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Local Haiti aid groups focusing on longer term

Nearly two months out from the earthquake that devastated Haiti, the overwhelming needs of the country haven't abated. Rather, they've shifted.

A recent news photo from Port-au-Prince shows a young girl hopping on rocks across sewage-filled waters in a tent city. Other images, at the start of the rainy season, show families attempting to scoop water out of their tents.

Elsewhere, amputees wonder how they will get along in a country that has ostracized people like them. Refugees continue to show up in small villages a hundred or more miles from the capital city.

And everywhere, people still need food and water, are still homeless, are still without work.

In Connecticut, the relief groups that found themselves nearly overwhelmed immediately after the earthquake are taking on all of those challenges.

The groups have made the transition from focusing on emergency needs to ongoing aid and rebuilding efforts. And they believe that, in many tangible ways, the smaller relief organizations are having a greater impact than the mammoth groups.

"It's the small NGO's (non-governmental organizations) like the Haitian Health Foundation that are out there from day one," said Jeremiah Lowney, founder of the foundation.

"From day one we were there, we had food, we distributed the food, and we started making arrangements that day to get (more) food in there. … The small agencies like ours, we're in there with our sleeves rolled up. Some of the bigger agencies are spending an awful lot of time putting plans together."

Lowney and his daughter, Marilyn, executive director of the organization, traveled to the town of Jérémie, about 100 miles west of Port-au-Prince, last month.

In and around Jérémie, the major project, Jeremiah Lowney said, is food distribution. By various estimates Jérémie has seen an influx of 50,000 or more people who fled the capital. Some have family in the area, while others were simply fleeing Port-au-Prince.

The foundation sent a shipment of food and supplies last month and is sending another one on March 13. The foundation is also giving Haitians small items like soap or candles that they can sell in the marketplace.

"We're trying to help the people get back to some sense of normalcy," Lowney said, adding that setting up "mini businesses" helps them earn money and re-establish some pride and self-esteem.

The foundation is also helping to re-establish schools, with plans to start double sessions, and will help hire more teachers for the extra work. It is helping to rebuild houses and continue a clinic for women and children. In the foundation's inpatient facility, Lowney said, about two-thirds of the current patients are from Port-au-Prince.

The Lowneys plan to return to Haiti in late April.

Tents are in demand

Representatives from the Haitian Ministries of the Norwich Diocese also traveled to Haiti last month and are returning this week.

The three representatives are carrying tents - "as much as three people can take," according to Kyn Tolson, the ministries' development director.

The ministries, which support local Haitian groups already functioning before the earthquake, sent a team to Haiti two and a half weeks after the quake to assess the damage to the areas they work in and to meet with locals to better learn their needs.

The group has also sent a medical group to the Port-au-Prince area, a trip that will be repeated.

Tolson has a busy week planned. She plans to visit Lanitte Belledente, the Norwich Mission House cook who had part of her leg amputated.

Belledente was discharged from the makeshift hospital at the Port-au-Prince airport Wednesday night. She returned to her home in Port-au-Prince but, like most Haitians, won't sleep inside. The ministries group plans to find Belledente a tent, set her up at the temporary Mission House the group has leased, and hire a nurse to care for her.

Tolson also hopes to learn more about the whereabouts of students in the ministries' scholarship program and when school might resume. She also needs to sift through tuition records; most documentation was lost when the Mission House collapsed.

She plans to work on buying a new vehicle after one of the ministries' main vehicles was crushed (though later made driveable, it has no windows and is crumpled), visit two orphanages and touch base with any parish or group the ministries have yet to hear from.

The ministries, like many smaller relief organizations, are also working out the logistics of shipping larger amounts of items to Haiti.

Although flights to Port-au-Prince have resumed, it can be difficult to navigate customs. The Haitian Ministries are currently working with Cross International, a larger relief organization, on a plan to send a shipment of portable shelters.

The units, made of plastic panels that pop into steel frames, can be put onto a small foundation and lifted up onto plywood, said the ministries' executive director, Emily Smack. Made by a Canadian company, HousAll Shelters, the units are far sturdier than tents, Smack said.

Smack said the coordination with Cross International helps the ministries.

"Coordination still is an issue in Haiti," Smack said. "The nice thing is that the government is breaking people up into clusters, like education cluster, housing cluster, health cluster, and different organizations are sending representatives to be a part of those clusters, and I think that's going to help a great deal in the coordination efforts."

Many lost limbs

Another consequence of the earthquake is the number of amputees left behind. Today, a medical team with members from Connecticut is flying to Port-au-Prince as part of a larger relief effort. The medical team will fit people with prosthetics and set them up in rehab programs.

Mustapha Kemal, a rehab physician for Lawrence & Memorial Hospital, is helping to coordinate the medical aspects of next week's relief mission.

Kemal credited two groups - the Pakistani-American Association of Connecticut and the Haitian-American Association of Connecticut - with working together to sponsor the trip.

Kemal and Paul Macy, a certified prosthetist and orthotist in New London, traveled to Pakistan after an earthquake there in 2008 for similar work.

"When we first heard of the earthquake, we knew our services would be helpful there," Kemal said.

The Pakistani-American group had the expertise and experience, Kemal said, while the Haitian-American group has the local connections and could help pinpoint the need, provide translators, and help with accommodations.

Amputees are usually younger, healthy people, sometimes children, who respond well to a prosthesis, Kemal said.

"What we're doing is trying to improve one person at a time," he said. "I know what we're doing is just a drop, maybe not even that. But one life helped … I think whatever we can do, we'll do."

Kemal will be responsible for making sure patients are ready for the prosthesis, while Macy will actually build many of them. The group plans to bring about nine bins filled with parts and tools.

"If we can make 20 legs or so … that would be fantastic," Macy said. "But we don't know."

Macy added that he hopes to fit at least a few children. He said the prosthetics are particularly important in Haiti, where a wheelchair is essentially "useless" because there isn't any handicapped access.

"They can get around on crutches," Macy said, "but really they're in need of a prosthetic."

www.haitianhealthfoundation.org; www.haitianministries.org.

How to help:

To donate through the Diocese of Norwich Haitian Ministries log onto www.haitianministries.org or call (860) 638-1018 or (860) 848-2237 ext. 206.

To donate to the Haitian Health Foundation, based in Norwich, call (860) 886-4357 or log on to www.haitianhealthfoundation.org

The local First Haitian Baptist Church has set up a savings account at the Chelsea Groton Bank so people who want to donate to the relief effort can do so at any of the bank branches.

United Way of Southeastern Connecticut will accept monetary donations for victims and family members of the 5,000 Haitians residing in New London County. Contribute monetary donations through the Web site www.uwsect.org. Donors may help fund immediate basic needs and supplies in Haiti, which will be sent through the American Red Cross, Connecticut Chapter. The second option is a fund that will be distributed to Haitian relief programs within New London County.

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