Her first visit to Port au Prince in 1996 was an eyeopener. Vicki Kett had travelled to India years before and witnessed incredible poverty, but nothing like what she saw in Haiti.
“People were being infected by diseases long gone like malaria and tuberculosis,” Kett says.
A photojournalist turned nurse, and now an AIDS awareness advocate, Kett has travelled many times to Haiti and endured living conditions that are a far cry from the comforts she is accustomed to in Canada.
Born and raised in downtown Toronto, Kett’s early life was privileged and secure in a home that valued the arts, education and community service.
“My father was a composer, Godfrey Ridout, and my mother (Freda Antrobus) was a singer. I might have taken for granted the arts,” she confessed about her early years. She remembers famous people such as Glenn Gould visiting her parents.
Godfrey Ridout composed symphonic works as well as radio drama scores and symphonic arrangements of popular music for CBC. He taught at the University of Toronto for 40 years.
With tremendous support from her family, Kett took the opportunity to explore the world when she was in her 20s. She worked as a freelance photographer on the international tennis circuit, dabbled in politics with a job at Queen’s Park, and then worked as a nurse in the VD clinic at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.
In 1977 Kett helped her neighbour, Margaret Campbell, get re-elected as MPP in the Toronto riding of St. George. Campbell was the first female Liberal member of the Ontario legislature and the mother of former Sudbury MPP Sterling Campbell.
The experience changed Kett’s life. Sterling Campbell had recruited his friend, Terry Kett, a teacher from Sudbury, to help campaign for his mother.
“Terry and I were compatible at first sight. The things that you want to argue about are meaningful and all the other things are compatible.”
Within six months she was married and had moved to Sudbury, reluctantly. Thirty-three years later, she recalls, “I had no intention of staying here.” She missed Toronto.
“What I really did notice back then, and it endeared me to Sudbury was when people saw that something needed to be done, action took place,” she says.
Sudbury eventually captured her heart. Kett served as a school board trustee with the Sudbury District School Board for 18 years, and has volunteered her time with the Canadian Cancer Society, the Vale Hospice, and Artists on Elgin. She also supported her husband’s work as municipal politician. Terry is the current councillor for Ward 11. The couple have three daughters, Jennifer, Sarah and Celia,who are all now embarking on their own careers.
It is Kett’s work as manager of community services for Access AIDS Network that reveals the real woman.
“AIDS work is a passion,” she says. “We are actually supporting people who want to be supported and working their way to a different direction in their lives.”
She loves the hands-on part of her job, getting to work with disadvantaged people to help them make a better life. That might mean bringing decision-makers around the table to change policy or to raise money for programs.
In the past year, Access AIDS held a forum with sex trade workers. Once again Kett marvelled at the magic of how this community can get behind a great idea and bring about positive change.
“We had great dialogue with these women and one of them asked, ‘why do you people care about us?’ This is the start of an amazing project that we can give meaningful support for those who want to exit the sex trade.”
AIDS work first took her to Haiti. Kett established a relationship with Haitians after leading a train-the-trainer session there in 1996. Long before their recent problems, Haitians had limited medical resources to fight HIV and AIDS infections.
“Education was the cheapest solution. If young people knew the facts, chances (are) they will think about safer sex,” she says.
The Ketts started Project Haiti 14 years ago to send used medical equipment to the Caribbean country.
“I was appalled by what they had to work with, antibiotics three years out of date…I told them, ‘why don’t you give me lists?’, and they did. I came home and sent the lists out to Timmins, to Parry Sound, to health units, hospitals. I couldn’t believe the stuff that was offered, delivery tables, operating tables.(But) I don’t send anything that is not requested,” she says.
With so many relationships in Haiti, listening to news about the earthquake and the political problems of the past year has deeply affected her.
“I was in tears seeing all these neighbourhoods and knowing the downtown so well and knowing how many fatalities there would be. There are two million people living there,” she says.
On her most recent trip this past January, she continued to witness the chaos of rebuilding after the earthquake.
Haitians have “A true resilience,” she says. “They have no safety net to fall into and we can all learn from that.
“I am asked all the time, ‘Can I go down and work?’ by pharmacists, builders and doctors. I tell them they will live in horrible conditions and pay their own way, but come back with such a level of satisfaction and hopefully have actually left something with the Haitian people.”