Tragedy unfolds on the evening news every day. Natural disasters ravage countries, uprooting the populations and throwing resources into chaos. When the 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and tens of thousands killed.
The island was struck again by a quake in March, this time a 4.6, further damaging buildings that hadn’t been replaced after the previous disaster.
The world looked on, donations were made, aid organizations mobilized and people everywhere wondered, “What can I do to help?”
Instead of wondering, Jay Peters, an executive director of a Washington DC based construction code developer, and his wife Kathy, along with retired St. Mary’s Catholic School teacher Kathleen Hill, decided to take the next step and make a humanitarian trip to try and make a real difference in people’s lives.
In June, the three joined a group of aid workers from across the country in a trip to Haiti to continue work that the Peters had begun in 2011 — bringing fresh water and sanitation facilities to school children and orphanages.
In May 2011, Jay and Kathy traveled to Haiti to visit an orphanage and mission in Gonaives/Nan Colo to assist in replacing a well pump and providing additional toilets for over 300 orphans.
Last year, the Peters helped install a rainwater collection systems. This year, the couple, along with Hill, added to the work by installing two additional water tanks.
The school, Ecole Marantha de Colo, gives daily lessons to 350 students. Hill said every morning they show up in uniforms, neatly pressed and ready to learn. Most of the students walk from their mountain homes to the school in Nan Colo, a trek that can be more than two hours long.
On this, her first trip to Haiti, Hill said she didn’t know what to expect. Jay Peters tried to prepare her, giving the advice to not look out the front window of the bus. Traffic in Haitian cities is an aggressive, loud, often terrifying affair — two lane roads lined with vendors, selling everything from eggs to cell phone cases, constrain the vehicles.
“It’s basically a 24- hour flea market for survival,” he said.
Motorcycles and semis share the road, coming at each other seemingly head on, horns blaring.
“You never see a motorcycle with just one person,” Peters said. “There’s someone driving, two or three people behind them, a basket in front and everyone is holding bags.”
When they stepped off the airplane, what struck Hill first was the smell.
“There is garbage everywhere,” she said. “It’s just thrown in the streets or collected and burned.”
There are still hundreds of thousands of Haitians in tent cities around the capital city of Port-au-Prince, Peters said.
After a bone-jarring five hour bus ride to Gonaives, the group was greeted by the staff at the mission house with a cold shower and a simple meal. From there, they began the climb up the mountain to the school.
Wanting to expand on the rainwater collection system, Peters and others quickly came up with a supply list. They headed back down the mountain. While just about everything they needed for the project could be found, it was a matter of finding the right people.
Add to that a flat tire and bad battery on the bus, and the trip stretched into more than 30 hours.
“Everything is hard in Haiti,” Peters said. “And that’s nothing negative about the people. But everything takes more time. It’s just . . . hard.”
Finally with the PVC pipe and barrels in hand, Peters said the next challenge was to get everything up the mountain.
“We were trying to figure out how we were going to carry all this, maybe build some kind of carrier or something. Then one of the guys who was helping just put one of the barrels on his head and started walking,” he said. “We were really over thinking it.”
Peters said the officials at the school reported that thanks to the rain barrels installed last year, they had enough water to cook a meal every day of the school year for the first time ever. For most of the students, the simple lunch of beans and rice is the only meal they get in a day.
“With the additional barrels, they are hoping to collect enough water to share with the community,” he said.
While in Nan Colo, Hill assisted the school’s headmaster and teacher, Ecleasias Comperé, with teaching the children English to supplement their native Creole. Since returning, Hill has been working to get supplies for the school — from books and education posters, to simple things such as pencil sharpeners.
Hill shipped posters earlier this year and shipping alone was more than $100.
She and Peters also want to try and collect shoes for the students.
While they go barefoot in their free time, it’s a point of pride that every student comes to school shod. Even if what’s on their feet is a pair of oversized soccer cleats.
“The whole trip was heart breaking and up lifting at the same time; awesome and awful,” Hill said. “It feels so good to be able to help the kids, but it makes your heart ache that you can’t do more.”
“If I could find a way to make a living doing this, that would be amazing,” Peters said.
Anyone interested in helping with the ongoing relief efforts for the school can contact Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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