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Difference Maker

Using hands-on philanthropy to bring Haiti relief

Millionaire contractor James Ansara wanted to do something for Haiti, so he's building a hospital as his charitable work.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald/ Correspondent / January 10, 2011

Jim Ansara stands in his Beverly, Mass., office with an architect’s rendering of the hospital he is building with nonprofit Partners in Health in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The facility is scheduled to open in November. Mr. Ansara made enough as the owner of a construction business to retire in his 40s.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

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Beverly, Mass.

Ever since a devastating earthquake rocked Haiti a year ago, James Ansara of Essex, Mass., has been demonstrating how he's not your typical multimillionaire philanthropist.

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While his peers were writing checks, Mr. Ansara was doing that – and much more. Days after the quake hit, he was up to his elbows in rubble, repairing generators with his own hands and restoring power to a desperate situation in Port-au- Prince, Haiti's capital.

He keeps going back, week after week, in a bid to bring world-class health care to the hemisphere's poorest country.

"I think it's really one in a million [donors] who are [as] personally invested" as Ansara is, says Bill Shore, executive director of Share our Strength, a Boston-based antipoverty organization with projects in Haiti. "Generally, we might be successful in getting [donors] to make a trip or two to a place like Haiti ... or New Orleans, after Katrina. But for someone to go down there on a weekly basis since January [2010, as Ansara has] is remarkable."

Ansara, a construction magnate who retired early, brings a rare combination of personal wealth, practical skills, deep experience and – perhaps rarest of all – a willingness to share in Haiti's suffering.

He needs all those qualities in his current volunteer role with Partners in Health (PIH), a nonprofit that runs 60 hospitals in 12 countries. Ansara is director of construction for PIH's Mirebalais Hospital, Haiti's largest postquake building project.

With 320 beds, Mirebalais Hospital will be Haiti's biggest, at least until the city hospital in Port-au-Prince is rebuilt, which may take years. At Mirebalais, Haitians will have access to basic health services as well as specialty surgeries never before available to them.

To open Mirebalais by November 2011, Ansara puts in 90-hour workweeks, sometimes via laptop and phone from Essex, north of Boston, where he raises four adopted teenagers with his wife, Karen.

Otherwise he's in Haiti, where he lives with an erratic water pump, routine power outages, and a nearby river that makes travel impossible after heavy rains.

Ansara doesn't have to live that way. He's plenty wealthy, even after giving away more than $18 million since he began the process of selling his business, Shawmut Construction, to his employees in 1997.

Still, he puts on no airs. He drives a 2010 Ford Focus. He arrives for a cafe interview in jeans and an untucked plaid shirt.

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