Responding to tragedy: Goshen, MCC and Haiti

By Kate Walker

News Editor

The Mennonite community has rallied together to organize relief and recovery efforts after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas on Jan. 12.  Paul Antoine Bien-Aime, Haiti’s interior minister, estimates that between 100,000 and 200,000 people have died, and hundreds of thousands more have been injured.  Buildings all over the city have collapsed, including most hospitals, schools and countless homes.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) has worked in Haiti since 1958. In recent years, its focus has been on reforestation, the promotion of food security and human rights.  Fourteen MCC staff members are currently in Port-au-Prince and nine in Desarmes, a four hour drive from the capital. All staff members are safe.  On Jan. 13, MCC released $100 thousand for immediate relief. It plans a multimillion dollar, multi-year recovery effort.  As of Tuesday, MCC has received about three million dollars in donations, according to its director of communications, Cheryl Zehr Walker.

Gwen Gustafson-Zook, a regional associate at the MCC Great Lakes office, said that MCC workers in Haiti are assessing the needs of the situation, which include emotional as well as physical needs.

“There are many issues related to food and water right now,” said Gustafson-Zook,” but issues about the soul of a human being that has been through this certainly won’t be resolved in the same way.”

“For the MCC workers there that are suffering from the trauma while trying to help others, it’s been hard,” she noted.

Despite the devastation they and their neighbors endured, MCC workers see signs of hope.  Three days after the earthquake, MCC worker Ben Depp of Waxhall, N.C., helped rescue a six-year-old boy from the rubble. In a blog he writes with spouse Alexis (blexi.blogspot.com), Depp says, “There is a lot of solidarity among everyone here that is not captured by the news.”

For the past few days, MCC workers have brought aid to people in Port-au-Prince, though on a small scale.  Large relief organizations are hampered by the requirement of a military escort to travel in the city, but small organizations such as MCC have no such restrictions and are free to move about on their own.  Gustafson-Zook says that the staff has been bringing food from surrounding communities into the city in backpacks and discreetly distributing it in the streets.  Workers have also been filtering water at the MCC headquarters and sharing it, and they have helped the overall relief effort by recording information about camps of internally displaced people.

Though these short-term efforts are helpful, MCC is better known for its long-term rebuilding.  The next step of its plan is to fly in 70,000 pounds of canned meat and 1,000 water filters, followed by relief kits, blankets and sheets.

“I appreciate the fact that you’re all willing to respond,” says Gustafson-Zook, “Sometimes people only have the desire to respond in the first week.  Part of the challenge is to continue to respond in ways that are life-giving.”

Goshen College, which had a Study Service Term unit in Haiti from 1968-1986, has been contributing to relief efforts as well.  Donation boxes are set up around campus, and there will be opportunities to contribute at Night at the RFC and Kick-off.

Also, on Saturday the Athletic Department donated all proceeds from the women’s basketball game to the MCC Haiti fund, which totaled $444.  Tim Demant, Goshen’s athletic director, traveled with MCC to El Salvador for reconstruction following the 2001 earthquake there and believes that even small gestures can add greatly to the relief cause.

“I feel like while many of the things we’ve done are small in comparison to the enormity of the issue/crisis we face,” said Demant, “Christ calls us to do what we can.  And so we do.  I believe if everyone did something, the sum total would be very significant.”

Goshen College students Rayna Pierre and Laurent Hudicourt spent their Christmas break at home in Haiti and only recently returned to Goshen.  Pierre notes that while she is glad to be able to help from the U.S. and to know her family is safe, it’s hard to hear about the situation at home.

“We were just there over Christmas, then we left and a few days later it was gone,” she says, “It’s [been a time of] mixed emotions.  We’re glad we can help from here but wish we could be there right now.”

Pierre and Hudicourt, who are cousins, have family working at the Haitian Community Hospital, currently the only hospital in Port-au-Prince admitting patients for free.  They say the hospital is overwhelmed with patients in need of treatment, food and water.  Although the hospital set up a Web site to collect donations, there is still a major need for money and supplies.

A Haitian proverb translates, “Beyond the mountains, more mountains.” Even before the earthquake, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with a poverty rate of 80 percent, an unstable government and environmentally devastating deforestation.  It is estimated that the earthquake affected around three million Haitians, about a third of the country’s population. The mountains the people of Haiti must face are even more daunting now. Goshen College and MCC are small parts supporting them as they rebuild.

SIDEBOX

How You Can Help Haiti

Donate to MCC at donate.mcc.org/project/haiti-earthquake.

Help with meat-canning at the Depot from January 19th-29th, weekdays until 5:00 pm.

Donate to the Haitian Community Hospital at haitihosp.org or get updates on the hospital’s situation through their official facebook page.

Contact Tamara Shantz at tamaras@goshen.edu to join a brainstorming group on campus.

Written by Kate Walker

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