Haiti: Life Interrupted, yet Hardships Met with Tenacity

Guest post by Annie LePere

Annie LePere completed her master’s of public health while working for the Child Sponsorship department of ChildFund International. She was a community educator for the Sexual Assault Response Program in Lynchburg, Va., for three years before leaving to be a full-time mother. She recently returned from a volunteer mission trip to Haiti.

We were sitting under a mango tree when a young girl came by carrying a five-gallon bucket. She walked over to the community well and filled it. Balancing the full bucket on top of her head with one hand, she walked away. Then she came back and did it again. The third time she came back, we jumped in to help.

I was in Grand Goave, Haiti, about 10 miles from the epicenter of the massive earthquake that struck in January. I had joined a medical mission team from Bedford, Va., to use my background in community health and past experience working at ChildFund.

Rubble and trash still litter the streets, bridges are still impassable and tents are still up as far as the eye can see. In a country familiar with disasters, the earthquake has become another speed bump on the road to progress. People walk around the piles of rubble, trucks drive through the river and families have turned their tents into homes.

Baby Woodley and his aunt.

Yet, sadly, for many children living in Haiti, childhood has been lost. It was lost for the 8-year-old girl carrying water. It was lost for the 16-year-old young mother bringing her toddler to our clinic. It was lost for baby Woodley, a 4-day-old infant who had nothing to drink but water because his mother was unable to care for him.

Despite all of these hardships, it’s hard to break the spirit of a child and we found evidence of that spirit. It was there in the toddlers waving and shouting “ay oo!” as our truck drove by. It was there in the group of boys playing soccer. It was there in the teenage girl studying chemistry and planning to become a doctor. Schools were meeting in tents, under trees or in a room with three walls. At night, dedicated children would do their homework under the light of a solar-powered streetlight.

The biggest need identified by the mission was sanitation. With no running water other than a community well and people living on every available patch of land, families have to work hard to stay healthy. My background is in violence prevention, not sanitation. But I knew that ChildFund has an excellent track record in this area so I called for help.

Annie demonstrates with glitter how germs are passed.

Thus, I arrived in Haiti with an instruction manual for implementing the WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) program developed to help community educators teach their peers how to treat and protect water. I had planned to teach some basic information about hand washing and walk the medical coordinator through the program to implement at a later date. But the day before I arrived, a cholera outbreak was identified. With this threat looming, I became the community educator. I was asked first thing on a Monday morning to speak to school children, and throughout the week I gave classes to parents.

A child learns about hand washing.

Without the WASH materials, I would have been unprepared. As it turns out, the way to prevent cholera is to use the WASH techniques. Cholera is a scary disease, and every Haitian I spoke with was scared. But it can be prevented by treating and protecting the water supply and by washing hands. As of the mid-November, there were no cases of cholera reported from Grand Goave. So far, this area appears to have survived another challenge.

In teaching school children about hand washing, I played a game with them to show how germs spread. I filled my hand with glitter, touched a few children and had them touch their friends. At the end of the exercise we were all covered in sparkles.

Now back home in Virginia, I recently picked up my dusty backpack from the trip and was showered with glitter. I haven’t cleaned it up yet because it reminds me of the tenacity of the Haitian people. And it reminds me of hope that can be found in disaster — hope that springs from baby Woodley and his mom, who are now in the care of an aunt and, at last report, are progressing.

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