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If you ever wanted to test the validity of the saying, “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” look no further than Christa Brelsford.
Brelsford, a Los Alamos National Laboratory student employee, traveled to Haiti and helped with Haiti Partners’ adult literacy program in January. She and her brother, Julian, traveled to three different towns including Darbonne, assisting the Christian organization, which focuses on improving education, economic prospects and Haitians’ faith.
She shared what unfolded for her to a crowded auditorium in the lab’s Material Science Laboratory Wednesday afternoon.
Brelsford, her brother and some local Haiti Partners workers were sitting in a room waiting to be connected to the Internet on Jan. 12, when the earthquake hit.
She initially thought a vehicle had rammed into the building but then as Brelsford attempted to escape the building by running down a stairwell, the building collapsed. What saved her life, she said, was the railing. It held the roof and prevented Brelsford from being crushed. Her legs, however, were pinned and her lower right leg was injured beyond repair.
It took her brother and another man, Gerald Lumarque, an hour to dig her out.
Lumarque and a young man named Wenson Georges pulled her onto Lumarque’s motorcycle and raced off to find the nearest hospital.
Along the way, Brelsford said she saw the devastation first-hand.
“Every single building I saw was collapsed,” she said.
The devastation included the biggest hospital and so the three of them changed course and headed to a Sri Lankan UN Peacekeeping Mission.
She spent the night there amongst others who were severely injured by the earthquake – some of whom did not make it through the night.
Brelsford’s crippled leg was set with a piece of fence post.
The night was not entirely bleak. Brelsford jokingly recalled how Sri Lankan officials distributed what they claimed to be pain medication, although she discovered it was actually cough drops.
She also laughingly recalled the memory of everyone asking her if she was “Heidi,” only to determine later she has misinterpreted their question because of their accents. They were asking her if she was Haitian.
There was a real sense of humanity that night, Brelsford said. People voiced prayers and sang songs all night.
In the morning, when workers attempted to pull out pieces of concrete from Brelsford’s legs, an 8-year-old boy held her hand.
“It’s pretty impressive that everyone gave what they could,” she said.
Additionally, Maj. Sujith of the Sri Lanka Army personally took it upon himself to transport Brelsford and two other Americans to Port-au-Prince’s airport.
She was put on an airplane and sent to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. Her brother, who had suffered minor injuries, joined her there soon after.
Her right root and part of her calf had to be amputated.
Brelsford said it was a total “crap shoot” whether she got out of Haiti. But soon everyone wanted to hear her story.
She was featured on everything from Larry King Live to the front page of a Chinese newspaper.
Brelsford spent three weeks in the hospital and had four surgeries. Now, she wears a prosthetic leg.
Think she is sobbing over this ordeal? Curled into a ball? Not even close.
Brelsford has gathered all the sour lemons thrown at her and transformed them into some sweet lemonade.
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought,” Brelsford said, adding she was lucky enough not to sustain upper body injuries. “I do think it was a miracle that I was alive.”
Now, Brelsford is taking that miracle and spreading it around.
She founded Christa Angels, a nonprofit agency dedicated to supporting those who had saved Brelsford and her brother in Haiti.
According to the Web site, www.christasangels.org, the organization is striving to rebuild the literacy program’s, Heads Together Haiti, school in Cabois. Also, the organization works to support salaries and operating costs of Heads Together Haiti’s programs in literacy, education and environmental management as well as provide for the education of the young Haitians who helped rescue Belsford.
So far, her efforts raised $140,000 and provided 200 laptops to children.
Indeed, Belsford is scaling mountains, both figuratively and literally. She showed slides of climbing a rock wall and racing up snow-capped mountainsides.
“I’m doing fine,” she said. “For me, this isn’t a tragedy.”
Her one complaint, Belsford said, is she can’t change her own shoes.
A major source of inspiration for her, she said, is Lumarque.
“I wouldn’t be here what I’m doing if it wasn’t for him – his family, his community,” Brelsford said.
“I can make a difference … so I think it’s my moral obligation to do what I can.”