Imagine the lowest depths of poverty possible – they were another level beneath that,” recalls John Bumfrey of his hugely moving experience rebuilding an orphanage in Haiti last year.
At an age when most would be content to put their feet up after decades of work, the pensioner from Middleton-On-Sea, who is now in his 70s, had no regrets about being out in one of the world’s most shocking and lawless disaster zones.
The earthquake that devastated the country in January 2010 - causing several billion dollars’ worth of damage, leaving one million homeless and more than 200,000 people dead - left the former Bosham dentist with an overwhelming compulsion to reach out to a community teetering on the brink of destruction.
Having encountered a Methodist minister, Rev John Fenner, from Grimsby, John was invited to assist with a project setting up an orphanage in India following the tsunami there.
However their plans changed in the wake of Haiti’s tragedy, and together with Grimsby builder Matthew Snow and another colleague living in Spain, Peter Savage, they set off to offer what comfort they could during a gruelling two-week visit.
John, of Main Drive, remembers many testing situations having previously served more than two decades in the RAF, but little could have prepared him for what was to prove a major eye-opener.
He says it would not have been possible but for the support of worldwide Rotary Club members and contacts within the Masonic movement who were able to forge a way forward for them to arrive safely at their destination.
“We saw the ruins of Port -au-Prince amid the rubble and also some of the outlying villages where the biggest problem was cholera,” he said.
“They were still dealing with some of the bodies from the clear-up. Our first thoughts were, ‘What can we do to help?’ It brought tears to our eyes to see people like this.”
“There were two American Ladies missionaries arrived at the Orphanage for a three-month stint and are still there an incredible 33 years later. They and the orphanage survive on donations from across the world, and at any time they only have enough money for one month’s food for all who live there.”
He says his family, including wife June and two children, were right behind his efforts to bring even small improvements into the lives of those with next to nothing.
Beyond the immense tragedy of so many lives lost, one of his most shocking discoveries was that Haitians were struggling to feed themselves as they were almost entirely reliant on imported goods.
And particularly moving, he says, is the cheerfulness of the children in the orphanage, who he recalls would always greet him with a smile which left him with a sense of awe.
“I can remember meeting one man who had himself been in the orphanage we were helping and had decided to set up an orphanage of his own,” adds John, who has been giving fundraising talks to establish a permanent link with the orphanage since his return; he hopes to raise more than £5,000 towards extending the dormitory.
If anyone can assist, contact John at email@example.com or 01243 584721.