Debra Black, The Star
July 15, 2012
Joseph Alvyns had recently returned to Port au Prince from Toronto, where he was being filmed for a documentary about baseball, when his mother died from cholera. The filmmakers soon realized they were witnessing a scandal of monumental proportions, and shifted gears to focus on the suspect: the UN.
For Joseph Alvyns — a 17-year-old who survived the earthquake that ravaged Haiti — throwing the first pitch at a Blue Jays game was a dream come true.
The captain of the first-ever Haitian Little League team had been spotted on a television news clip by Martha Rogers, whose family owns the Blue Jays.
He and his cousin had been making bracelets to help children who were hurt by the tsunami that had rocked Japan.
Rogers — who was in Haiti doing work for Artists for Peace and Justice in March, 2011 when she saw the clip — had been so moved by Alvyns’ act of generosity even when he and his family had so little that she arranged to have him come to Toronto so he could watch a real baseball game.
“The irony really struck me,” she said in an interview with the Star. “The poorest kids in the world raising money for the richest.”
Alvyns’ story, and the story of the little league team, is part of a just-released short documentary by two American aid workers who turned their cameras on baseball and the cholera epidemic as it spread across Haiti.
Joseph Alvyns took in the view from the CN Tower during his visit to Toronto from his home in Haiti. A few weeks after he returned, his mother was dead from cholera. Many researchers believe UN peacekeeping soldiers introduced the disease, which is transmitted through contaminated water, though there are other theories.
The film — Baseball in the Time of Cholera — is also part of an international campaign that includes an online petition asking the United Nations to step up, accept responsibility for introducing cholera to the island and eliminate the disease which has killed about 7,200 people so far and infected another 542,000.
It recently won an award at the Tribeca Film Festival and can be found on YouTube.
The documentary shows Alvyns’ journey to Toronto, his experience throwing the first pitch at a Jays game — wearing a Jays baseball shirt — meeting the players and watching the game.
During his trip, he toured the city, went to the CN Tower, Canada’s Wonderland and the Eaton Centre.
“Everyone stayed at my place,” Rogers said. “He was up (here) for five days. He was fearless. I’ve never seen a teenager walk with such confidence,” she said of his striding into the diamond to throw the first pitch. “He loved it (throwing the first pitch). He’s an amazing, brave, brave kid. All of them are, for everything they’ve experienced down there.”
In the documentary, Alvyns’ face lights up with joy as he tours Toronto. “I like the city,” he says. “We walked everywhere. It’s different from Haiti. No earthquakes. No riots. No Cholera.”
He tells his mom when he calls her from the Blue Jays game: “It’s cold in this country.” She advises him to put on a jacket to stay warm. He says he will.
But the joy of the visit is quickly shattered. Three weeks after he returned to Port au Prince from Toronto, Alvyns’ mother, who made her living making jewelry, got cholera. Despite medical intervention, she died.
Alvyns tell viewers at the beginning of the 28-minute documentary: “My name is Joseph Alvyns . . . I love baseball . . . I love my life . . . In the afternoon I play baseball, in the morning I go to school in Port au Prince.”
He introduces his team members, his family, shows off his family home, his garden and one of his most coveted possessions: a gold statue of a baseball player that he received during his visit to Toronto.
“This is my favourite thing,” he says as he kisses the statue.
The documentary provides a unique view of the spread of the cholera epidemic across Haiti and how it eventually impacts Joseph and his family, explained David Darg, who made the film along with Bryn Mooser.
Originally the pair — who started the baseball team for children living in the camps — had planned to make a film about the impact of baseball on the kids of Port au Prince. “They had nothing to do at night. These camps are horrible places to live.”
It seemed ironic to both Darg and Mooser that on the other side of the island of Hispaniola in the Dominican Republic baseball was a national sport, but in Haiti few played it.
So they started the little league team and watched the kids flourish.
Their love for the game, however, was overshadowed by the illness and death they saw all around them during the day because of cholera.
“It wasn’t until Joseph’s mother died that the two stories intersected,” said Darg. “Despite being immersed in the horror of cholera, it wasn’t until then we realized how much of a scandal it was. We hadn’t really had time to think about it.”
Joseph’s mother’s death affected the filmmakers deeply. Joseph had become like a brother to them. His mother had often visited Darg’s house and worked with his wife on jewelry. “She was a dear friend of ours. When she passed away, it affected our baseball team, our household. It was like losing a family member.
“The scandal of it (the cholera epidemic) became much more meaningful to us. Here we are a year after cholera and the story wasn’t being told. It was a man-made disaster and nothing was being done to fight it . . . the United Nations is the only organization that can end it once and for all.”
The epidemic is one of the “largest humanitarian and environmental scandals” Darg said. It is clear, he said, that the United Nations’ Nepalese peacekeepers brought cholera to Haiti when they contaminated a tributary of the Artibonite River through an inadequate sewage system at their base.
Now he, Mooser and others are calling for the UN to step in and provide potable water and sufficient sanitation as well as reparations to those affected.
As for Joseph, he’s doing better, said Darg. He’s making plans for university — something that Rogers personally plans to sponsor.
“He still loves his life,” said Darg. “He’s gotten over the death of his Mom. And he’s doing exceptionally well. He’s still in school. He’s still playing baseball. He’s getting back some of the joy from before his mother’s death. He’s very excited about the film. He understands the importance of it.
“We told him: ‘You’re an ambassador to the rest of the world. He’s proud of that. He’s a regular kid. He’s on Facebook. He loves Justin Bieber.’”
Rogers plans to bring Alvyns and his teammate Japhney Derilus to Toronto in this September to see a Jays game and do “fun Canadian stuff.” This time Derilus will get to throw the first pitch of the game.
As for the larger purpose of the film, Rogers, who got to know the filmmakers through her work with Artists for Peace and Justice, says: “I personally really support the film. If this was a company responsible for killing 7,200 people and infecting half a million people we’d be having a very different conversation.”
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