Rebuilding hope in Haiti

Feb 142010
Authors: Sara Michael

Port au Prince, Haiti: Devastated, poverty stricken and full of a vibrant, unshaken hope.

That’s how sophomore foreign language major Laura Whitney describes her recent visit to the Creole country.

Jan. 3 through 10, Whitney went with 10 other people from her church in Richmond, Va. on a mission trip to Haiti, where they built roofs for several houses, painted a church and stayed in a boy’s orphanage.

“We expected to touch their lives,” she said, “but we were the ones affected.”

And just two days after they left, on Jan. 12, the country was rocked with a 7.0-magnitude earthquake. In 35 seconds, Haiti was on its knees.

Looking at photos of the aftermath almost a month after the devastation, Whitney said, it’s difficult for her to tell what is the damage from the quake and what was just the result of poverty.

On her flight back to CSU, Whitney recalls getting a mass of text messages from her mission friends.

“At first,” she said, “I was just like what is going on? Are you messing with me?” But then, she said, she realized it wasn’t a joke.
“It was instantly like, ‘What can I do, who can I contact?’” she said. “They needed help before the earthquake.”

The first hours after the earthquake were spent nervously awaiting word from the people Whitney met in Haiti. “It was one thing after the next, and information was so misguided you didn’t know what to believe … It was really stressful.”

She added that Facebook and e-mail came into play. “People would post statuses saying they were OK, and it was obviously them … It was such a relief to hear.”

Miraculously, she said, everyone that she came into contact with survived the quake except for one.

Going down to a developing country was a first-time experience for Whitney. She described the first sight as “heart stopping,” and said that, compared to the homelessness visible in the United States, there really was no comparison.

“I’d never seen so many people living on top of each other,” she said.

“The country (was) founded by slaves in 1804,” said Marcela Velasco, an assistant political science professor, describing how Haiti came to be in such a state of poverty.

Since then, foreign establishments, or what she called “negative international interventions that forced the country into a vicious circle of under-development and dependence,” have occupied Haiti.

“It’s insane,” Whitney said. She described the clutter of the streets and the masses of people. They had TV and Internet, which she wasn’t expecting, but even through that, they didn’t have running water.

“That was the coldest, scariest shower ever,” she laughed. Drinking water, she said, was bought in plastic bags for $0.03 a bag.

She remembered children playing in the street, blowing up condoms as balloons and jumping rope.

“You really can’t imagine until you go, what it’s like,” she said.

She added that it wasn’t hard to see how a quake could have ravaged so much so quickly.

“Honestly, if someone pushed on the walls, it would fall over,” she said of many of the houses she saw. “It’s just a clutter.”

The earthquake destroyed the roofs her team built, and Whitney said she was devastated by the news.

“The paint on the church was cracked, and the houses were gone … But it’s not like it wasn’t worth it,” she said.

Whitney said she is feeling torn about the rescue efforts being provided by the Red Cross and other organizations.

“Really, there’s only so much you can do,” she said. “A couple months of aid will not help.”
But Velasco said that Haiti is off to a relatively good start.

“The G7 (industrialized) countries have taken a commendable step by pardoning the country’s $1.2 billion debt to foreign countries and international lending bodies,” she said.

Whitney has plans to return as soon as she can and rebuild some of her previous work.

She studies French at CSU, and she said that, because of its similarity to Creole, it helped her immensely in breaking the language barrier. In school, the kids learn English, Creole and French, but she added, only if they get to go to school.

“Whenever we’re allowed down, whenever they can house people, we’re going back,” she said. That was the main request of many of the people she met there.

“They said ‘send us people. Just bring people back,’” she said. “The Haitian people have a lot of hope. They aren’t negative, they just believe in God, trust God … It’s incredible.”

Staff writer Sara Michael can be reached at

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