Haitian relief organizations push forward through continued setbacks
Haitian relief programs with ties to southeastern Connecticut are responding to continuing crises after a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck the country's southwest peninsula.
The Saturday morning earthquake "devastated" the city of Jérémie, where the Norwich-based Haitian Health Foundation operates a medical clinic that provides primary health care and dental care to more than 250,000 people in the Grand Anse area.
Jérémie, population 100,000, is located on the north shore of the peninsula that extends westward from the mainland, called the "Southern Claw." The earthquake center was in Les Cayes, on the south shore of the peninsula.
In a telephone interview from her Norwich office, Foundation Executive Director Marilyn Lowney said Monday that the foundation's main clinic suffered only minor damage, and a structural engineer will be called to assess the damage. The foundation's four satellite clinics were not damaged.
"The 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on Saturday morning devastated Jeremie and many surrounding villages," according to a foundation statement on its website, www.haitianhealthfoundation.org. "The situation in Haiti is evolving. We will continue to provide updates as we get more information."
Lowney said all 350 foundation staff members "are alive and accounted for," but some suffered minor injuries in the earthquake, and many of their homes were damaged. Yet they reported to work, treated the hundreds of people with serious injuries and helped transport injured people to facilities in the foundation's emergency vehicles, Lowney said.
"Just in our area, at least 1,000 people were injured and there are about 120 deaths," Lowney said.
She said 4,000 homes were destroyed and another 4,000 damaged. At least 25 schools were destroyed, and roads and bridges are damaged.
"The numbers are going to be changing," she said.
The foundation has "the only X-Ray machine for miles," Lowney said and is sharing its diagnostic machines, medical supplies and medicines with the local hospital.
Lowney said injuries range from lacerations to broken bones, and many people have been traumatized and are afraid to enter the clinic building for treatment. The foundation set up tents and tarps to treat people outside.
Tropical Depression Grace was expected to hit the Jérémie area directly Monday night.
"One issue right now is some people are traumatized by the earthquake and sleeping outside," Lowney said. "So, now the storm is coming in, and that's going to be a problem. Now the problems are exposure to the elements, pneumonia."
The bigger problem: hunger
Rebecca Crosby, of Old Lyme, said the education center she founded with her husband, Ted, was physically unscathed by the earthquake and its 40 staff members are safe.
The center is located in Deschapelles, a town in the Artibonite Valley about 54 km north of Port-au-Prince. It opened in 2017 to build on the success of the Crosby Fund for Haitian Education, which the couple started in 2004.
She said the center is removed from the fault line that torments the southern peninsula. It is also protected to an extent from hurricane winds because it is flanked on both sides by mountains.
The biggest problem there is hunger, according to Crosby.
"What we've noticed in our area — and it's all over — is severe hunger. The world needs to pay attention to that hunger," she said.
Fednor Sidort, a program administrator for the foundation based in Deschapelles, said in a telephone interview from Haiti roughly 50 people per day come to the education center looking for a scholarship for their children or money to survive.
"We are not able to help all of them because our means are very limited," Sidort said by phone from Haiti. "But we would like to help."
Crosby said sometimes all the organization can do is give $5 or $10 from its emergency funds to help with immediate needs when someone comes to their door.
"It's a Band-Aid," she said. "The person will be hungry later, but it's all we can do."
The Crosby Fund for Haitian Education began with the goal of sponsoring educational opportunities in the Western hemisphere's poorest nation, where it costs money to attend either public or private school.
Back in 2004, the Crosbys gathered 32 friends to each sponsor a high school student. Today, the organization is actively sponsoring 550 students from primary school through university. Sidort said the foundation has sponsored more than 1,200 students since it began.
Haiti, long impoverished, has been besieged recently by both natural and man-made disasters, including the earthquake, the coronavirus pandemic, a presidential assassination and a wave of gang violence.
Crosby said she hasn't seen the situation this bad in all the time she's been working to make education more accessible in Haiti.
"It's had its ups and downs, surely, but we've never seen a time like this. It's dangerous to travel there. The people, I've never seen the people so hungry. I've never seen them so needy. It's just terribly sad," she said.
She said she talked with staff members about establishing a soup kitchen out of the guest house at the education center but was advised they would not be able to keep up with the demand.
When the couple last visited Haiti in April after a 14-month hiatus due to the pandemic, Crosby found 100 people waiting by the gate to speak with her one morning.
"We have emergency funds in our budget that do help people in need. We have a large vegetable garden that we give away food. We do what we can to help the people who are desperate," she said.
She said it's critical not to get overwhelmed, because "that's where you start to give up." Instead, she said, she must focus on education as a way to enable them to find jobs — and in turn develop the nation.
"Whenever we get discouraged with it all, I have to stop and think of our graduates who have jobs, who have a family, who are putting their kids in school, who are contributing to their communities in positive ways," she said.
Sidort, a graduate of the scholarship program, reiterated the importance of schools as a way to counter an economic system in regression, a political situation that's turned catastrophic, and a starving populace.
"We can't build a nation without education," he said.
Information about the Crosby Fund for Haitian Education is available online at www.crosbyfund.org.
The Norwich-based Haitian Health Foundation is accepting cash donations to help with earthquake relief in the Jérémie area. Donations can be made through the foundation website, www.haitianhealthfoundation.org, or checks can be made out to HHF and sent to Haitian Health Foundation, 97 Sherman St., Norwich, CT 06360.
To donate to the Crosby Fund for Haitian Education go to www.crosbyfund.org/support/
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