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The devastating earthquake that struck Haiti three years ago permanently impacted the work of the Norwich-based Haitian Health Foundation, even though its clinic, school, food and economic development programs are centered in a town 100 miles from the quake's epicenter.
Today, as the island nation marks the third anniversary of the Jan. 12, 2010, quake that killed 316,000 people and displaced 1.5 million others, the mood is subdued, according to press reports. Reconstruction of the vast destruction in and around Port-au-Prince has been slow, and only about half of the $5.3 billion pledged by donors has been released. An estimated 350,000 people who lost their homes are still living in camps.
"Absolutely, the country is still recovering. A lot of it still looks pretty bad," Marilyn Lowney, executive director of the foundation, which noted the third anniversary on its website, said Friday. "We know there is Haiti fatigue, but we try to tell our donors not to look at the big picture of Haiti, but to look at the person you're helping. We count our successes one person at a time."
In the immediate aftermath of the quake, the population of Jérémie, the town where the foundation is based, swelled, as refugees came to stay with family and friends. In response, the foundation increased distribution of food and put its school on double sessions. When the cholera epidemic swept the country in the months after the quake, the foundation shifted its preventive health care services to deal with the immediate needs, and maintains an ongoing public education program to help prevent a resurgence of the highly contagious disease, Lowney said.
Today, the town that once had a population of 200,000 is about 230,000, many of them former Port-au-Prince residents who've permanently relocated and have now joined the many other residents who depend on the foundation's services, Lowney said. The foundation helped 700 women who were refugees, who came with only the clothes on their backs, set up as street vendors, selling food, clothing and household items in Jeremie, she said.
In October, Superstorm Sandy struck the poor island, causing widespread damage that was virtually overlooked by much of the world as its attention was turned to the heavy damage to the Northeastern United States, Lowney said.
"Haiti got really slammed," she said, "but we continue our work."
In Jérémie, one of the most severe effects of the storm was the destruction of the subsistence gardens many people depended on. "There's talk of famine," she said.
In addition to continuing to distribute food, feed some 1,100 children daily at its school and several hundred others at a meal site, the foundation has also begun working on a longer-term project that will help residents feed themselves and protect the fragile island environment at the same time. It recently began a tree nursery, Lowney said, that is giving out orange and avocado trees. Fruit from the trees will help feed the population and provide a source of income for the farmers, while the trees themselves will prevent soil erosion that has plagued deforested areas of the country. The foundation is also giving out female breeding goats to provide another source of income.
"The people of Haiti realize the rest of the world is trying to help," she said. "It's a very day-to-day mentality there. We're trying to bring hope."
For information about the foundation, visit: www.haitianhealthfoundation.org.