People don’t understand — it’s not about money, it’s about medical supplies. Things doctors and nurses can really use right away.
We were there for just a few hours, but then we flew back. Man, the whole trip was surreal I don’t think we said a word on the entire flight.
Definitely the last thing I expected to be doing on a Monday. But it’s changed how I look at everything.
When I got back to my house in Virginia, I stood outside just looking at it for a few minutes. Everything inside, I had taken for granted before I went to Haiti. And I don’t just mean the TVs, or anything. But clean water. The smell of fresh air. In Haiti, you could literally smell your own breath.
I looked at my house — my house that is built properly, where I can flip on a switch and I know a light is going to turn on.
We were in Haiti for less than a day, but it was still an adjustment coming back. Being there was a lot to take in, the trucks everywhere, kids walking with bowls of rice on their heads. One moment you’re in a third world country, the next, you’re back in the NFL lifestyle.
I thought about the nurse I spoke to — her voice had been cracking like she was about to cry. Whether someone gets help or not was a decision she has had to make every single day since the hurricane hit. Every day.
But I also saw the Haitian people for the first time. That gap I had felt for so long was finally closed. Yeah, they’ve been through a lot, but that nurse keeps going back to the hospital to do what she can to make things better. Kids keep finding ways to get themselves to school, teachers are there ready to keep having class. Haiti keeps grinding.
I think the people of Haiti feel forgotten. Even as a guy of Haitian descent, I hadn’t made the time for my country, which is why when Dan Snyder gave us this opportunity, I knew I wasn’t going to pass it up.
If you’re wondering how to help, all I can say is, Do research. Find foundations and groups that are actually doing work. It doesn’t need to be money. It can be as small as a bottle of water — because I’m telling you, it can save someone’s life. We saw it.
I’m so grateful that I got to be a part of helping Haiti. But it took me far too long to get there. I didn’t go under the circumstances that my dad would have preferred, but I’m hoping in the off-season that we’ll finally get to take that trip together.
I’m finally making time for Haiti.