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Volunteers essential to Haiti mission

Haitians are living, bleeding, breathing human beings just like we are. Submitted photo 1 / 8
MannaPacks provided by Feed My Starving Children are an essential component of the successful food program at Complexe Educatif St. Antoine. Submitted photo 2 / 8
Medical team leader Dr. Steve Harrold performs an exam on a Haitian student as part of the Haiti mission to Complexe Educatif St. Antoine last November. Submitted photo 3 / 8
Haitian students were measured on American growth charts. There were no signs of malnourishment or infections in the students at Complexe Educatif St. Antoine, attributable primarily to the food program at the school. Submitted photo 4 / 8
In Haitian schools, students in each grade wear a different uniform. Submitted photo 5 / 8
Kindergarteners prepare to do exercises in the school courtyard before classes begin at Complexe Educatif St. Antoine last November. Submitted photo 6 / 8
Medical team volunteer Cyndi Blader performs an exam on a Haitian student as part of the Haiti mission to Complexe Educatif St. Antoine last November. Submitted photo 7 / 8
Father John Anderson helps weigh Haitian students at the Complexe Educatif St. Antoine in Haiti last November. Submitted photo 8 / 8

In 1993, Tennessean Jack Davidson had a chance encounter with a priest from Haiti at his church in Signal Mountain, Tenn. The priest invited him, he thought, on a trip to visit Tahiti to which Davidson responded, "Well sure."

Turns out the one week visit turned into a five-year mission to raise $400,000 to build a school overlooking the Caribbean Ocean in the town of Petite Riviere De Nippes.

On Nov. 10, 2018, Dr. Steve Harrold, a family medicine physician at the Somerset Clinic, Father John Anderson from Immaculate Conception Church and Cyndi Blader, a family practice physician assistant at Westfields Hospital, departed for Haiti as part of a team of 13 volunteers that traveled to Petite Riviere De Nippes to provide a week's worth of medical exams and care to the 1,000 students and staff at the school known as the Complexe Educatif St. Antoine (CESA).

"My wife and I had always thought we wanted to do mission work in Africa. Then the 2010 earthquake hit in Haiti and we thought, 'That's where we should try to go,'" recalled Harrold.

Despite their best efforts, the Harrolds were unable to hook up with an organization to employ their talents in Haiti until 2015, when they found a group that welcomed Steve, his wife and their four daughters on a six-day mission to serve at clinics in the mountains of Haiti.

"I saw a lot of pathology, a lot of very sick people, some dehydration, malnourishment and tons of infections," said Harrold.

Harrold returned to the mountain clinic mission alone in 2017 where he ran into Davidson by way of uniformed students traveling from a school by the ocean to the clinic to see an American dentist.

"I asked one of the translators driving the kids back and forth, 'Where do these kids go to school?' She said, 'Just down in town,' and offered me a guided visit," said Harrold.

Later that same afternoon after hitching a ride with one of the groups heading back to the school, Harrold met two pediatricians performing medical exams on students at the school.

"Jack, the fellow that founded this school, asked me if I would be willing to work there for a little bit. I was already done with my clinic work for the day just down the road, so I said, 'Sure.' About 45 minutes into clinic there, I was kind of disappointed because these kids were healthy. With all the pathology I had seen before I was hoping to help people out. About 90 minutes into it, I realized something was going on here. This was amazing. All these kids were healthy. They were on the American growth charts. There were no signs of malnourishment. I hadn't seen any signs of infections. At the end of that clinic I asked Jack, 'What's going on here?' He said, 'We feed them. We feed them with the Feed My Starving Children meals at 10:30 a.m. every day. It's made a world of difference," said Harrold.

Complexe Educatif St. Antoine

Construction on CESA began in 1994. The first of three stories was completed that same year as they welcomed their first class. The school was dedicated in 1998 and completed in 1999. Davidson hired a Haitian architect to head up the school project which ended up employing some 500 people. The tradespeople were local and many learned their trade on the job during the project. It is said that practically every block used to build the school was made using local materials by local people from Petite Riviere. The American Haitian Foundation received its 501(c)(3) certification in 2000, taking over financial responsibility for the school. Enrollment has grown from 250 students in 1994 to 1,000 students today spanning K-12 and supported by an all Haitian staff of 90 teachers and support personnel. Students and their families are responsible for paying $29 annually for tuition.

"That way, they have some skin in the game," said Harrold.

The school is located 70 miles west of Port-au-Prince. The average walk to school for students is 3 miles in each direction.

"The school has withstood multiple hurricanes and the earthquake in 2010. It's been there for 25 years. Many of the teachers and staff were once students at the school. It's the biggest employer in town. There are students in there doing calculus and biochemistry. There are engineers working in the U.S. that graduated from this school," said Harrold.

Of the 13 volunteers on this mission, only three had been to Haiti before, including Harrold and Anderson. During the course of the week Harrold worked with the medical team consisting of himself, Blader, two ER doctors and an ER nurse practitioner conducting physical exams, prescribing medications and addressing some more serious afflictions. The other volunteers supported the medical staff by assisting with weighing students, providing physical therapy and exercise. A typical school day began at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 2:30 p.m. allowing time for students to make the walk from home and back and allowing time for the volunteers to explore the culture in the afternoon.

"It was necessary, they all got deworming pills, all these (necessary) things, but I think the bigger thing was, they just appreciated that someone cared. That we were present there," said Anderson.

Trust and credibility are keys to success and in the case of the school were evidenced by the dramatic improvement in the students' health and success after graduation.

"There have been plenty of struggles getting to this point, but we were kind of coming in at the end and realizing the fruits of Jack's labor and all the other volunteers. There are still struggles, for instance water. They've been shipping water here for the last 25 years. They just now finally, while we were there, sunk a well. It was a huge moment. We also did a one-day mobile clinic up in the mountains where we saw some others kids. That was an affirmation of just what a difference that food made in the lack of pathology at the school. Everyone was very appreciative, very trusting," said Harrold.

Hope for Haiti

Haiti is struggling to establish its own identity. According to the CIA World Factbook, Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. Plagued by political uncertainty and periodically ravaged by natural disasters including hurricanes and earthquakes, 80 percent of Haiti's people are forced to live in poverty in the cracks of their communities. Theirs has been a struggle against a violent history which has been both painful and costly. Schools like CESA provide hope in the form of education that is essential to a sustainable future for Haiti.

Anderson last visited Haiti 30 years ago when he was in seminary.

"I went with Food for the Poor when I was in seminary so that was in 1990 or so and I spent most of my time then in Port-au-Prince, the capitol city, going out (on day trips). If that had been my last trip to Haiti, I think I might have thought, 'Well they don't stand a chance.' I saw a lot of the political workings while I was in Port au Prince, and yeah it was a mess, but the people know that's going on and they're still just trying to live their lives. But on this trip I saw hope. I saw hope because they weren't starving, because they were getting fed at the school. In fact, Jack said it saved some of the families when they send them home with these tupperwares (of food) otherwise these parents have to decide which child will eat that night," said Anderson.

A contributing factor to Haiti's struggles is its native language, a combination of French and African called Haitian Creole. The language is unique enough that it has added to the isolation of Haiti and makes translators essential to volunteers.

"With the younger kids we had Haitian translators. It being my third trip, I'm certainly not fluent in Creole but I could at least speak enough to a kid to say, 'Puff now. This won't hurt," but for the most part we had translators. Most of the older students have learned English. They got to practice their English while we were doing our exams," said Harrold.

People often have a mistaken impression of Haitians given their troubled history and seemingly merciless onslaught by the elements. If a bus were to pull up in front of the school and offer a free ride to America, the land of freedom and opportunity, you might expect it to fill up in an instant. It would not. Even with all its challenges, Haiti is as much a home to Haitians as our homes are to us.

"For people on the trip who were experiencing Haitian culture for the first time, you heard them say, 'I thought I was going to see people that looked more morose and destitute.' But while they are there they see the richness of the culture and the joy that Haitians experience day-to-day even though they might not know when their next meal is coming. That is in stark contrast to when you come back here, back home and see how straight-laced we are and maybe not as friendly, how separate we live. Our culture is very different. You realize there is something that they have that we don't," said Harrold.

"For me, there is a pull. I've been to the Dominican Republic and some other places, there's just a pull because, I come home here and I'm pretty well taken care of. The pull is, I want to do more, but what more can you do? My image of Haiti changed from the last time I was there. They're still very happy people, but there has been progress. They are being enabled to do things for themselves. They're being given a hand up, I guess is what you would say. It's not just throwing money at them. They're being fed. They're being trained. Education is key," said Anderson.

Currently, volunteers only visit the school once a year so every opportunity to close the distance between themselves and the community is important. A soccer game proved to be an unexpected bridge between one of the docs and the local soccer team.

"They won and after the game, it was this big thing in town, you could hear the horns beeping. Usually they would just stand around for 15 minutes after the game talking about the victory and then head home to get ready for work the next day. Lance (doc) had attended the game with the team. Afterward, he invited the team to the hotel for beers on him to celebrate because they couldn't afford to do that themselves. In the midst of the celebration he had to stitch up a player by flashlight (held by Anderson) who had been hit by a rock at the game," recounted Harrold.

A cultural exchange program instituted over the past couple summers has brought teenagers from San Diego and Chattanooga to the school to spend several weeks with Haitian students of the same age. It is a program Anderson is considering introducing in New Richmond.

"We're trained to think that if we go on a mission we have to do something. You have to build this, or make this to help, which is important, but I think what they've done there in Haiti is they learn a bit about each other just by being together. The school puts them up. Just by being together, they learn more than the statistics, more than the political unrest, they learn that they are living, bleeding, breathing human beings just like we are, just struggling to get by doing what they can and rather than writing them off we should be asking how can we help," said Anderson.

How to Help

"One of the things that has changed since 2010 is, a lot of people do have cell phones and so it's pretty decent as far as communication goes," said Harrold.

In the case of the school that is important because it helps to communicate medical information back and forth between the volunteer doctors and the school between their annual visits.

Volunteering is also an option.

"It's amazing how many people want to go, who say, 'Ah man I wish I could, but I don't have the skill or whatever.' Understand that anyone who goes can help. But not everyone can go. It took me five years to get there. People can get involved in different ways around here like, Feed My Starving Children (FMSC). Tons of organizations in this area participate in FMSC and it directly connects to Haiti. There are other groups as well. There's one from Faith Community that is in Uganda right now. It's more about telling the story and celebrating what all of us are doing."

Many students at the school are sponsored by Americans. There are 1000 students and the maximum they have ever had sponsored was 500. A sponsorship costs $200 a year. No one is turned away. Money goes to the American Haitian Foundation (americanhaitianfoundation.org) and directly to the school. No third parties are involved.

Harrold is in charge of organizing the medical trip each November. His goals are to make at least two trips a year, one in the spring and one in the fall, to operate multiple mobile clinics in the town and the mountains and to use those clinics to identify specific children outside the radius of the school who need food.

"Education is their empowerment. We walked into a room filled with refurbished laptops that had been donated by people from the U.S. One of the guys who hosted us, Jimmy, he fixes all of them and his wife teaches Microsoft Excel, all the necessary stuff to help students get jobs. There are still people who are struggling who have graduated from that school and can't find a job, but that school alone employs 90 people and almost all of them graduated from that school. That's sustaining. I hope 20 years from now it doesn't have to be people like us going down there, that by then it is self-sustaining."

For questions or more information regarding volunteer work in Haiti, contact Father John Anderson at:

fj.andersondocharrold@yahoo.com.