As we near the year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Latter-day Saints are still deeply involved in trying to lend a hand.
I wrote these reflections in Leogane, Haiti, as I sat out on the porch balcony while the full moon was rising. Thus, most of the words which follow will appear in the present tense, growing out of the on-the-ground experiences and feelings at the time.
Clouds are beginning to cluster above the silhouettes of banana trees, palms, and huge mango trees. It is Sunday, August 22, 2010. Below us in the growing darkness is a beehive of activity: all kinds of Caribbean music blasting out of every conceivable technology there is, huge Mack trucks laden with tons of earthquake debris rumbling down the street, hundreds of small motorcycles with one, two, three four and even five passengers crowded on a one-person vehicle they call a “moto.” Many other people are sauntering along through the intersection where our house is located: men, women, children, families, people on bikes, peasants herding a cow or two along our “roads.”
These streets are actually jumbles of dirt, rock, seashells, cinderblock, dry ground, muddy earth, potholes, and huge mud puddles, all interspersed as if they had been meteors thrown from the skies. It is now 6:53PM, and the temperature has dropped from 102 degrees in the sunshine to around 95 degrees, accompanied by approximately 94 percent humidity. I am still sweating like the dogs that are now beginning to bark uncontrollably.
I’ve been here in the sweltering heat with a number of young Latter-day Saint social entrepreneurs who are out to change the world. We formed a project called Sustain Haiti in which we have mobilized, trained, and raised money to assist the people of this impoverished nation. Haiti was already the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Then, on January 12, 2010, a horrific 7.0 earthquake destroyed much of the country. As my wife, Kaye, and I glued our eyes on the reports coming out of CNN, we were shocked beyond belief. Tears began to flow. When I knelt to pray that night, I asked the Lord what, if anything, could I or should I do about this tragedy of such epic proportions. The clear prompting of the response was that I should explore how I could reduce human suffering with my friends.
Over the next several days, I began to talk with university associates, neighbors, church members, and professional colleagues about the growing crisis. Port-au-Prince, Haiti and its surrounding cities were largely demolished. More than three million people were affected by the disaster. The Haitian government reported that an estimated 230,000 people died, 300,000 had been injured, and one million made homeless.
The Haitian people needed help from lots of sources. We knew the Big Boys (The Red Cross, large churches, USAID, The World Bank, and governments around the globe) would rush in money, food, water and medical care. We began to consider what would happen after they dropped off their supplies, spent a few weeks on the ground, and then left. I realized, as I have so many times before in crises like this, that the hard work really begins after the initial shock wears off and the initial aid is delivered.
I was so inspired by the rapid response of the LDS Church to the crisis. They had ecclesiastical and welfare officials on the ground quickly, and materials began to flow from the Church’s storehouses to help the people of Haiti.
How to Change the World
In our case, we looked at the crisis and knew that there are several phases that tend to occur after disasters:
- Rescue, in which the goal is to find those who survived the earthquake and get them out of the rubble.
- Relief, in which food, water and medical attention is given to everyone in need.
- Recovery, in which the bodies of the dead are located and buried or disposed of.
- Rebuilding, in which the process is carried out of reconstructing homes, businesses, schools, and other institutions in order to re-establish society.
Within a week after January 12, a group of friends, colleagues, Church members and neighbors had begun meeting together to explore how we might proceed. We decided to call ourselves Sustain Haiti because we wanted to generate a long-term commitment to those who were suffering. We identified key tasks and formed teams around those tasks: a needs assessment of the Haiti situation, logistics for how to get people to Haiti, fund-raising, recruiting of volunteers, Haitian culture and Creole language lessons, where to labor in Haiti, and what skills we could offer the survivors. We drew on the definition of Mormon charity described by President Joseph F. Smith. Our underlying values centered on putting the people in such a way as they may be able to help themselves. We knew that large aid organizations could give billions of dollars, but they would not solve the problems of Haiti after the quake. Only the Haitians themselves will be able to solve their problems.
Thus, our focus was going to be on capacity-building. To do that, we decided to emphasize four primary areas of intervention:
1) Provide hands-on education in square-foot-gardening which would give a family fresh produce for its own nutrition, plus generate a surplus to sell in the street markets.
2) Provide sanitation, hygiene and health education for survivors to cope with all of the new diseases after the earthquake.
3) Provide clean water technology for families and neighbors so as to avoid water-borne illnesses.
4) Provide through our own efforts, as well as Haitian micro-finance institutions, to identify training opportunities, loans, and other services for income generation.
Some individuals laughed at our vision. They said we were too optimistic and naïve. Others were down-right critical, warning us that Haiti was too dangerous, that the poverty was too great, and the destruction was overwhelming. Furthermore, they claimed that Haiti would never recover, so our efforts were futile. I wondered what they were thinking. Were they just willing to cross Haiti off the list as a failed state? Should we just wait for the Big Boys to work some kind of miracle? Would it be best to just change the TV channel whenever coverage of Haiti’s tragedy appears?
Or, are we our brother’s keeper?
My feeling was that while we were just a bunch of average people, we have opportunities and responsibilities to try and make a difference. We realize we can’t do everything, but we can each do something. And this is what inspired “Sustain Haiti.” We are committed to improving the lives of the Haitian people, whether others agree or support us or not.
While some individuals threw up barriers to try to dissuade us from going to Haiti and serving those who suffered, we sought to counter their criticisms. Ralph Waldo Emerson said “Every wall has a door.” We became increasingly committed to opening the door of resistance and going through it.
What is Sustain Haiti? We are a non-denominational, independent group of Haitians, Americans, and people of other nations as well, development specialists, students, social entrepreneurs and concerned citizens from across America. Beginning in late April, 2010, we have been sending teams of 5-7 volunteers almost every Monday to the headquarters we rented in Leogane.
We chose to labor in that town, which had about 140,000 people before the earthquake. It was the hardest hit community, being at the epicenter, which resulted in some 90 percent of the buildings being either severely damaged or destroyed.
Some estimates were that some 30,000 individuals were killed in the earthquake and aftershocks. If true, this would be one of the worst community disasters in human history since it would mean roughly a quarter of the citizenry had died. The assumption still today is that there are many bodies disintegrating under the rubble.
Last week, after disembarking from the plane, we drove through countless tons of rubble along both sides of the streets and highways. The roads were torn to shreds and every hundred yards or so, there were huge mounds of cement, rocks, cinderblocks and rebar protruding out into the streets, making driving feel like we were in a maze, dodging various kinds of motorized vehicles as well as carts, bikes, cows, goats, donkeys, and so forth. While I was shocked and immediately became depressed upon seeing and smelling the effects of this disaster, I was also surprised. The surprise was the beauty of the people, their smiles and cheerful appearance, and their amazing resilience in the face of this national destruction.
Haiti was already the poorest country in the western hemisphere and had been so for decades. Now with the grinding poverty of this new crisis, everything is far worse. The gap between America and Haiti has never been greater. For instance, in the United States during 2009, New York City alone gained 105,400 new millionaires. That makes a total of 667,200 throughout just the Big Apple itself. In contrast, the few lucky Haitians who actually have jobs make only about $5 a day. That means they try to care for themselves and their families with a mere $1,200 a year. There is something about this that is just not right.
I have spent the past exhilarating week with our fantastic Sustain Haiti volunteers helping to rebuild families and communities. It has been shocking to be here where all the destruction has occurred, even though I thought I was prepared for it as we analyzed the country’s needs and researched opportunities to help. To see our social entrepreneurs taking action, solving problems, and facilitating a better quality of life for the people is truly amazing.
The Spiritual Basis for Empowering the Poor of Haiti
These are young Latter-day Saints who strive to not only know the teaching of the Church, but they are attempting to dig deeper. They seek to actually practice LDS concepts such as sacrifice of time and talents, lifting the “hands that hang down,” the dignity of work, and striving to bring about greater socio-economic equality. Indeed, as I observe them, they are truly practicing the principles of consecration and stewardship. Let me offer a few brief examples.
Sacrifice- The word sacrifice is derived from the Latin “sacra” which signifies sacred. “Fice” means to perform. So for Sustain Haiti, our sacrifice has been to perform the sacred. Virtually every one of our volunteers has had to offer their time, money and energy to the cause. They each spent at least two weeks in-country and a number of them spent a month or two, even up to four months on the ground in Haiti. Some left their wives or husbands or children to labor down here in the trenches with the poor. Every volunteer had to come up with $2,000 in order to serve. For many, that sum would have paid for tuition at college, a better car, or covered the cost of doing an internship with corporate America. But instead, they gave everything to the cause of Haiti.
In the case of one individual, Zach Christensen, his sacrifice was even greater. He was selected as one of our initial team leaders to be on the ground in Haiti all summer. Yet shortly after his arrival, Zach’s mother died in Salt Lake City. His father had died two years ago. Now Zach was being called upon to be the older brother to his five younger siblings. So he had to leave his beloved Haiti and return home to help arrange the funeral for his mother and figure out what to do with his younger brothers and sisters. No one this summer among all the Sustain Haiti volunteers sacrificed as much as Zach did in losing his wonderful mother.
Equality- An important strategy of Sustain Haiti has been that of microenterprise. Basically, this consists of giving tiny loans, known as microcredit, to poor Haitians to lift themselves out of poverty. Brigham Young articulated the view that the poor are poor because of the lack of opportunity. He taught that we as Latter-day Saints ought to assist others by giving them opportunities, such as a job. This summer, our volunteers, led by Brittany Riggs, an MBA student, found partners in Haiti already operating microcredit programs.
Later volunteers worked to prepare to offer microcredit for a small, very poor community up in the mountains, which had received no aid. I had the privilege of conducting a final training session with two groups of men and one group of women whom we have organized into solidarity groups. We then gave each member of each group a $70 microloan that they are to pay back in full with 5 percent interest after four months. They will use these monies for various family income-generating efforts, and when the first loan is paid off, they will qualify for another loan that is double the first, $140. Ultimately, we anticipate that these peasants will be able to literally work themselves out of the poorest of the poor class and up into the Haitian middle-class in the coming years. In doing so, they will be able to educate their children as the first of their generation to go to school. They will also have the funds they need to get medical care when a child is sick or breaks an arm.
Dignity of Work- Modern day prophets and apostles have always emphasized the importance of labor. Many of them, such as George Q. Cannon, Lorenzo Snow, Heber J. Grant and others have stressed that businesses be created so that there is no idleness among the people. So another thrust of Sustain Haiti has been to train young budding entrepreneurs who have businesses going as to how they may increase revenues, market their products and services, and use other management tools to enhance their enterprises. For some of them and their friends, we even held a business plan competition activity and gave prizes to those with the best ideas for how to start or accelerate their firms.
Stewardship- For Sustain Haiti, another strategy of our program has been that of both social and environmental stewardship. In terms of the social dimension, we and our partners have taught classes on community development and social support. In a coastal fishing village called Destra, we are collaborating with an NGO called G.
O.A.L.S. Together, we are seeking to enhance the quality of life for some 1,500 rural villagers now living in tents because virtually all of their homes have been destroyed. The young people are being trained in ecological principles and the need to not deforest their environment more than has already been done, using soccer as a motivating tool..
We also have sought to be good stewards of the earth and nature beginning with the LDS ward property in Leogane. We have worked with Haitian saints and their neighbors to establish innovative and highly sustainable square-foot-gardens thanks to volunteers such as Andrew Scheuermann of Utah and Heather Oman of Virginia. The results are the creation of some 300 garden plots with produce already beginning to appear: tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, onions, carrots, etc. Many Mormon families will be able to draw on fresh, nutritious produce, not only in the harvest season this fall, but in the cooler winter growing season yet to come.
Consecration- Living the spirit of consecration is not just a promise in the temple or some future ideal when the millennium comes. It is a practical application of Zion here and now in our personal lives. As I see it the participants of Sustain Haiti essentially turned over to the Lord all they had and were in order to do His will in helping His suffering children in Haiti. From the beginning of our planning, we have sought our Heavenly Father’s blessings on our deliberations, the design and implementation of our strategies, and the rolling out of our projects. We consecrated everything we did to God, including our broken hearts and contrite spirits as we reacted to the tragic devastation of Haiti.
In summing up those quiet acts of consecration, I would include the efforts of the 50 or so volunteers in Haiti, especially Rony Charles, a young Haitian returned missionary going to college in the U.S. He willingly gave up his studies and visa status to return to Haiti as our in-country leader for the entire four months and he has been magnificent. He coordinated all our projects with NGO partners, as well as managed up to 21 volunteers on the ground at one time.
There were another 20-plus individuals who volunteered back home in the United States, managed very effectively by Nadmid Namgur, Dustin Homer, and Zach Christensen. The three of them gave on average three hours or more a day to the cause for six months which totals some 1,500 management hours. They and the 20 or so others assisted us with recruiting, funding-raising, teaching Haitian culture to all of us and so forth. More individuals who consecrated of their monies included some who could only afford to give five dollars while others gave five hundred, one thousand, or more. In the end, we raised over $100,000.
In conclusion, it may be most appropriate to declare that there is no conclusion. We have trained several Haitian leaders in Leogane who will keep our efforts at microenterprise, water purification, and square-foot-gardens going and growing in the months to come. When all of our volunteers are back in the U.S., we will review the various project reports, assess our strengths and weaknesses, and begin to plan for the future. Leaders such as Nadmid Namgur, Dustin Homer, Rony Charles and I will begin the process of incorporating Sustain Haiti as a non-profit in Utah, and we will seek 501(C)3 status with the IRS. We will then begin to strategize and recruit for 2011. Our ultimate commitment is to help rebuild Haiti for the next decade!
For readers who may want to learn more, or consider joining us in Haiti as we roll out our 2011 strategy and expand our impacts, please
In reflecting on these young Sustain Haiti Latter-day Saints, I see them as a superb example of our attempts to more fully practice the new fourth-fold mission of the Church. A few months ago, the Brethren began to mention in their talks and insert into the new Church handbooks an added fourth mission as to the purposes of the Church. In essence, it is a call for us to care for the “poor and needy.” This call to action has been exemplified in the life-long service of President Thomas S. Monson as he has visited the widows, the sick, and the destitute. Our commitment to struggling Haitians is our attempt to more fully practice what we preach as Mormons.
Warner Woodworth is a global social entrepreneur who has dedicated his professional and personal life to the cause of empowering the world’s poor from his hometown in Provo, Utah to far-away places like Mali, India, Brazil, and some 34 other nations. His current passion is mobilizing volunteers and change agents who are willing to help rebuild a new Haiti. For more information about Sustain Haiti, or to join our 2011 labors in Leogane, go to https://sustainhaiti.blogspot.com or check out https://www.facebook.com/pages/Sustain-Haiti/467764880693. Appreciation is expressed to Douglas C. Lewis for his technical assistance and photography.