Unconditional loving heart for Haiti: Marquette native details his 20-year stay abroad

Marquette native Tom Braak, right, sits with his wife, Ficilta, and his son, Ryan, during a return trip to Haiti in 2018. Before Braak was severely injured in a truck accident in March 2018, he spent over 20 years in the country working as a farmer in a tree nursery, overseeing pastor training and distributing water filters. (Photos courtesy of Tom Braak)
Haitian children receive fruit trees in Verrettes, Haiti, so they can grow their trees to provide funds for their education. (Photo courtesy of Tom Braak)

MARQUETTE — Some people who want to give back to the world mail a check to their choice of charity each year.

Some help out at their local food bank or soup kitchen.

But Marquette native Tom Braak pursued a different avenue. He received a calling from God 23 years ago to sell everything he owned, pack a small backpack of supplies, an English/Creole dictionary and board the next plane to Haiti, Braak said.

After reading the Christian book “In His Steps” by Charles Sheldon, Tom Braak was motivated to set out on a quest although he did yet not know what it was.

While on a cabin retreat on Island Lake near Ishpeming, he spent months in prayer and solitude, searching for a purpose. And then one day, Haiti called his name.

In January 1997, Tom Braak left everything he knew for the adventure, although he knew little about Haiti at the time.

During the first months in Haiti, he traveled the country, calling his family whenever he got a chance to visit a city, which was typically once a month.

St. Robert of Newminster Parish of Ada in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula partnered with a church in Haiti and that’s when Tom Braak eventually landed a spot in Verrettes, Haiti.

Stationed in the Artibonite Valley with a mountainous view, he worked alongside farmers, growing hardwoods, overseeing home gardens, training pastors and distributing water filters. However, running a fruit tree nursery was one of his main tasks, with over 23 varieties of fruit.

Braak said he felt quite at home in Verrettes, adding that the more dangerous parts in the country were the drug trafficking areas.

“When I first got down there and stayed with a priest, they told me, ‘Okay, you can’t go out on your own after 3 o’clock. Make sure you always have someone with you.’ There was no reason for that, they were just trying to protect me,” he said with a chuckle. “It was funny, walking around town with a Creole dictionary — a little pocket one — we got along fine.”

The Michigander would spend the next 20 years calling Haiti his home. He met his wife Ficilta during a church revival in the mountains, where she was singing in the choir. They married in 2004 and had their son Ryan in 2009.

Over the next nine years, Tom Braak spent his days maintaining fruit trees, helping Haitians with their nurseries, networking with nongovernmental organizations and incorporating new trees and plants into the area from different countries. Then on a March day in 2018, while unloading fruit trees from his truck into his yard, Tom Braak was struck by an incoming truck.

He suffered a severe brain injury, seven broken ribs, two pelvic fractures and punctured lungs.

Within 24 hours of his accident, he was immediately evacuated to the nearest trauma center, which was in Florida. Three weeks later, Tom Braak was transferred to a hospital in Grand Rapids for another four weeks.

“I got out of the hospital and a few months later, I was going back to Haiti against doctor orders but to me that was therapy (to be) back in my own environment,” he said.

The recovery process has been long and challenging, not only for Tom Braak but for his entire family, his father Larry Braak said. But his perseverance to return to Haiti continues.

“He loves the Haitian people, (he) calls Haiti his home. He feels most at home in that social and cultural environment,” Larry Braak said. “He’s learned the language very well on his own and enjoys working with the people, particularly the farmers who are recipients of the trees that he grows.”

Since his accident, the fruit tree nonprofit organization Tom Braak founded has disbanded but still has a few employees still maintaining his fruit tree nursery. From a missionary family, Tom Braak has a love for people that others could benefit from and his heart will remain in Haiti, Larry Braak said.

With only a little bit of agricultural knowledge from working for Michigan State University Extension in Chatham and managing Lots of Growth community gardens in Grand Rapids, Tom Braak still had much to learn from Haiti’s farmers during his first trip down there.

Everything he learned after that was self taught, his brother David Braak said.

“He is extremely resourceful. When he first went there, he had no contacts … to go from there to being well networked and supporting organizations all over the country, it’s really something,” David Braak said. “… Another thing about his character is he’s one with the people. A lot of the time, we see NGOs going in and thinking, ‘Okay, I know better. I’ll tell them what to do.’ He’s really good at listening to the problems that the farmers are facing and then trying to be a resource for them, rather than telling them, ‘You got to do this.'”

As long as David Braak can remember, his younger brother has always been a “real people person.”

“Tom is just a reminder that even though we have limitations, there’s always someone we can reach out to help. He is very focused. Sometimes we think, ‘Well, there’s so many problems in the world, I can’t help with any.’ But he’s very focused on that one issue and that one group of people.”

Currently, Tom Braak still deals with a lot of pain from the accident and will need hip replacement surgery soon, but his optimism prevails.

Before the accident, he’d walk every day through the mountains, seeing if farmers needed assistance. He didn’t go down to Haiti with an “expert-in-the-field attitude,” he went he thinking how he could work together with the people, he said.

“The main thing I learned is of course, fruit trees. There’s so many fruits we don’t know about,” Tom Braak said. “But the people, they’re so kind and loving that I have no fear going anywhere in Haiti. I could get along with anybody and not be in fear. If you can speak the language at all, you can joke with them a little bit, diffuse things.”

Though Tom Braak’s main task is to recover from his injuries, he plans to return to Haiti with a dream of finishing building a home and continuing his fruit tree nursery. But until his son graduates high school, the family will reside in Grand Haven, with Tom Braak awaiting for his return to the place he now calls home.

“I think it’s great that he’s got this compassion and he really sees the Haitians as his people and he feels like he’s living at home when he’s in Haiti,” David Braak said. “Even though he’s had this brain injury, he doesn’t want to give up on helping them.”

Jackie Jahfetson can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is jjahfetson@miningjournal.net.


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