Lessons learned by volunteers in post-quake Haiti

Since the January 12th earthquake, Haiti has seen a surge in volunteers from around the world. Their presence could not have come at a more critical time when morale has been low and the country faces a future of uncertainty. Many have made the trip to offer themselves as helpers in the cause. They have documented their experiences to share what they encountered and learned in the relief and rebuilding efforts. Each of the following individuals provides a unique voice, speaking alongside the people of Ayiti.

Last February, Gabriela Fullon volunteered with Asosyason Peyizan Fondwa (APF), situated in the southern coast between Leogane and Jacmel. She worked with APF to empower and educate people in the countryside through the organization’s assorted projects in the radio station, orphanage, university, schools, and convent. Gabriela said, “While the cholera outbreak hadn’t happened yet, the conditions we saw everywhere pointed to the possibility of an outbreak. Overflowing portable bathrooms; unclean, crowded conditions were frighteningly common there.”

BHR: What do you feel is a pressing issue facing Haiti’s youth while on your trip?

Fullon: In that particular area it seems that the need was for more opportunities in the area to use their skills. APF and it’s founder Father Joseph are trying to create a pipeline where young people from Fondwa and other rural areas can receive education that can create both personal and economic success in an agricultural/rural setting. I liked that APF and Fr. Joseph make the young people aware of their power, their strength, and their value and provide spaces where they’ll be able to make a life without having to leave for the overcrowded cities like Port-au-Prince. It seems programs like that are needed in communities everywhere.

BHR: What advice do you have for first time volunteers?

Fullon: Listen and observe before making judgments about lifestyles or even solutions necessary to help. As volunteers we are outsiders and are still guests. We don’t understand everything about life in Haiti -cultural norms, practices, etc. and need to see how we fit before forcing ourselves in.

Charlot Lucien is founder and co-director of the Haitian Artists Assembly of Massachusetts (HAAM) who traveled to his native homeland Ayiti last April to volunteer his services in preserving the cultural importance and prominence that kept it a jewel, “the arts.” Charlot trekked to the countryside as well as the coastal town of Jacmel to visit local painters. He had spoken to 17 painters who had lost many of their work and homes during the earthquake. HAAM has collected funds and sent art supplies to about 40 artists. They continue to help by selling art through exhibits with 75 percent going to the artists and 25 percent pays for work space for the painters. HAAM will put on several art exhibits at various locations from January through June. For more details, see the Reporter calendar.

BHR: What do you feel is a pressing issue facing Haiti’s youth while on your trip?

Lucien: Education, Education, Education. Education is an important asset to the country. People are not given an opportunity at the lowest level. Many materials such as school supplies are needed to empower the youth as well as finding good housing.

BHR: What advice do you have for first time volunteers?

Lucien: People should not have the mindset going in that Haiti is a poor country. They have to be sensitive to [our] people’s culture and understand that Port-Au-Prince does not exude all of Haiti. Planning before arrival is essential. Plan to visit and enjoy the countryside.

Heather Pirolli volunteered with Hands on Disaster Response. They set up resource bases in severely affected areas and scheduled volunteers to work throughout their time in Haiti. She worked in Leogane widely reported as the epicenter of the earthquake. She helped clear rubble, assisted at a local orphanage and youth group. Heather also worked several other projects including: tent distribution, building and providing bio sand filters to families and schools, building schools, English programs for local volunteers, and training secretaries in the mayor’s office.

BHR: Moving forward, does Haiti need more manpower, or should there be a transition to training and developing skilled workers?

Pirolli: I think [Haiti needs] more skilled workers. Volunteers did wonderful things for many families but the long-term and nation-wide effort needs to be much bigger. Skilled workers are needed to plan and build infrastructure, make use of or dispose of the crippling amounts of rubble, and incorporate and train locals so that they can have even more ownership over the rebuilding efforts.

BHR: How has this trip changed you in how you perceive countries similar to Haiti?

Pirolli: I guess I just have a stronger appreciation of the people that live there and the courageous way in which they deal with many of the circumstances they face. I’ve also realized that it’s not all “bad”. There was so much about Leogane and the people that I enjoyed and was impressed by despite so much hardship.

Franklin Dalembert is Executive Director of Haitian Coalition in Somerville. Last year, he made 3 trips to Haiti - in April, July and November - all with different challenges and experiences. On his first trip, he traveled with several Latino organizations to distribute goods, medicine, and held health fairs for almost 1000 survivors in Tabarre. During his second trip in July he visited Balan, a Northern town where he collaborated with Respè Ayiti, Engineers Without Borders and students from Tufts University. They began construction of a health center for a population of 20,000 people - and growing - due to relocation of survivors from the capital. On his most recent visit, helped with Cholera education and prevention.

BHR: What do you feel is a pressing issue facing Haiti’s youth while on your trip?

Dalembert: Youth have lack of access in many aspects. There is no system to aide the youth of Haiti. We need better systems to provide training to the youth in becoming more educated, teaching them about self-independence, and respect. Access to schools is not available to the youth of Haiti. Free education is one way to combat this problem.

BHR: Moving forward, does Haiti need more manpower, or should there be a transition to training and developing skilled workers?

Dalembert: More skilled workers are needed, especially from other Haitians - the diaspora. We let others decide, it is time for Haitians living abroad to invest in the country. We need a transfer of knowledge, one that can be done in a respectful manner.

Shaona Sen is one of numerous volunteers who made the trip to Haiti with Global Volunteer Network. Shaona went in early December, during the spread of Cholera and Presidential elections. Her volunteer trip also took her to Jacmel. The group helped with cholera education sessions, the renovation of Ecole Nationale de Cyvadier, vitamin distribution, feeding children at the Mother Teresa home, and visual paintings with the youth. Shaona says, “Many youth I’ve met think of tomorrow, which is necessary but giving children the hope of the further future is key.”

BHR: How does the Cholera outbreak in Jacmel differ from Port-au-Prince?

Sen: Cholera hit Jacmel a significant amount of time after Port au Prince. Jacmel had some time to prepare for how to avoid Cholera through educational sessions (which our team took part in) and word of mouth. Jacmel is less concentrated than Port au Prince but rainy days the week Cholera reached the Jacmel area led to the bacteria spreading more quickly. What is the same for both cities is the lack of basic supplies. For instance, re-hydration tablets/fluids to beat the Cholera, or access to soap and bleaching agents to prevent getting Cholera all together.

BHR: What advice do you have for first time volunteers?

Sen: Absorb as much as you can. Think about strategically sharing what is working - Pa za pa (step by step). Think about realistic solutions to observations you see as regressive. Emotions are bound to arise. Keep strong. Every second of your time before, during and after volunteering matters greatly. And of course, have fun while making a difference.