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Boston Cabbie Leads Double Life As Outreach Worker In His Native Haiti

On the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, in a community known as Merger, a small house sits tucked between highway and ocean. It's typically Haitian — simple, cramped, worse for wear — though it withstood the recent hurricane poundings.

There's nothing to suggest that this is both home and headquarters for a man with deep Boston roots.

Jean Magloire was born not far from here. He first came to Boston in 1981, eventually earning a masters in public health at Boston University. Settling in Hyde Park, he became an outreach worker at the Multi-Cultural Aids Coalition in Greater Boston, connecting to the Haitian community, breaking down barriers and helping people with HIV.

But knowing how much the people of his own country needed in terms of health and education gnawed at him.

"Haiti needed basic things, fighting ignorance and misery," he tells me. "Trying to teach people to believe in themselves, trying to let them know that it's not the right solution to take the boat and the high seas, risking their lives to try to get to Florida, but to try to see what they can do to live in this beautiful place that is called Haiti."

And so, in 1995, Magloire returned to fights AIDS in a country where, according to official estimates, more than 6 percent of the population — 300,000 people — are now infected. AIDS education became the driving focus for his organization, Comprehensive Haitian American Program Outreach, or CHAPO.

It's an acronym, also the French word for "hat" and, in Haitian Creole, slang for something else, too.

"The other meaning of "chapo" is what we might call in American streets "jimmy hat," which is condom," Magloire says. "Our slogan is: Don't have sex, don't do drugs, if you're having sex, use a condom."

Magloire doesn't mind that he's now known as Monsieur Chapo as he travels the Haitian countryside.

He's a self-funded, one-man band. "We give out shiny condoms," he says, showing me some of the selections. "This one has the Eiffel Tower. We try to make things very sexy, very lovely, because usually people get HIV when they're having good times. So you have to remind them while they're having good times to be careful."

Magloire visits public health clinics, schools, people's homes. He talks at soccer games, bus stops, anywhere he can spread information. He talks not just about HIV but also the basics that might be taken for granted elsewhere: hygiene, sex education, child birth.

He always offers tangible incentives for people to listen. They go a long way in a country with so little. He offers toothbrushes, dental floss and deodorant that he gets from the Harvard Dental School of Public Health.

Magloire says the work he's doing in Haiti is an expansion of the work he began in Boston many years ago. "I can tell you that until today, the majority of the materials I use are from Boston," he says. "And without my connection to Boston, this work I’m doing in Haiti would not be possible."

That connection continues. In fact, you could say that Magloire leads a double life. A couple of months a year, usually in winter, he's back in Boston. He's able to fund a year's worth of work in Haiti, with a familiar job. "I have to rely mostly on driving a taxi, solo, which means 20 hours a day, and trying to raise as much money as I can," Magloire says.

Magloire's mission isn't officially sanctioned. In fact, Haiti's Department of Public Health turned down his request for funding. So, in addition to his income from driving cabs, he also taps his longtime public health contacts in Boston for money and other donations.

"Haiti is a place where we say: the way things happen, happen," Magloire says. "Sometimes you have so many good plans, but to execute those plans always is a challenge."

Speaking over the music of a funeral procession winding down the street, Magloire says he hopes his efforts will mean this all too common sound will be heard just a little less often.

"Haiti, you either love it or you don’t," he says. "There’s no in between. I enjoy what I’m doing. If I spend a week not feeling like I have helped at least 50 people, I wouldn’t be happy."

And so Magloire has come to personify an old Haitian proverb. A man comes to a rocky, jagged shore and each day he picks up one small stone and carries it away. Why bother? a friend wonders. Because, the man answers, if each of us took away one rock every day, one day we will all share a beautiful beach.

This program aired on November 8, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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