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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.

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He puts up with Haiti's frustrations, he says, because "it's absolutely a calling for me. I believe in the social justice tenets of what Jesus taught. I come at this very much from a social justice, equity point of view. I have such an incredibly privileged life that I can never just enjoy that. I have to help – try to help – people who don't have."

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Mirebalais is the largest hospital construction project in PIH's 23-year history. The facility will have features that owe their inclusion to Ansara's involvement, says Ted Constan, PIH's chief program officer. They include an easy-to-navigate environment for disabled patients and bedside oxygen stations – a first for Haiti.

"Mirebalais will have elements of infection control that we've never done before, earthquake standards that have not been seen in Haiti, and green technologies," Mr. Constan says. "All of these are things that Jim, with his career in construction management, is making possible."

Completion of the hospital will show the world that Haiti is not hopelessly dysfunctional but can accomplish great things, Mr. Shore says. "It's just one hospital, but it's going to be a very powerful symbol. I think it's going to become a huge point of pride in the Haitian nation, one that could affect a lot of other things."

Ansara grew up in a blue-collar Boston family. His father wrote fiction and drove a taxi. His mother taught school and advocated for the poor, especially children.

He attended elite schools on scholarships, but never graduated from college. His restless mind led him to master the building trades – plumbing, carpentry, and electrical work – where complex problems were always his favorites.

He founded Shawmut, and it prospered by solving tough problems in old buildings, especially on college campuses. After retiring in his early 40s, he built two lobster boats because he liked the challenge – and besides, the first one wasn't perfect.

The Ansaras have been active in philanthropic causes, largely through foundations that fund projects seeking long-term solutions to poverty.

But he needed to get his hands dirty.

"I wanted to do more than just serve on boards," Ansara says. "[Mirebalais] has given me a much bigger purpose. If we can really pull this off, it will have a tremendous impact on health care in Haiti…. This will attract people from all over Haiti because it's free care, it's a good hospital."

Ansara isn't shy about asking others to help, Shore says. He's prevailed on bootmaker Timberland to donate 300 pairs of boots for hospital construction workers.

Because of his track record, Ansara's appeals come with "a moral authority," Shore says. "When he tells people he needs something, you feel you've almost got to deliver it for him."

• To read more stories about people making a difference, go here.

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