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Local charities report on life in Haiti six months after the earthquake

Six months after the earthquake that left hundreds of thousands of Haitians dead and much of the country's capital city in ruins, thousands still live in tent cities, little rebuilding or clearing of rubble has occurred, and no clear plan seems to have emerged yet for the rebuilding of Haiti.

But the leaders of local charities that work in the country, after several return trips to the devastated island nation, say that while signs of real progress are scarce, their resolve to continue doing as much as they can is unchanged.

"The crisis in Haiti didn't start Jan. 12, it started long before that," said Jessica Patti of New London, nurse and one of the founders of the medical volunteer organization Raising Haiti, referring to the date of the earthquake.

Patti was last in Haiti 3½ weeks ago to bring home Lina Supris, a Haitian woman with advanced cervical cancer who received chemotherapy and radiation treatments in this country. Supris is now receiving palliative care in her home country through the Materials Management Relief Corps, a U.S.-based patient transportation and medical supply delivery charity formed since the earthquake that Patti and her group have begun working with.

In September, she and at least five other Raising Haiti volunteers will go back to Haiti to run a free primary care clinic, tapping the services of the relief corps to take patients who need more complex care to hospitals. They plan to run the clinics every other month.

"We'll do wellness checks, check for STDs, give out condoms and toys and feed them," Patti said. Her group is looking for someone to donate a pickup truck, ideally four-wheel drive, that would be outfitted to transport patients and supplies when the relief corps isn't available or when the need for hospital care is especially urgent, she said. Donations of multivitamins with iron, rehydration salts, tarps and tents would also be welcome, as well as cash contributions.

Kyn Tolson, development director for Haitian Ministries of the Diocese of Norwich, returned less than two weeks ago from her group's third trip to Haiti since the earthquake.

"Visually, it doesn't look that much different than it did in March," she said Friday. Tent cities, she said, "are everywhere" around Port au Prince, some haphazard and some laid out in well-organized grids.

"Everybody wishes the clearing of the rubble would start, because at least that would give people a visual affirmation, but there is stuff going on that we can't see" that involves the government and nonprofit aid organizations trying to set up a structure to rebuild, Tolson said.

During her recent visit, two French and one French-speaking Canadian volunteer art therapists accompanied Haitian Ministries staff in sessions to help Haitian children deal with their trauma.

"I was amazed at the need for their help," Tolson said. "A lot of the trauma is just starting to come out among a lot of the kids. We'll keep doing the art therapy."

Her organization has given more than $250,000 in direct relief since the earthquake to the parishes it works with, and to two orphanages now serving many more children than before. A new building for one is being completed for an August move-in date. Madam Samson, a Haitian woman who ran a soup kitchen for poor children funded by Haitian Ministries, is now serving up to twice as many meals a day as before Jan. 12, and is open seven days a week versus five, Tolson said.

Haitian Ministries has also expanded its scholarship program that pays for tuition and books for schoolchildren. Before the earthquake, 135 children were enrolled, seven of whom were killed by the quake. Now, all of the siblings of those surviving children are enrolled, too, and each of their families is receiving financial aid.

Lanitte Belledente, a cook for the organization who lost part of her leg in the earthquake, is being fitted for a prosthesis. All her medical bills are being paid by the ministry.

"She's doing pretty well," Tolson said.

All five other staff in Haiti are still with the organization, but American Jillian Thorpe of Old Saybrook, who was pulled from the rubble in a dramatic rescue hours after the earthquake, has left Haitian Ministries to work with another aid organization in the country, Tolson said. Thorpe had been acting director of the mission house. Charles Dietsch, the retired American businessman working for the ministry who was rescued along with her, will be returning in the next few months to resume his role as an organizational adviser.

Tolson described the overall mood in the country as "beyond resilience."

"I try not to get discouraged, and I don't think I am," she said. "We're hoping to grow and magnify the programs we have. The Haitian people don't act desperate or cloying in any way. They have such dignity about them. I'm optimistic that something better will come out of this, but there is a lot of need."

But the rebuilding will likely take years. Donations to small, locally based organizations may be the best way for Americans to help, Tolson said. The aid goes much more quickly and directly to those who need it, instead of getting trapped in the bottleneck of a large bureaucracy as seems the case with much of the funds raised thus far.

"We're a direct conduit," she said.

While life for thousands in and around the capital city remains chaotic, the situation is somewhat better for refugees who have found their way into Jérémie, a town on the nation's western end where the Haitian Health Foundation of Norwich runs a clinic and provides other services. Dr. Jeremiah Lowney, president and founder of the foundation, said the small community has grown by about 40 percent as it has taken in about 100,000 refugees, and his organization has expanded its charities to try to meet the increased need.

"They were all taken in by local families, and we are subsidizing the host families," he said. It is also giving out increased donations of food for the larger population.

It has also stepped up a program of giving small loans or cases of items such as soap to women to set up small businesses selling goods in the marketplace so they can become self-supporting.

"We've put 700 women into business since the earthquake," he said. "These women want to be independent."

It has also doubled the enrollment of its school to about 1,200 students and hired 10 new teachers so that it could operate on two sessions, one from 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and a second from 1:30 to 7 p.m.

"And we're feeding all these kids," Lowney said. "It puts them into a social structure."

He will return to Jérémie in August with 17 volunteers from southeastern Connecticut with various skills. The Haitian people, he said, need to know the world hasn't forgotten them.

"There is a lot of disappointment," he said. "They expected things were going to be happening a lot faster."

How to donate:

For information or to donate to the local Haiti aid groups:

www.raisinghaiti.com

www.haitianministries.org

www.haitianhealthfoundation.org

A fundraiser for Haiti, "Soles to Souls," will take place from 7 to 11 p.m. July 24 at the Crocker House Ballroom in New London. Proceeds will go to the Haitian Health Foundation and the Episcopal Relief & Development Fund for its ongoing work in Haiti.

The event will include food, a raffle and auction, dancing, a guest speaker, professional dance showcases and a cash bar. To volunteer, call Awo Quaison-Sackey at (203) 887-7506. Tickets are $50 each and are available at St. James Episcopal Church, 76 Federal St., New London 06320, (860) 443-4989; or the Arthur Murray Dance Studio, 287 Main St., Niantic 06357, (860) 739-3991. Donations can be mailed to either location, written out to: Saint James Episcopal Church, with "Haiti" on the memo line. For information, visit: www.solestosouls.info.

Registration extended for Haitians

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has extended the registration period to Jan. 18, 2011 for Haitians living in the United States to apply for temporary protective status. The status would allow Haitians who were living in the United States prior to the Jan. 12 earthquake to remain in the country for 18 months. The application deadline had been set to expire July 20.

Applicants may request a waiver of federal fees to apply for temporary protective status.

In Norwich, the city Human Services Department has collected donations to help subsidize the application fees for Haitians living in Norwich. Call Human Services at (860) 823-3778 for information.

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