Rick Wilkerson, D.O.’80, didn’t need Haiti to fulfill his passion for overseas medicine. After all, he’s provided health care and medical training regularly since 1991 in nations ranging from Afghanistan to Vietnam as well as the United States. But when a planned trip to Afghanistan was canceled in 2010, a friend seized the opportunity to recruit Wilkerson for a medical service trip to Haiti. He fell in love and got involved.
He’s been trying to work himself out of his “job” there ever since.
This is the story of how “Love Takes Root,” how a small community in northwest Iowa cultivated its impact and how one orthopedic surgeon has mobilized a legion of volunteers and supporters to fall in love with Haiti, too.
Iowa boy seeks international medical adventures
A Wapello, IA, native who became an international relations major at the United States Military Academy at West Point, NY, Wilkerson injured his knee wrestling on the academy’s team. His physician, John Feagin, M.D., got him interested in enrolling in medical school. Wilkerson continues to keep in touch with his mentor and friend, and he continues his interest in sports medicine; he serves on the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine; he’s the team physician at both Spencer, IA, High School and Buena Vista University in nearby Storm Lake; and he’s the medical director of Sports Medicine Northwest, caring for 22 other northwest Iowa area high schools. He’s a 2013 inductee in the National College Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Wilkerson paid back his medical school tuition to the U.S. Army with appointments at Ireland Army Hospital in Fort Knox, KY; Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, CO; Fort Lewis, WA; and Darnall Army Community Hospital in Fort Hood, TX. His debt paid, he was ready to settle with his wife, Barbara, and family in the Denver area. The night he was to sign a contract with an orthopedic practice and the University of Colorado there, Barbara — a pediatric nurse practitioner — told him that wasn’t where she wanted them to raise their children.
Iowa called — specifically, a group of orthopedic surgeons he’d interacted with while in Spencer. The practice craftily offered to put the family up for a summer in nearby Okoboji, home of the state’s beautiful glacier-carved lakes and a recreational attraction. Today, 27 years later, Wilkerson is the “senior guy” at Northwest Iowa Bone, Joint and Sports Surgeons PC, where his fellow clinicians include Jason Hough, D.O.’01; Christopher Rierson, D.O.’08; Tim Blankers, D.P.M.’99; Ashley McClain, D.P.M.’11; and Jody Vulk, PA-C’03, as well as Phil Deffer, M.D., John Leupold, M.D., and Seth Harrer, M.D. A number of DMU students have rotated at their practice.
Wilkerson has blended his practice in rural Iowa with a keen interest in overseas medicine. In 1991, he was called back into active duty during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and also treated patients and trained physicians in Afghanistan. The now-retired colonel has since done that several more times in Afghanistan as well as in Bhutan, Cambodia, Libya, Tanzania, Uganda and Vietnam. In 2004, he was asked by the U.S. State Department to return to Iraq to help put on the first international medical conference there since Saddam Hussein became the nation’s president in 1979.
“We wanted to use professional education and continuing medical education to attract attendees and win the hearts and souls of people,” Wilkerson says. “I was lucky enough that the Iraqi physician who set up the conference was an orthopedic surgeon. We became very good friends.”
He worked with other physicians and the nation’s government to form the organization International Medical Corps and Medical Alliance for Iraq, which provides treatment and training in orthopedics, obstetrics/gynecology, internal medicine and ophthalmology. In 2008, he helped start the country’s first total knee replacement surgery program. He’s since become a professor of orthopedic surgery at Basra University in Iraq and has arranged for exchanges of U.S. and Iraqi physicians across the two nations.
Fate takes him to Haiti
Hamid Karzai was a big reason Rick Wilkerson went to Haiti in 2010. The then-president of Afghanistan had angered President Barack Obama with his strident criticisms of American efforts in his country. That led the U.S. State Department to cancel a medical service trip there that the surgeon planned to be part of.
“We had 12 specialties going, one being orthopedics. We’d been planning a residency program there for a year and a half,” he says. “We were going to teach their teachers.”
Wilkerson mentioned that to a professional colleague, Andrew Pollack, M.D., at the National Orthopedic Leadership Conference in Washington, DC, in April of that year. “‘Great!’ he said,” Wilkerson recalls. “He said he needed a physician to go to Haiti.” Pollack was president of the Trauma Association at the time.
Wilkerson found himself at a hospital in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Carrefour, going on rounds, ordering x-rays, conducting surgeries — lather, rinse, repeat, for three weeks. He also encountered Junior, a recently orphaned boy who was living at the hospital following the death of his father. Through his translator at the hospital, Frantz Bastien, Wilkerson met the Bastien family and visited their orphanage, La Concorde. Junior was temporarily placed at the orphanage and became the Wilkersons’ ninth child — the couple has five adopted children — and the orphanage and its school became their cause.
It was both a challenging and compelling undertaking. The facility’s 63 children were sleeping three to four per bed. “Mama,” the senior among five adults taking care of the children, was 72. The lone meal they ate each day was prepared on a small hibachi grill; clean drinking water was scarce.
They all lived in 3,000 square feet — slightly more than the median-sized American home for a family of four — with a cinderblock hole for a toilet and so few dishes the children had to share, an unsafe situation given the incidence of cholera and other communicable diseases.
“It was obvious to me there was no way they could make it on their own,” Wilkerson recalls. He came home with a new mission in sight.
Love Takes Root
Wilkerson’s family, friends and fellow church members brainstormed on relatively simple things they could do quickly to help the Haiti orphanage. They collected plates, bowls and spoons so that each child had a set.
They embroidered colorful fleece blankets with the children’s names so they had a comforting possession. They packed up paper, pencils and pencil sharpeners to give the kids a fun activity. Wilkerson took the supplies and a cadre of professionals in health care, business and education back to Haiti to help Mama and her colleagues come up with more long-term solutions.
That was the seed for Love Takes Root (LTR), a nonprofit organization determined to improve the lives of children, beginning with the Haitian orphanage, by providing them with shelter, clean water, food and education. As president, Wilkerson insists the ultimate goal for all their efforts is that they achieve self-sustainability.
“My goal is that I should work myself out of a job,” he says. “We want to help people become able to do things on their own. There is no other way they’re going to get out of the hole they’re in. But when you have to live hand to mouth, how are you going to be able to plan a budget or learn management?”
LTR leaders decided that to truly help La Concorde’s orphans, they had to move them away from the dangers, diseases and scant resources of Port-au-Prince. They raised funds to purchase three acres of land two hours’ south, near the bay of Jacmel commune, dig a well and build a fence, earthquake-resistant boys’ and girls’ cottages, a dining hall with a kitchen and a staff house. The construction was done by local residents.
When the children arrived by bus — attired in bright Love Takes Root t-shirts — nine months later, on Sept. 23, 2013, their surprised smiles told a powerful story of security, opportunity and the first time many had had running water.
“In the previous photos we’d taken of the kids, no one’s smiling. Now they are,” Wilkerson notes. When he’s at La Concorde, the children flock around him, eager to show him their homework and art projects. He laughs when asked whether that makes him feel like a rock star. “More like a lucky uncle,” he says.
Not done yet — but soon
Love Takes Root recently completed a second phase at La Concorde, construction of a primary school, playground and soccer field. Some of the land is devoted to growing plantains, mangos, sweet potatoes and beans for the children and staff. These aspects are part of a business plan to ensure the facility’s sustainability. Of the 148 children who now attend the government-certified school, 80 pay tuition. Wilkerson and his LTR colleagues plan for those numbers to increase with Phase Three, the construction of a secondary school, to raise total enrollment to 200 students; the targeted completion date is this September.
In the meantime, volunteers visit La Concorde every month, including physicians, nurses, dentists, students and teachers. A medical clinic opened in March 2015. A side project, Roots for a Child, was established in which individuals or groups can sponsor a La Concorde child for $50 a month, or $600 a year. Children and their sponsors correspond throughout the year; many sponsors have traveled to Jacmel to meet their child. “Every one of these kids knows who their sponsor is,” Wilkerson says.
While Roots for a Child is designed to continue, his goal is that Love Takes Root’s other financial support will conclude by 2018 with the orphanage/school’s full self-sustainability. Its property and facilities are owned by La Concorde, not LTR. Its staff and local volunteers are honing skills in business- and budget-planning.
“We hope to make it so that it will never have to rely on charity again. We’re facilitators and mentors,” he says. “The people at La Concorde are unbelievably proud of this.” Love Takes Root will then identify its next project.
Wilkerson, who’s continued his work in Iraq, likely will do so in Haiti long after LTR’s fundraising and building projects have concluded. He says he and Barbara are “getting very involved” in a new public hospital being built in Jacmel. The rewards of such endeavors are clearly dear to him.
“You form all these friendships and get to see positive efforts continue to grow,” he says. “We’re not trying to make the rest of the world the United States. We want to help people come up with solutions that work for them in their country.
“We tell our volunteers to be ready to walk around the neighborhoods and eat local food. You’re going to learn what it’s like to be Haitian, and they’re going to learn about you,” he adds. “I tell people to be prepared to be transformed, because this work will change your life.”
Every morning, Barbara Wilkerson sits down to compose “minutes from Mom,” her daily update to her and husband Rick’s nine children who range in age from 13 to 36. On the chalkboard near the family’s back door is written, “God’s blessings on all of my blessings in 2016.”
“My passion is children and maternal/child health,” says the pediatric nurse practitioner. “You can’t raise nine children without being passionate about that. We will experience high school nine times!”
Barbara’s love of children extends to those at La Concorde, the orphanage/school the couple has assisted there. The children’s previously dire situation was a big driver in La Concorde’s relatively rapid transformation with the help of Love Takes Root.
“It was really motivating to know you have 60 children living in horrible conditions,” she says. “I knew nothing about setting up a 501(c); I learned everything on YouTube. We sent out postcards and met in our living room — that’s how grass roots it was.”
Also motivating was the response of family and friends to those postcards and subsequent calls for help. “In the Midwest, everyone you meet has a skill set, and they’re willing to share it,” she says.
The Wilkersons believe “every individual has gifts; no matter what they are, we can use them,” she adds. A freshman at a local high school, for example, started an Instagram account for Love Takes Root. They’ve received contributions to the organization’s $176 Campaign from American kids who staffed lemonade stands over the summer. Barbara also describes a gift the couple received from the La Concorde children the Christmas after they moved to their new facility.
“After the kids sang, they called Rick and me up — they had a gift wrapped in brown paper. I first thought, ‘Why are they giving us a gift?’ Then I realized they’d probably never been able to give a gift before, so be thankful.”
It was a pencil portrait of the couple, now on display in their home. “It was really amazing and so beautiful,” she says. “It was one of those blown-away moments.”
Both such moments and the work behind them will only continue. LTR volunteers have worked with local Haitians to start a mountain clinic in a village near La Concorde; a new hospital is expected to open this spring. “It’s a lot of work,” Barbara says, “but it has a lot of rewards.”
For more information on the history, projects, partners, volunteer opportunities and events of Love Takes Root, visit www.lovetakesroot.org. Its current major project is the $176 Campaign, an effort to compel at least 1,000 people to donate $176 each – enough to complete construction of La Concorde’s secondary school.