In Haiti, an ending, a beginning

The Habitat for Humanity volunteers who built 100 houses in Léogâne, Haiti, last week have made a start on what organizers hope will be a 500-house development next year. Nebraskans and Iowans were among the volunteers on the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. (Photo by Matt Miller)

LÉOGÂNE, Haiti — They gathered for the final time in Evêque Latouche’s new home.

What had been a 5-foot-tall outline in concrete on Monday was now a roof-topped house with wood shutters to cover the windows and a front door that swings open.
It was not a complete house yet, nor were the rest of the 100 houses that volunteers and Haitians worked side by side for a week to build. And in that way it was symbolic of the work at hand in this beautiful, troubled land where help trickles in slowly.

But enough on this Habitat build got accomplished that the promise of true shelter seemed at hand.

Latouche and the others would get their houses by January. They would move from a field of trash-strewn plantain trees to the first solid homes they’d had since the devastating January 2010 earthquake. And though the houses were not big and larger questions about what this effort would actually do to help Haiti hung in the air, this was a time to take measure and say farewell.

“We pray, Lord, that you bless this hard work, that you make this a good home for the people who live here,” said Art Mulkey of Billings, Mont., who had been the foreman of this 12-person crew that included Latouche and four volunteers from Omaha. “We pray, Lord, that the experience we had will never fade from our hearts and our minds.”

It was the message that Habitat hammered into volunteers all week: Don’t forget. Tell everyone. Many Haitians — and not just those displaced by the quake — need decent places to live.

Said Patrick Corvington, an Obama administration appointee-turned-Habitat-higher-up: “These 400 (volunteers) will go home with a story to tell.”

It’s why the international nonprofit made the decision to delay bringing volunteer labor to Haiti, a country that is as monumentally in need of jobs as it is homes. And reliable health care. And schools. And a public infrastructure to guide and support the often fragmented and uncoordinated work of so many good-will, nongovernmental organizations like Habitat.

For that reason, Habitat told volunteers not to come after the quake. The organization, which had been in Haiti for nearly 30 years, instead went into relief mode: handing out emergency shelters like tarps and better shelters like plywood and tin-roof structures. Workers also started to dig into one of Port-au-Prince’s slums to provide more focused help that extended beyond homes.

Habitat also hired 700 Haitians and set up a center that would train Haitians on construction and finance while it planned the build that took place last week.

It took nearly two years to arrive at this point. Now the organization has a start on what organizers hope will be a 500-house development next year. And they acknowledge it represents a small step toward the eventual reconstruction that will take the Haitian government and the rest of the world to make happen.

Former President Jimmy Carter, who worked on two houses last week in the build named for him, said he would lend his voice.

“I will be reminding people,” he said, “of the promises they need to keep.”

That includes the U.S. government, which like other donor nations has not sent all the funds it pledged in the frenzied months following the magnitude 7.0 quake, which killed hundreds of thousands of Haitians and displaced more than a million.

Volunteer Ilio Durandis, a Haitian-born chemist from Hyde Park, Mass., looked at the 100 homes and voiced what most had said at some point during the week: “It’s not the perfect situation, what Habitat is doing. But it’s a lot better than what the people had before.”

Durandis said he hoped Latouche and the others “won’t be placed here and forgotten about.”

“This house is not going to get them out of poverty,” he said. “It’s just a jump-start. There has to be other means. It’s not just aid that Haiti needs. We need investors … to come in this country and support the people.”

Corvington, Habitat’s vice president of volunteer and institutional engagement, acknowledged it may be an imperfect answer.

“What’s the alternative?” said Corvington, whose parents were Haitian exiles under the Duvalier dictatorship. “Is it to wait until the country gets it together and develops an infrastructure? Or is it to say here’s what we do: We’ve got half a million people who need houses. Let’s build houses.”

That’s how Melissa Booker, a 35-year-old high school physics teacher in Fairfax, Va., was drawn to the project.

“I needed to do something tangible,” she said. “I couldn’t just be this white liberal who talks about the poverty of a country over beers at a bar. I knew I couldn’t do much. I thought I could join this trip. I could educate my students about it.”

For most volunteers, the trip was no free ticket. Besides airfare to Habitat’s base near Atlanta, they had to raise at least $5,000 apiece — the symbolic cost of building one of these Habitat homes. (The actual cost was more like $18,000, considering the logistics of importing most everything from food to materials.)

Booker couldn’t just write a check, so she asked her former students and friends for money.

Volunteers ran the gamut: executives like Omaha’s John Bunch of TD Ameritrade; international volunteers like the Europeans from the Luxembourg-based steel company AcelorMittal and a strong Canadian contingent; and regular folk who seemed devoted to Habitat for Humanity or Haiti or both.

Three men on the Omaha build team fell into the latter category. Mulkey from Montana and John Messina and John Morgan, both of suburban Detroit, had spent more than a decade visiting Haiti’s Central Plateau city Mirebalais and trying to raise money for health needs organized by a church school there.

“There isn’t a single day that goes on in my life that Haiti isn’t in my mind or my heart,” Mulkey said. “My body leaves, but my spirit doesn’t.”

He’s so committed that he flew to Atlanta on Saturday with the Habitat volunteers and then boarded a return flight to Haiti for a different volunteer project.

The Omaha newcomers — Shannon Wallace, Mary Lopez and Don Browers — felt the pull of Haiti on their final day and wished they had been able to see more of the country. The Habitat workers had been confined to fenced-in build and camp sites.

Carter told volunteers on their final night that he didn’t think anybody had been persecuted more or had suffered more than the Haitian people.

But Haiti visitors saw the warmth of a friendly and resilient people and progress since the 2010 quake.

“The energy of this island will heat you in five seconds,” said Jean Price Vixama, a mechanical engineer from New York. “When you land and they open the door? Boom.”
Wilner Joseph, a Haitian-born UPS pilot from New Jersey, said people do go on.

“You can be poor,” he said, “but people are happy. Life can be tough, but it’s what you make it.”

Latouche had made it with little more than a tiny post-quake tarp-and-metal shack that held little more than a narrow single bed, a corner table and a bucket for water.

The 58-year-old appeared thrilled with House 319 and was effusive with the workers, offering regular hugs, handshakes and “Oui-ouis,” the only Haitian Creole that seemed to translate. He will live in the 280-square-foot space with two adult daughters and a 6-year-old grandchild.

Latouche stood among his soon-to-be Haitian neighbors in House 320, the Omahans and the two Johns. Mulkey said his simple prayer, which a young Haitian translated into Creole. Hugs followed as the group packed up to leave.

Latouche walked to a corner of his new home, put his hands over his eyes and wept.

Habitat for Humanity has a strict no-gifts policy. Officials say it creates bigger problems within impoverished communities when gifts are distributed individually.
But they didn’t say anything about left-behind tools.

Or scrap lumber.

Latouche, who earlier in the week had straddled the hot tin roof pounding in the final nails, spent part of Friday building a little stool for his home. The Habitat homes were designed to be added onto later — the foundation was extended beyond the home perimeter — as Haitian families are able.

This marked no ending.

It was, perhaps, a beginning.

“The only way the efforts are going to end,” Mulkey said, “is if we allow them to.”

Erin Grace

About Erin Grace

She's a World-Herald news reporter who covers an array of topics -- education, government and issues affecting women and children. She's married with three children.
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