A safe place to live - Thunder Bay woman to help in Haiti
By Krista Harper
While many people would love to spend their holiday time on a Caribbean island, a week of construction work in one of the poorest countries in the world is not the kind of vacation most would hope for.
But that’s exactly what 600 volunteers, including one Thunder Bay resident, will be doing come late November.
The Habitat for Humanity project in Leogane, Haiti aims to help build 100 new homes for some of the thousands of people left homeless in the devastating earthquake that struck the nation in late 2010.
Since that time, many of the residents of Leogane — which is considered the epicentre of the catastrophic quake — have lived in makeshift tent shelters.
When tropical storm Isaac hit the area in late August, volunteer Francie O’Brien said, it only made matters worse, destroying some of the tents, turning the dirt floors of the shelters to mud and increasing the risk of diseases such as cholera.
“Here they are, they have a huge earthquake, hundreds of thousands of people are homeless,” said O’Brien. “(Almost two years later), they’re still living in those awful tents or makeshift sort of tarp homes and then they get hit with tropical storm Isaac.
“I can’t imagine a mother with young children in a tent in 100-degree weather . . . I could see if you were in a tent for a week . . . even that would be a hardship,” she added.
O’Brien was preparing for the build project in Haiti when tropical storm Isaac struck the region. She said a quote from a news article that came out at the time was particularly heart-wrenching to read.
“They interviewed this man who had six children and he said, ‘You know, we were supposed to get a home, they were supposed to build homes for us, but maybe we don’t deserve them.’ And I just thought, how horrible to hear someone say that, that they don’t deserve a safe place to live.”
While volunteering with the local branch of Habitat for Humanity initially caught her interest, O’Brien began volunteering for the charity elsewhere in January, with a two-week trip to build homes in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Her experience in Bolivia cemented her belief in the charity and stoked a desire to participate in future projects.
“When we were building with the family, the people were just incredible,” she said.
“The group that I built with . . . the camaraderie, the feeling of joy that you had when you had all worked together to create something, it was just indescribable.
“I felt like you were learning about a culture, you were doing something constructive and it was all good,” she added.
“There’s a lot of positive energy, and a lot of people working towards the same goal.”
During Habitat for Humanity projects, volunteers like O’Brien work side-by-side with the home’s future owners. In places like Haiti, where languages other than English are spoken, there can be some barriers.
“But it’s amazing how far you can get on a smile, sign language and nods,” O’Brien said.
The project in Leogane in November is the 2012 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. For 29 years, the former U.S. president and first lady have participated in various Habitat for Humanity projects around the world. The 2011 project was also held in Leogane, where volunteers and locals built 155 homes in a week.
The homes Habitat for Humanity builds in Leogane are small, about 280 square feet, but the simple homes are designed to be earthquake-resistant and easy to add onto.
O’Brien said that while the charity welcomes volunteers with construction experience, it isn’t required.
“You just need a good heart, a willingness to work and not worry about kind of roughing it for a week,” she said.
And, of course, to go on builds to places like Haiti, you have to be somewhat fit.
“You don’t have to be in perfect physical condition, but you have to be in good health.”
More information on Habitat for Humanity projects is available at the local office and on the non-profit’s international and Canadian websites, www.habitat.org and www.habitat.ca.
While O’Brien was accepted to participate in November’s Haiti project, she is still raising the $5,000 to support her trip by the deadline of Oct. 1. Contact her at email@example.com, or drop off donations at her workplace, Court Services in Victoriaville Centre.