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A delegation visits Haiti and finds a situation both moving and complex
“We went to Haiti to serve,” Nancy Vanderpool told the Vashon United Methodist Church congregation earlier this month. “But instead, we were served so caringly by the people there in Haiti.”
Vanderpool and Steve Meacham headed up a team of eight volunteers from Vashon United Methodist Church who had returned two days earlier after spending a week in Haiti as an emergency relief mission team under the aegis of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), which was already established in Haiti at the time of the earthquake and has been providing relief services ever since.
The people in Haiti took great care of the team, Vanderpool said, protecting them from potential health hazards and doing their best to make the guests comfortable. Children delighted in practicing their English or French with the visitors, playing games with the team members and teaching them songs in Creole.
Meacham had just returned from serving with another mission group. None of the other participants — Bruce Stirling, Bob Dixon, Bob Webster, Sandie Ellingson, Vonnie Feyen and Mary Margaret Pearson — had prior Haitian experience. They had spent the previous eight months preparing for this week in Haiti, reading all they could find about the country both before and after the devastating earthquake in January 2010.
But pictures and verbal descriptions could not prepare the team for the stark contrast between the urban and rural areas. Stirling, team photographer and historian, wrote that as the group moved through Port-au-Prince after their arrival, “The road was so overly crowded it didn’t seem possible to move. Men, women and children spilled onto the streets where sidewalks didn’t exist, and dust, diesel and smoky exhaust from vehicles was everywhere.”
Garbage littered the streets and mixed with water in roadside ditches. “Sometimes,” Stirling wrote, “the smell of burning garbage, food and dirty water was difficult to take.” He was shocked to see kids sifting through the trash in the smoke and ash of a large burning garbage dump.
On the other hand, the team got a totally different view several days later when they traveled up into the nearby mountains to visit Eglise-Methodist de Nabosse church. On the way, they stopped for gas at a site, which Stirling described as “like crowding around the drinking fountain in grade school,” and had a tire repaired by a roadside mechanic. The undeveloped road became so treacherous that some of the team members began to consider getting out and walking the rest of the way.
In this rural setting, wrote Stirling, “The landscape was obviously tropical with banana trees and other shrubs. There was much less trash, and houses were built like huts with grass or tin roofs and mud and rock walls. It appeared there was no electrical power to any of the homes.”
At the church, the visitors were treated to the care and hospitality that Nancy Vanderpool had mentioned. Children and adults were both interested in the crafts and games that Sandie Ellingson had brought with her.
Lying somewhere between these urban and rural extremes was Petit-Goave, a small coastal village that was the team’s assigned work site and where they spent most of their time in Haiti. The village had a pleasant beach by the sea, but it also had roadside ditches filled with garbage, which Stirling thought probably got washed into the sea following a rainstorm.
When the team was finally settled in Petit-Goave, they learned that they would be working on repairing a meeting center that had been damaged in the quake. Haitian men hired by UMCOR were already applying coatings of mortar and plaster on the outer and inner walls of the structure. The Vashon team was assigned to moving building stones, bricks and other earthquake debris out of the building area. Later, they got involved in mixing sifted limestone into mortar.
Although this was not necessarily what the team members had expected to be their contribution, wrote Stirling, “This was physical labor and the conditions were hot and dusty, but everyone in our group was right there lending a hand and helping each other as best they could. Everyone was smiling and happy, despite how hot and dusty the conditions were.”
A major concern to team members was that they had no clear idea how they were supposed to help. Rev. Darryn Hewson of the Vashon Methodist Church, a veteran of many such missions to different parts of the world, says that such groups often are most important for just being a presence. By showing up, these visitors show the local residents that others care about them, and this alone can provide a great morale boost.
Vanderpool summarized the impact of the week’s experience on her and the other team members. “Haiti is more complex and varied than I expected. I have heard the stories and dreams of some Haitians. Some live in their untouched homes, drink treated water and move on as they best can. Others live with destruction, wondering how to rebuild. There are children and youth education to support, churches to support, communities to rebuild, jobs to be created, you name it. There is still much to be done.”
— Harry Reinert is a retired high school teacher, photographer and newspaper reporter. He and his wife moved to Vashon 23 years ago.
Hear a presentation:
Members of the group that traveled to Haiti will discuss their trip at a presentation at 7 p.m. Sunday, March 27, at the Vashon Methodist Church.