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Travel Stories

Volunteering in Haiti


Daily market in Port au Prince

Attending a church service in Jacmel

Near Basin Blue
by Cynthia Sewell

So far, 2010 has been a big year for me. I turned 50, and then decided it was time to do something really meaningful with my time and resources. The devastating quake that hit Haiti in January, my love of foreign travel, and my desire to help a developing country in dire need lead to my quick decision to travel to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Of course, there were many logistical details that needed to be worked out, but within short order I found Global Volunteer Network (GVN), an NGO in need of volunteers. I filled out the necessary paperwork, purchased my airline ticket, and was off to Haiti in early April.

My journey began in Jamaica, where GVN requires its volunteers to participate in a 3-day orientation/induction training program. Our group of 30 volunteers represented a diverse background of skills, nationalities and interests. We were the first rotation of GVN volunteers to enter Haiti, and as such were charged with the responsibility of being the ‘development team’ for all future volunteers. We really didn’t get specific information on what our jobs would entail once in country. We were only told that half of us would go to Port au Prince and the other half to Jacmel, and that once on the ground we might work in an orphanage and/or help relocate Haitians from IDP- Internally Displaced Persons - camps.

I was pleased to find out that I would be sent to Jacmel, a sizeable city located on the Southeast coast of Haiti, known as the artistic and cultural center of the country. Following three days of orientation, the first rotation team boarded an early morning charter flight from Jamaica to Haiti. We arrived at the Port au Prince airport and proceeded through customs without incident. We were met promptly by our in-country facilitator and then boarded a bus, with all provisions piled on top of the roof, for the overland journey to Jacmel. We made our way through the streets of Port au Prince: the sights unfolding before our eyes confirmed the destruction and devastation we had all seen in worldwide news coverage. Rubble everywhere, refuse filling canals and streets, and what remained of the Presidential Palace. The ride to Jacmel took approximately three hours over the majestic mountain range that separates Port au Prince from Jacmel.

We arrived in a torrential downpour, assessed our compound and quickly determined it was unsafe for habitation in its current condition, and unfeasible to set up camp. The following morning we woke to bright sunshine and began the process of building a viable roof structure to hold a rainproof tarp. The roof, rudimentary plumbing, and a generator - to be used for two hours each evening - were in place by day 4; an amazing achievement accomplished in short order by our awesome team of volunteer construction workers.

While construction of GVN’s compound continued throughout the week, other members of the volunteer team visited orphanages, surveyed tent camps immediately surrounding our compound, interviewed individuals in Pinchinat, one of the largest IDP camps in Jacmel, and established initial relations with our neighbors.

It was our understanding that GVN staff had been in Haiti prior to our arrival and that partnerships had been formed with other established NGO’s already on the ground in Haiti, both prior to and after the earthquake. Much to our disappointment, we realized that meaningful relations had not been formed and that we would need to seek out potential partnerships and move forward from there. As a determined group of volunteers we did just that. After a few false starts, we prevailed and not only formed a partnership with the International Organization for Migration, but also began a community center for our immediate neighbors. Based on our initial surveys, we envisioned the center would provide adult education classes (e.g. reading/writing, basic computer skills), after school activities, and a first aid clinic. To that end, we got the community center up and running, offering English language classes, children’s art classes and recreation classes. It was our hope that the volunteer teams to follow would continue to develop and build upon what we started. I am delighted to report that this has occurred. There have been four volunteer rotations to date, and the GVN Jacmel Community Center has grown and become quite the place for the local children, teenagers and adults to gather and hang out.

It was not all work and no play, and my fellow volunteers and I had a couple of weekends to see some of the country and partake in the local culture. We attended an Episcopalian church service, quite unusual as the majority of Haitians officially practice Catholism with some Voodoo mixed in. We went to a nearby beach, Cyvadier Plage, and swam with the locals in bath warm water. We did an off-road day trip to a series of natural pools called Basin Blue, where we jumped off cliffs into the electric blue water. We visited some art galleries in Jacmel town and saw some beautiful paintings. Word on the street is that Haitian artwork is increasing in value. Finally, we were fortunate enough to take Creole language lessons from a local teacher. While French is the official language of Haiti, 90% of Haitians speak Creole, with only the very small elite class actually speaking French.

It has been a little over a month since my return from Haiti, and I find one needs time to reflect on the experience I had. It is important for everyone to understand the resilience of the Haitian people and their sense of pride. Given the severity of the devastation and trauma that befell this small island nation, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful smiles that greeted me daily, and the consideration and gratitude of the people. The needs in Haiti are still enormous, and sadly, little has been accomplished since the quake in January. There is so much clean-up yet to be done before the process of rebuilding can even begin. President Clinton recently made a return visit to Haiti and said he was disappointed with the speed of progress. It is my hope that he will designate a specific task force to take charge and delegate to all the NGOs on the ground, which are no doubt doing admirable work, but many times at cross purposes. In the meantime, I remain hopeful that better fortune will find a way to our Caribbean neighbor.

- To learn more about the current situation in Haiti, and ways to help, an excellent resource is the Clinton Global Initiative.

Photographs by Cynthia Sewell

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