Camp Immokalee Alumnus Helps in Haiti

Submitted by Jim Austin / Camp Immokalee Alumni Association

This is a story about how the YMCA and Camp Immokalee can make a difference in the world and save lives. It does this with our young people. Through the impact of resident camping the “Y” can influence youths to embrace values our world societies desperately need. I have benefited from what the camping experience has done for me.  Over a good portion of my lifetime I have seen what Camp Immokalee has done for others and how it added success to their lives. This is a story about one of those kids, Tom Parsons, now a grown man. I last saw Tom at the Camp Immokalee 100-year Anniversary and Reunion. Also attending the anniversary celebration with us was Tom’s other mentor and long-time Immokalean, Charlie Pitchford.

Tom Parsons has just arrived back to his temporary home in the Dominican Republic from leading a relief and rescue mission into Haiti. The devastation in Haiti from the 7.1 and subsequent earthquakes is well known via the media. The media struggles to report the real effects on Haiti’s population due to the limitations of sound and video bytes. Tom led a team of approximately 30 volunteers composed of doctors, nurses, paramedics, EMTs and support personnel. However, the story doesn’t begin here; it begins in the 1970s.

Tom Parsons came to Camp Immokalee as a youth in 1973. He wanted to learn to sail boats and selected sailing as his primary hobby. I was the sailing instructor and noticed an impressionable and enthusiastic boy. The first week of camp that year we were under the wrath of a hurricane. We spent all week doing ground training not being able to sail on the lake. On the last day we hadn’t sailed but conditions were improving slightly. I learned he was a good swimmer and asked him if he was brave enough to try some heavy weather sailing. He eagerly replied, “Yes” and I chose a small sturdy Optimist Pram for its small sail area. We filled the boat with safety gear and donned our life jackets. The lake was like being on the sea and very rough. I was impressed with Tom’s even mental state in the rough going. Soon I found out someone had substituted a cheaper wooden beam for a true quality mast section.  We were dismasted and in an emergency situation with the boat filling with wave water. Tom was cool headed and bailed while I managed the boat. We finally made it back to shore at camp and Tom noticed I had stayed upwind of camp in case of emergency. You don’t really know how someone, even a kid, is going to handle adversity. That was Tom’s first test and I knew he was leader material.

Tom kept coming to camp year after year. He became a staff member and the sailing instructor. He was one of the best counselors and honed his leadership skills. As Tom moved on in life he married Naomi Noyes, and joined The Air National Guard as aircrew on USAF C-130s. He has two older children, Chris and Nichole. He is a professional firefighter trained in many specialties such as aircraft fires and HAZMAT. Tom went to Saudi Arabia to work as a civilian contract firefighter. Then he went to Iraq and worked in the “Green Zone” for a year. It was during his time in Iraq that Tom flew all the way back to Keystone Heights just to be with his fellow Immokaleans for the 100-year Anniversary Celebration. He wanted to see his friends and meet the new people there. Tom has never known a stranger.

If you look back on Tom’s work at Immokalee and how he leads one can see he has the heart of a missionary. He cares very much about people, their well-being and respects all life as a Christian. These were values we taught at Camp Immokalee as promoted by the Y under the leadership of Charlie Pitchford and later me as Immokalee Assistant Directors.

As soon as I heard about the earthquake in Haiti and knowing Tom was on the same island I knew he was going to help and nothing was going to change that. It didn’t take long before I saw his pleas on Facebook for a large cargo aircraft to ferry supplies down from the US. I spoke to Tom’s concerned family and decided to write him with the best advice I could give. Haiti has special dangers and concerns due to its extreme poverty and massive population. People will do about anything when starving. Tom took all the necessary precautions and organized a military type convoy with a pathfinder team and military escort. The Dominican Republic government was so impressed with his preparations he was given credentials that gave him government authority as their representative.

Tom called me personally after his 8-day ordeal and I could hear in his voice he was fatigued. Despite his exhaustion he wasn’t resting but trying to gather information to start a non-profit organization to get shelter to the masses of people at risk from exposure. In the hour-long conversation he told me they treated hundreds of people every day for injuries in the earthquake. For most Haitians it was their first treatment for injuries that were of an extreme nature – lacerations, amputations, etc. They fed thousands of hungry people, many of them starving to death. He knows they saved hundreds from dying but one story stood out. On a forced break from work Tom climbed up the mountainside to survey a poverty stricken shantytown settlement he heard about. When he found the settlement it was rubble. He walked around and found a young woman in her early 20s laying in the mud with her little brother standing over her. Tom assessed she had a broken back in the L5 vertebrae area and was paralyzed from the waist down. Being paralyzed meant she could not control her bowels and was in danger of dying from septicemia – it had been 8 days since her injury. The little boy spoke English and Tom told him that he would be back no matter how long it took. Remember, she was hours up the side of a mountain and Tom needed a backboard and a team to get her down safely.

When Tom got back to base camp he had to reenter his responsible role and was kept busy while he located a backboard. It took him three days but he found one and went back up the mountain with his team on the fourth day. When he got there he couldn’t find the injured woman in the place he had left her. Tom did not give up and two hours later found her on a door in the mud near a clearing. Her little brother came out from under some makeshift shelter shouting, “I knew you come back, you promised!” It took four grueling hours to get her down the mountain and to the medical facility. Then the worst surprise happened.

Tom and his team brought the young woman into the treatment tent and explained her injuries to the doctor. The doctor told him that they could not take her – she had a spinal injury. As Tom was narrating this part to me, the horror of that relived moment brought him to tears. What Tom had been up against was medical triage. There were too many severe injuries and she was being judged to die and save the resources for those who have a chance at recovery with more quality of life. Tom simply could not take “No” for an answer and explained to the doctor in a “clear” voice what effort has been done to save this young woman and what she had been through. He instructed his team to place her in the treatment area off in the corner and commanded the doctor to fulfill his duties. An emergency colostomy was suggested. Tom rarely gets forceful or adamant with people but when he does they are looking up at someone about 6’5”.

That is where this particular part of the story ends. She had zero chance up on the mountain under the care of an adolescent brother. She had zero chance entering the medical tent on her own. With Tom Parsons helping her she had some sort of hope for life.

At this time Tom doesn’t know whether she lived or has died. She is one of millions suffering; one of thousands that his team helped to live another day. As he pressed on with his stories I could hear Tom’s fatigue and I suggested we continue later after he rested. He wasn’t going to rest, he was going to try and find a way to bring in shelter for the masses. “If it rains, millions will die,” he said. And, he wasn’t even thinking of cholera at this point – a common dark companion to disaster and poverty.

And so, the story will continue, as does life itself. It is but one example about compassion and making a difference. You never know what that young kid will grow up to become. Opportunity and effort makes a difference. As long as there is need in the world and people like Tom Parsons are growing up and learning in places like Camp Immokalee the world can be a better place.  Tom’s son, Chris, accompanied him on this quest – the “light” will spread to others. People from Camp Immokalee’s first 85 years know what this “light” means from our Candlelight Service. I couldn’t be prouder as someone, one of many that helped Tom along the way. Rarely do I see such pure dedication and effort from people benefiting others. Thus, the lessons learned are not just about compassion, but also about how to act responsibly and as a better human being.

Jim Austin
Camp Immokalee
Camp Immokalee Alumni Association, Past Chairman

Mission Statement: To put Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all.