Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A VISTA in Haiti

The Friday after Thanksgiving, bloated from family dinners and pale from sitting in my windowless office all semester, I embarked on a week-long journey with over 600 new friends from around the world to Haiti. Our goal? To build 100 homes for Haitians displaced by the earthquake in the community of Santo in Leogane. We had been harassing our friends, relatives, and neighbors for months to raise funds for the build, and this would be our chance to finally see our money in action and get our own hands dirty.

International service is one area of community engagement that raises mixed feelings for me and many others. I have plenty of relatives who like to remind me of the adage "charity begins at home," and I wonder whether the thousands of dollars spent to transport volunteers to another country might be put to better use funding work for locals. Aid programs in developing nations are ripe for exploitation, and participants risk becoming disaster tourists with make-work projects. Yet in the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I found myself desperately wanting to do something more than making a donation. When I'm upset and frustrated, either with personal or global issues, my first instinct is to go to work and find something to do to make things better. I wanted to wait, however, until I could find a volunteer opportunity with an organization that I trusted, that could make the best use of my skills and money, and that had already established relationships with communities in Haiti before the earthquake. I believe I found that through Habitat for Humanity.

In my first term as a VISTA, I had formed a partnership with our local Habitat affiliate while looking for service opportunities for students, and I had been impressed with their work in Durham. Habitat works worldwide to address the issue of poverty housing. In the United States, Habitat helps low-income families build, purchase, and repair their own homes. Homeowners, who apply and are selected by an advisory board of community members, provide sweat equity hours, helping to build their own homes and others in the community, and pay zero-interest mortgages. Funds are used to build more Habitat homes. The organization also provides financial education to new homeowners. Internationally, Habitat builds homes as well as providing disaster response and management and community training in construction techniques and business development. Volunteers have the opportunity to serve abroad with Habitat through the Global Village program, participating on international builds for 1-3 weeks and learning how to become advocates for affordable housing. Each year, two of Habitat for Humanity's most prominent supporters, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, serve for a week to bring attention to this critical need. Our trip marked the 29th annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project and was the second year the project took place in Haiti.

Teams from Houses 703-706, homeowners Hones Sainsulme and Katorsky Dupre, and President and Mrs. Carter.
 When we landed in Port-au-Prince, I was shocked by the state of the city. Even more shocking still were comments from returning volunteers, who assured me that conditions looked much improved. Homes, businesses, schools, and churches had been reassembled from crumbling walls, aid agency tarps, and pieces of tin. Waste is everywhere, as no facilities or services exist to deal with sanitation issues in most areas. During the day, most people sat outside along the streets to stay cool, as tents quickly reach over 100 degrees F after the sun rises. Leogane, the epicenter of the earthquake and the location of our camp and build site, lies approximately 25 miles from Port-au-Prince. My morning commute from Raleigh to Durham at a similar distance takes me about 30 minutes. In Haiti, this drive took three hours due to poor road conditions.

Housing by the bay, between Port-au-Prince and Leogane
A United Nations canal project, Port-au-Prince

The community of Santo, where we were building, was established by families who fled the city of Leogane and set up camp in an abandoned sugar cane field. Many were afraid to return to the city and what was left of their homes after the earthquake, fearing aftershocks and future tremors would cause what was left of buildings to crumble. Over the course of the week, volunteers worked side-by-side with these families, building 100 homes to add to the 155 constructed the previous year. Future homeowners were chosen by a community council, who selected those who were most in need. Like in the United States, these families will receive training in financial literacy and home maintenance, and they must provide sweat equity hours, however their homes were fully funded by donations and they will receive them at no cost. Habitat has worked with the Haitian government to secure a 100-year lease on the land where the community is being built, as property rights are often contentious due to a lack of proper documentation and an overabundance of corruption. The master plan for the community also includes a school, market, and activity field, which Habitat is seeking funding to complete.

Volunteers arrive at the build site, Santo
Although I went on the trip for a chance to give back, I found myself continually blessed with new knowledge gained, new Haitian friends, and a renewed drive for my work back home. Souvenirs also included a wicked sunburn, busted boots, and more bandanas and mosquito bites than I can count. This journey was perhaps once in a lifetime for me, as I'll never get rich on a non-profit salary and there's not a lot of fun in fundraising, but the renewed drive to fight poverty in all its forms is a gift that will sustain me through the rest of my term. For more information about Habitat's work in Haiti, and photos and video from the project, visit http://www.habitat.org/cwp/2012