Virginia Tech Magazine
Spring 2010
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Hokies unite to stand with Haiti


On Jan. 12, 2010, an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 on the Richter scale struck 15 miles outside the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. More than 1,390 miles away, the small town of Blacksburg was rocked. Many Hokies were already engaged in humanitarian efforts in Haiti before the quake, and after the quake, others felt called to join their ranks--engaging in activities from fundraising to helping build a hospital.

One such Hokie was interdisciplinary studies major Annie MacKimmie. "I went outside to get the paper and just started crying at this photo of a girl with [pulverized concrete] on her face," she recalls. "You feel so helpless in America, but that's when I called Brandon [Carroll, Student Government Association president] and said, 'What can I do?'"

At the next meeting of Hokies United, a student-driven movement to help relieve tragedies worldwide, Carroll, MacKimmie, and T.J. Loeffler, along with many others, decided to raise funds for Partners in Health (PIH), a nonprofit based in Boston, Mass., with a long-standing presence in Haiti.

"PIH was our best option in terms of receiving our donations because we knew the money would be used appropriately," says Loeffler, a junior finance and marketing major. Hokies United acted as a middleman through which organizations, businesses, and clubs donated money to PIH. Money has been raised through T-shirt sales, donations at bookstore checkouts, donation-request letters sent to families and friends, and jars set out around campus.

Allison Jarnagin (art '07), a Web and graphic designer for the Poverty Awareness Coalition for Equality (PACÉ), an organization started in 2006 as a forum to discuss global issues, found a high-tech way to raise money: "When the earthquake hit," says Jarnagin, who is also a graphic designer for Virginia Tech's Athletics Department, "we began grassroots fundraising through social media, which has been really successful." Since 2008, PACÉ has been a fundraiser for various projects in Haiti, including surveying for an orphanage and an adjoining well and rebuilding a coastal city devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The earthquake hit home for PACÉ members. "Some of our founding members are closely tied to Haiti," explains civil and environmental engineering doctoral candidate Randi Lieberman, director of PACÉ. He says that the decision to partner with PIH was a no-brainer: "We knew so many people on the ground in Haiti working with PIH, so the decision was easy."

Heather Bedlion, a nurse who volunteers with PIH, comforts a patient at a hospital in St. Marc, about an hour north of Port-au-Prince.
Mark Richey
Heather Bedlion, a nurse who volunteers with PIH, comforts a patient at a hospital in St. Marc, about an hour north of Port-au-Prince.
One founding member of PACÉ, Chris Strock, also a civil and environmental engineering doctoral student, has been involved with Haiti since 2005. After working on a hospital in Milot, Strock read Mountains Beyond Mountains, a novel by Tracy Kidder that traces the life of Paul Farmer, founder of PIH. "I wrote Paul Farmer and said, ‘What can I do?' He wrote back and said, ‘You can build me a bridge.'"

That bridge, which spans the river Fonlanfè, or "Deep Hell" in Haitian Kreyol, was completed in October 2009, facilitating passage to and from a public clinic run by PIH and its sister organization, Zamni Lasante, in a village called Boucan Carré. "Even before the earthquake, Haiti was a difficult place to work," says Strock. "The earthquake underscored the intense poverty of Haiti and increased the amount of suffering there."

After the quake, Strock flew to Haiti with PIH as part of a small team at the general hospital in Port-au-Prince helping to set up temporary operating rooms and restore electricity to the facility. "The hospital was the only public teaching facility, and in one of the buildings, 20 nurses were taking an exam when the earthquake struck." The deaths of those nurses increased the need for medical help in Port-au-Prince.

With the assistance of PIH, a 180-bed referral hospital that Strock had begun working on before the earthquake will be finished by January 2011 and will be used as a temporary teaching facility. "Americans are privileged," Strock says. "It is our responsibility to use our creativity to correct systematic problems."

Faculty member Keith Moore is using his creativity and expertise in natural resource and rural development policy to make long-term improvements in Haiti. Moore is the associate program director of the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Collaborative Research Support Program (SANREM CRSP), which is sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and aims to support sustainable agriculture and natural resource management in developing countries.

Moore and SANREM CRSP, a program in Virginia Tech's Office of International Research, Education, and Development (OIRED), work through research and demonstration farms teaching minimum tillage, vegetative cover, and crop rotations. "Since the earthquake, the problem hasn't changed," says Moore. "It has only put pressure on our project." The project, which will take decades of time and trust, according to Moore, will ultimately help Haitians manage their market. "Sustainable agriculture and national transportation of goods will move Haiti toward a more fully articulated economy," He explains.

Another way to diversify Haiti's economy is to motivate the workforce, according to Patrick Guilbaud, the information technology (IT) program director for OIRED and a Haitian-American. Using a USAID grant, Guilbaud started a partnership in 2008 with the École Supérieure d'Infotronique d'Haìti (ESIH), a school in Port-au-Prince. The partnership aims to strengthen students' knowledge of computer science through a professor exchange and by bringing five students, three men and two women, from ESIH to Virginia Tech for a two-year program that leads to a bachelor's degree in computer science. "You have to train the top to train the bottom," Guilbaud explains. "We have the opportunity to replenish the middle class and revive the educational culture."

Haiti in the wake of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.
Haiti in the wake of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.
Mark Richey
Mark Richey
Haiti in the wake of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake.
In the 1970s and '80s, Haitians were leaving their country in large numbers, largely due to political persecution and opportunities to teach in newly independent Francophone countries in Africa. The Haitian Diaspora, as it is called, created a hole between the upper and lower classes. "The upper class has no deep interest to invest in the country," Guilbaud says. "They don't fix the roads; they buy better cars."

An educated middle class would revitalize Haiti's market. "There are many companies in Haiti that have a need for employees skilled in computer science, but they have to bring in foreign labor," Guilbaud says, adding that the earthquake has only emphasized the importance of fulfilling this need in Haiti. "Records were lost in the quake: adoption papers, government records. Cell phone towers were down, and people couldn't communicate." Guilbaud's students will be able to go back to Haiti and make a difference in the IT sector.

Guilbaud emphasizes the point that many Haitian people do have the nation in their hearts. "We are a country of revolution," he says of the nation born of a successful slave revolt.

Strock agrees and hopes that the quake starts a new revolution. "It seemed like the earthquake brought peace to cultural class issues, peace to the city. It's like Haiti's motto says: ‘L'Union Fait La Force,' or ‘Unity Creates Strength.'" In Virginia Tech's culture of service, many stand in unity for Haiti. But, Strock cautions, "We need to stand with, not over, Haiti."

CHELSEA NEWMAN is a senior English major and an intern on the Virginia Tech Magazine staff.

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