Helping Haiti heal

Story by Nick Gourdoux

In March 2009, junior Alison Lau and graduate student Susie Schuelke traveled to Haiti to work at the Servants of All orphanage. There, they met a group of 70 to 80 orphaned children, primarily boys aged 10-16 years old. The two were so moved by their plight that they decided to make a return trip this past winter. Little did they know, the children’s already less-than-ideal living conditions would take a turn for the worse.

On Jan. 12 an earthquake that reached a magnitude of seven on the Richter Scale rocked the island nation of Haiti. An official death toll is not yet available, but officials fear the number could reach as high as 200,000. The Servants of All orphanage, located in Grande Goave, approximately 30 miles away from the deeply-affected capital of Port-au-Prince, was not exempt from the powerful, destructive force of the earthquake.

“I don’t know what to do”
When the earthquake struck, Lau found herself on the second floor of the visitor housing at the orphanage, thrown off balance and disoriented.

“I thought to myself ‘I don’t know what to do,'” Lau said. “Door frames are strong, sturdy structures in a building, so I went to one.”

Lau stayed there in the door frame until told to evacuate and go outside by the group’s leader. There, she met up with most of the missionaries and children; the others had congregated in another portion of the orphanage. Surviving the initial wave of destruction, however, didn’t mean that Lau, Schuelke and the children were in the clear.

“The main earthquake lasted about 35 seconds, but there were several aftershocks throughout the day – significant ones with the earth shaking still,” Lau said. “In fact, it was still shaking until I left three days later. Then, we found out that it was still moving quite a bit the week after.”

Because of the aftershocks and fear of more destruction, nobody was allowed to go back into the buildings. A few courageous people, however, braved the destruction to retrieve some of the. Fortunately for the group, the building where the cooking was done, and where the food was contained, remained intact.

“The three nights that I was there (after the earthquake) I don’t think I slept more than six hours,” Schuelke said. “The ground would be shaking off and on, and the aftershocks got worse at night. Every time there was an aftershock we would wake up and look at the building and see if it was going to fall down.”

Many of the orphanage’s other buildings were damaged but still stood; the same cannot be said for other surrounding buildings.

“There was a building next door – a school where you could typically see kids – that had completely pancaked,” Lau said. “There was also significant damage to other houses around the orphanage.”

Despite losing everything they had, the children of the orphanage managed to keep their spirits high by singing and

“That was the coolest part of it – seeing their reaction,” Lau said. “They had very little to start with, and now they have even less. . Their spirits were high and in really good places.”

“I wasn’t worried about getting back to the States”
A couple mattresses, blankets and food were all the people of the Servants of All had following the earthquake. With no place to go and no place to stay, everybody was forced to sleep outside. With many of the surrounding buildings destroyed, people began pouring in the orphanage gates, looking for a place to stay.

“That was uneasy because we didn’t speak the language, and we didn’t know what was going on,” Schuelke said. “The older boys in the orphanage kind of surrounded us and protected us and made us feel safe. I didn’t ever feel completely unsafe or scared, but there are elements of that and the uncertainty.”

After a couple days of organization, recuperation and sleeping on the ground, Lau and Schuelke left the orphanage to return to the United States. The return trip took the two through heavily-damaged Port-au-Prince. Fortunately, despite a strong and foul odor, the two weren’t forced to see much of the death and tragedy of the earthquake. Upon arriving at the airport the two waited for nine hours before boarding a plane bound for the United States. Lau wanted to stay and help, but she knew that leaving may have been the best form of help.

“I wasn’t worried about going back to the States,” she said. “I really wanted to be there with the children and supporting them, but I knew that I would be taking away from whatever food and supplies that they did have.”

For the entire trip home Lau thought about returning to the orphanage to help those people that she had learned to love.

“Those kids are my family . so I really hope to go down there again,” she said. “When is a big question. They don’t really have facilities for people to visit, and they don’t really have a lot of food either.”

“It’s hard to come back and know what my role is”
The problems that a typical American college student faces on a day-to-day basis pale in comparison to those of a 16-year-old orphan who just lost his home. That is why Lau, who has spent time in both worlds, has been reevaluating the things she finds important in her life ever since returning from Haiti.

“It’s hard to come back and to know what my role is,” she said. “What do I do, having been there? How do I share that with other people? How do I, personally, respond to the things that I am very blessed with? What should I do with my time?”

Even though many of the helpers have returned to the safety of the United States, the children of the orphanage are not out of the woods yet. Their food supply is destined to run out, especially if people keep pouring in looking for food and shelter. That is why donations would be greatly appreciated.

“They’re going to need tents, shelter and food,” Schuelke said. “I’ve heard different reports about their food situation there. It sounded like the kids at the orphanage were getting fed decently – at least one meal a day. There are community members, however, that the orphanage isn’t able to feed.”

That is why Lau said donations – of money, food or general supplies – would be greatly appreciated.

“There are a lot of places that you can donate to,” she said. “Be concerned about them; these are real people, and this is their life.”