By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When he’s on Grounds, Steve Delice wears a dog tag that depicts the blue and red flag of Haiti. It attracts attention, and that’s the idea.
“I’ve had that for a few years, but since the whole incident I’ve been wearing it as a reminder for everyone not to forget Haiti,” said Delice, a hurdler on UVa’s track-and-field team.
“Every time I walk around with it, someone always looks at it and notices, and asks, and we get on the topic of Haiti. It’s just my way of keeping it out there and raising awareness and keeping awareness on the situation in Haiti.”
Delice, a transfer from Coppin State in Baltimore, was born in Port-de-Paix, Haiti, in February 1987. About nine years later, he moved with his family to Brooklyn, N.Y., and he’s lived in the United States ever since.
Many members of Delice’s extended family, however, still call the West Indies nation home, including his maternal grandmother. More than a half-dozen of his relatives perished in the Jan. 12 earthquake that destroyed much of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, among them a cousin who was in medical school.
Delice was in Maryland, wrapping up a visit with a close friend, when another buddy called to ask if he’d heard about the earthquake. Delice hadn’t.
“Mind you, I’m packing the car to leave, and so I kind of joked about it,” Delice recalled, “because I remember when I was in Haiti, earthquakes hit a few times, and I always slept through them. So I didn’t think it was something big.”
He learned otherwise on his drive back to Charlottesville. Text messages flooded his cell phone, and then his mother called, crying hysterically.
As soon as he got home, Delice turned on the TV and watched the reports from Haiti, stunned at the magnitude of the disaster. He Googled “Richter Scale” to get a better appreciation of the severity of a 7.0 earthquake, “and right then and there, I guess you could say, I went into shock,” said Delice, who earned a bachelor’s degree in global studies from Coppin State.
“I didn’t know what to do, how to react, how to feel or anything. I think I just prayed that night and spoke to a few people on the phone, because they wanted to know what was going on. I told them, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. As soon as I know, I’ll let you know.’ “
In the days that followed, as Delice learned more about the earthquake’s toll on his relatives, his mood darkened.
“I guess you could say I was angry, questioning my beliefs as far as what’s going on,” Delice said. “It’s not really something I enjoyed, questioning my belief in God, but I couldn’t understand why that would happen to Haiti. They’re already in such a bad situation. Why would something like this happen at all? And if it’s going to happen, why to them?”
His teammates and coaches at UVa became a support system for Delice, who’s pursuing a master’s in social foundations in the Curry School of Education.
Assistant coach Adrian Wheatley, who works with the Cavaliers’ sprinters and hurdlers, was among those who approached Delice.
“I was like, ‘Hey, there are bigger things out there than track. If you need to take some time off, we’re here to support you,’ ” Wheatley recalled. “But he said, ‘No.’ I think track is his outlet.”
Delice said: “I use track and field sometimes as a therapeutic method. Growing up, running is something that made me feel good, made me feel free, so I continued doing that.
“You can’t help but to be angry about [the earthquake’s devastation], but in training, even in competition, I’ve used it while running. I’ve used it as motivation to want to do something. I run for Haiti, and I feel like it would be a way to give back to Haiti if I can do something big in the track-and-field world, maybe win a meet that no one expects.”
His specialty is the 400-meter hurdles. At the NCAA outdoor championships in 2007, Delice became Coppin State’s first All-American. A year later, as a junior, he ran the 400 hurdles in 50.24 seconds, his personal best and a school record.
Had he been healthy last spring, Delice would not be running for UVa now. But he sat out the outdoor season with a hamstring injury and so is eligible this spring for the Cavaliers.
“I have the spring, and that’s when I’ve got to make a statement and give Virginia their money’s worth, per se,” said Delice, who’s likely to contend for an ACC title in the 400 hurdles. “I’ve been given an opportunity, and I’m not taking it lightly.”
The news from his relatives in Haiti has, for the most, been better in recent weeks, and Delice finds it easier now to follow his regular routine. In the days that followed Jan. 12, he thought of little but his native country.
“Throughout class, throughout the day,” Delice said in late January. “Every other thought you think about is of Haiti. I like to pray before I eat, and never so much I have prayed, just continuing to put Haiti in my prayers, before they so badly need it. It’s something that I think will last a very long time with me.”
That his country will rise again, Delice is convinced. Haitians are a resilient people accustomed to adversity.
“We’re strong,” Delice said. “We’re fighters. We’ve been very thankful for the help [from other countries], but we do know this is not the end. We have to continue fighting, continue to work towards a better tomorrow. I guess that’s one of the thing that makes me proud to be Haitian: the fact that no matter what happens, we continue fighting, we continue working.
“Even in the media, if you just mute the TV and look at the faces — I don’t know if it’s because I have that connection, but I can see the strength in the people. Even when they’re crying, I can still feel that — you know what? — they know it’s not over.”
Delice has not been back to Haiti since he moved away in 1996. “I’m always busy running track during the summer, or there are financial reasons,” he said.
He’s determined to return this year after the semester and track season end at UVa.
“Although I have some plans for what I’d like to get done for the summer, I feel it’s more important for me to go down there, to see what I can do physically,” Delice said. “I’d like to go down there with some sort of finances, of course, but if that’s not possible, it doesn’t matter.
“I just need to go down there and show that I care, actually take part in helping to build a house or something, giving somebody emotional comfort.”
When he was a boy, Delice dreamed of becoming Haiti’s president. He’ll soon have a master’s to go with his bachelor’s, and he intends to put that education to good use.
Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, and Delice wants to help — if not as president, perhaps as an ambassador.
“Politics might be the best way to go about bringing about change in my country,” he said, “because I don’t like what I’ve been seeing throughout my lifetime, and I don’t like the history we have. That’s one of the big things the earthquake forced me to think about.”
If Delice ends up providing leadership in Haiti one day, his coaches at UVa won’t be surprised. They’ve seen such qualities in him at Virginia.
“He’s got a vision,” Wheatley said. “I think Steve is an individual who, when he puts his mind to something, is going to find a way to get it done.”