Alumni Use Expertise as Humanitarians to Haiti
by Jay Copp, University of Illinois Alumni Association / Feb 17, 2023
Bob and Flo Anne O’Brien bring civil engineering, education and self-reliance to the people of Port-au-Prince.
At Bob O’Brien’s retirement party from Western Rock Products in 2004, a colleague gave him a mason’s trowel and a hammer. “You’ll need these,” he cracked. The civil engineer didn’t realize the prescience of his friend’s parting gift.
The very next day, Robert O’Brien, ’68 ENG, made his first trip to Haiti as a church-based volunteer. Since then, he has visited nearly 60 times to direct construction of schools, health clinics and churches—about 90 projects altogether. His partner in charitable work is his wife, Flo Anne (Fuller) O’Brien,’67 ED, who has shepherded progressive teaching methods in the city of Port-au-Prince.
The O’Briens, who met at Illinois and married the day after Bob graduated, volunteer through Haiti Outreach Ministries, which represents a range of Christian denominations. The organization operates five campuses in Port-au-Prince with education and religious facilities.
And although the couple has donated countless hours to the ministries’ work, they say they receive much more than they give. “The people are very friendly,” Flo Anne says. “The children want to hold your hand. They want to be right beside you. They can’t get enough of you.”
The couple’s involvement dramatically escalated after January 12, 2010, when a deadly earthquake devastated the city. “That changed my life,” Bob says. He led an intensive rebuilding effort, helping to implement earthquake-resistant standards in new structures. “It took me back to my early days and a course on concrete at Illinois,” he says.
Over the many years they have been volunteering in Port-au-Prince, the couple is gratified to witness the strides that Haitians have made. Students who once had little or no access to books and other learning materials now do very well on rigorous national exams. Because the spiraling violence in Haiti has made it problematic for the O’Briens to go there now, Bob continues to manage projects over the phone from the couple’s home in St. Augustine, Fla. Nevertheless, the O’Briens are glad to know their service has fostered Haitians’ self-reliance. “Bob worked with them so well and for so long that they can [now] do things on their own,” Flo Anne says.
“They teach us a lot,” says Bob. “They don’t have anything. But they are very religious and feel that they are blessed.”