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As anniversary of Haiti quake approaches, local volunteers still lending a helping hand

When Adam Bowles addresses an audience about the earthquake in Haiti, which occurred one year ago Wednesday, he takes out a stopwatch, sets it for 35 seconds and lets it tick down without saying a word.

"That's all it took," Bowles said last week, of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that killed 200,000 to 300,000 people, destroyed cities and devastated a perpetually struggling economy.

The worst damage occurred in a region that is about 35 miles long, stretching from the capital city of Port-au-Prince to Petit Goave, a densely populated region that was the homeland for many eastern Connecticut Haitian families.

The response

The Norwich-based Haitian Health Foundation is centered in the Jérémie area some 125 miles to the west of Port-au-Prince. Before the earthquake, the foundation provided health, nutrition, education and housing services to about 200,000 people. Foundation Executive Director Marilyn Lowney said that about 120,000 displaced people flooded the area after the earthquake.

"What happened next is a wonderful story," said foundation founder and President Dr. Jeremiah Lowney, Marilyn's father.

The already impoverished residents brought all the refugees into their own cramped homes. About 170 foundation employees brought people into their homes, too.

"So we don't have any tents or tarps," Jeremiah Lowney said. "But they all needed support."

Pregnant women had received no prenatal care. Babies were malnourished. Some of the refugees were amputees or had other injuries as a result of the earthquake. All had lost their clothing, money, livelihoods.

Shortly after the earthquake, foundation officials traveled to Haiti and drew up a response plan that includes food distribution, medical care, housing, economic security and education.

The health clinic has 50 beds for women with difficult pregnancies, Jeremiah Lowney said, but thousands of pregnant refugees now must be treated through outpatient care.

The foundation has an annual budget of about

$3 million, but it experienced a $300,000 boost in donations after the earthquake and partnered with other aid groups to add services. The foundation managed a grant of several hundred thousand dollars from Catholic Relief Services to build roads in Jérémie, providing jobs to local contractors.

The foundation's school, which served 750 students before the earthquake, now has 1,200 students in double sessions from early morning to evening.

Cholera struck in November in epidemic proportions. A new barbed-wire quarantine enclosure holds several hundred victims. The foundation has added rehydration and water purification kits to its arsenal and has made cholera its top medical priority, Marilyn Lowney said.

Meanwhile, the foundation continues to battle old superstitions that disease is spread by witchcraft. To explain bacteria, health workers spread red glitter on hands and clothing and let people watch how it quickly spread everywhere. "That's bacteria," Lowney said.

Health education is working slowly, she said. A few years ago, a foundation health worker told her that a man told her he needed money to remove a voodoo curse from his infant, who was ill. The man's 10-year-old son chastised his father, saying, "Dad, it's not voodoo, it's diarrhea."

The boy then broke into song and dance, taught by foundation health agents to children about washing hands, rehydrating and personal hygiene.

"The health agent said, 'That's why I keep coming to work,'" Lowney relayed.

Coming together to help

The earthquake destroyed the Diocese of Norwich Haitian Ministries Mission House and the Hospice St. Joseph Hospitality Center in Port-au-Prince. The two programs have now merged to form the Diocese of Norwich Outreach to Haiti.

When the Haitian Ministries Mission House was destroyed, Connecticut staffers Chuck Kietsch and Jillian Thorp and Haitian cook Lanitte Belledente were trapped inside. All were rescued, but Belledente's crushed leg had to be amputated. Outreach Development Director Kyn Tolson said Belledente still is recovering and faces additional surgery. She will receive a prosthetic leg.

The hero of that long night of digging through rubble - mission house Assistant Director Dominique Georges - remains in that capacity, Tolson said.

Dennis Petruzzi, interim executive director of Outreach to Haiti, said the two separate programs have been in Haiti for more than 25 years and have maintained their services in the wake of the devastation, partnering with Catholic Relief Services. Haitian Ministries is renting a house in another Port-au-Prince neighborhood, while the hospice operates in tents on its grounds.

Outreach to Haiti will rebuild one combined facility on the hospice property. Petruzzi and Tolson left for Haiti last Thursday to visit both properties and check on the programs and staff.

Hospice St. Joseph had a decline in its residential hospitality service, as people couldn't reach the center. Petruzzi expects that to pick up again whenever a new "norm" is established.

"I never use the words 'normal' and 'Haiti' in the same sentence," he said. "There is no normal in Haiti."

Before the earthquake, Hospice St. Joseph had an annual budget of about $600,000, and Haitian Ministries had one of about $1 million. Those rose to $750,000 for hospice and about $1.5 million for Haitian Ministries. Although donations have tailed off, Tolson hopes Outreach to Haiti can maintain the new higher budget levels for each program.

There are more children in the two orphanages supported by the diocese programs. Outreach to Haiti has added water treatment kits and hand sanitizers to its distribution list, and the agency offered psychological counseling to families after the earthquake.

The organization also bought a 5,000-gallon-per-day water purification unit. It's not enough, however, as lines for clean water form daily, so Petruzzi hopes to add a second unit.

New fundraising efforts

The one-year earthquake anniversary Wednesday will be used to launch two new fundraising efforts in Norwich.

The First Haitian Baptist Church of Norwich will launch "35 Seconds for Haiti," with a Day of Remembrance from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Norwich Free Academy's Slater Auditorium. The event will feature Haitian music, speeches and personal testimonials. They hope to solicit $35 donations from individuals, $350 from businesses and obtain support from 35 local churches.

Everything will pause at 4:53 p.m., the time the earthquake struck, for 35 seconds of silence.

The church hired Bowles - whose salary is paid by church supporters, not donations for Haiti - as a business consultant to establish the fund program.

Bowles said the idea came from a visit to Haiti by five volunteers who hand-delivered as much aid as possible. They walked into the mountains and visited isolated families who had no access to medical care or basic supplies.

"We went last year, and we were able to bring food and help, but as you know, the shelter is desperate," said Estime Jozile, a leader of the effort for First Haitian Baptist Church. "When we go back, we want to build houses."

Another new group, the Bethany Foundation, will launch its fundraiser Wednesday with a Service of Remembrance at 5:25 p.m. at La Famille de L'Eglise de Dieu Inc. Church at 43 Church St. in Norwich. The service will include prayers and Haitian songs performed by local artists.

Luckner Sylvain of Taftville, co-founder and general manager of the Bethany Foundation, said the group will use money raised to help children in the Leogane area, a city west of Port-au-Prince within the 35-mile earthquake destruction zone.

Sylvain, a Haitian native, said that long before the earthquake, organizers had wanted to form a foundation. They determined to start now because the recovery is so slow, and people are suffering. The group hopes to provide scholarships and basic needs to impoverished families.

"Our vision was conceived to bring hope for the Haitian children, help them become more valuable in their quest to rebuild their nation, inspire in them confidence for a brighter future," Sylvain wrote on the foundation's website, www.thenewbethany.org.

How to donate to Haitian relief

Haitian Health Foundation: Provides extensive services to more than 200,000 residents in western peninsula region of Jérémie. Send checks to 97 Sherman St., Norwich: www.haitianhealthfoundation.org.

Diocese of Norwich Outreach to Haiti: Encompasses merged programs of former Haitian Ministries and Hospice St. Joseph and provides health, education and support services to people in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. Send checks to 199 Broadway, Norwich, CT 06360.

City of Norwich Local Haitian Relief Fund: Provides small amounts to local Haitian residents to help them support relatives in Haiti or relatives who have relocated to the Norwich area. Send checks made out to Norwich Human Services with notation for Haitian Relief Fund to 80 Broadway, Norwich CT 06360.

ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY EVENTS

Day of Remembrance, 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Slater Auditorium, Norwich Free Academy campus. Music, speeches, personal testimonials, launch of fundraiser "35 Seconds for Haiti," sponsored by First Haitian Baptist Church of Norwich.

Service of Remembrance, 5:25 p.m. Wednesday, La Famille de L'Eglise de Dieu Inc. Church, 43 Church St., Norwich. Prayer service, Haitian songs performed by local artists. Launch of fundraiser, sponsored by the Bethany Foundation of Norwich.

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