ASC Students Volunteer in Haiti

Dr. Douglas Pierson, (VMD) Alfred State College assistant professor, Agriculture and Veterinary Technology Department, who previously lived and worked as a veterinary field worker in Haiti as part of Christian Veterinary Mission before joining ASC, coordinated a relief trip to Haiti after commencement. The original plan was to send one group of volunteers, but there were so many students who volunteered, that instead of one group, Pierson split the students into two teams. Much of the students’ trips were supported through fundraising.

Students who helped to rebuild medical buildings and provided veterinary care to Haitian livestock were: Bryonna Albrecht, veterinary technology, Dryden, NY; Emily Bailey, agricultural technology, Allegany, NY; Andrew Catlin, building trades: building construction, Webster, NY; Kalem Chambliss, digital media and animation, Alfred Station, NY; Kyle Covert, building trades: building construction, Wayland, NY; Elisabeth Elliott, electrical construction and maintenance electrician, Johnson City, NY; Jill Elston, veterinary technology, Elmira, NY; Menkaure Griffin, building trades: building construction, Buffalo, NY; Sydney Kraus-Malett, veterinary technology, Rochester, NY; Stacy Lord, veterinary technology, Livonia, NY; Phil Murphy, building trades: building construction, Wayland, NY; Tiffany Schiffer, veterinary technology, Glen Aubrey, NY; Sean Schubmehl, veterinary technology, Wayland, NY; Melanie Scroger, veterinary technology, Oakfield, NY; Shannon Slocum, veterinary technology, Warsaw, NY; Meghan Snyder, veterinary technology, Alfred Station, NY; Jenna Sonne, veterinary technology, E. Bethany, NY; Brandi Sprout, agricultural technology, Portville, NY; Keenan Thayer, masonry, Middletown, RI; Randy Todd, masonry, Warsaw, NY; and Nicole White, engineering science, Fort Edward, NY.

Below is an excerpt from a journal written by Andrew Catlin, '12:

5/18/10 – 8 p.m.

We flew to Haiti this morning. The trip got real for me before we even landed. When you’re flying over Haiti, the first thing you notice is the deforestation. You might not realize that’s what you’re seeing if you weren’t expecting it because there’s lots of green; there just isn’t the dense forest you’d expect on a tropical island. Next, as we’re flying low over Port-au-Prince, you can see the evidence of the quake everywhere. It looked like there wasn’t a single building that had been left untouched.

The heat hits you as soon as the plane door opens, but that was expected. It wasn’t much cooler inside the airport. The one hallway that runs the length of the building has AC units every 10 feet that only affect the air right in front of them. The result is waves of hot, cold, hot, cold that just makes the heat worse.

There was a traditional Haitian band playing us a welcome as we walked out to the bus that takes you to the temporary customs building.

Culture shock hits you the moment you leave the airport if you’re not prepared for it. People press in on you from every side, trying to sell you things, or carry your luggage, or offer a cab. There are guys called Red Caps who will try to grab your cart and push it for you so they can demand money for the service.

We met up with the folks from Christianville, and finally got ourselves and our bags loaded into three trucks.

We drove through the worst hit parts of Port-au-Prince and saw the Presidential Palace and the Cathedral: two images I’ve seen in the news for months, but couldn’t comprehend till now.

Haiti Relief Trip Spring 2010On our truck were me, Beth, and Emily Pierson who could translate for our driver. As we drove through the city, he commented on some of the destruction in a sort of matter-of-fact way. He’d point at a pile of rubble and say, “That was a hospital; everyone inside died,” or “That was a beautiful hotel; a lot of people died there.” He told us his house collapsed, but his family got out safely.

One half-collapsed house had words spray-painted on the front that said in English, simply, “help us please.”

The driving in Haiti is unimaginable. There are basically no rules of the road. For that matter, there are hardly any roads. There are way more cars than I anticipated. Many of them hardly running, or just plain broken down in the street. Pedestrians do not have right-of-way, but the bigger or uglier car does. Horns are used more frequently than turn signals, and can mean anything from “hey, what’s up” to “I’m passing on the right; fear for your life.” On the only four-lane divided road I saw in Haiti, people were driving down both sides of the divider. Some people will drive the wrong way down the road in reverse, thinking they won’t get in trouble if they’re still facing the right way. Our driver even passed people a couple times by driving over the curb and down the margin between lanes. Meanwhile, dirtbikes and motorcycles are just going anywhere they want.

Public transportation - “tap-tap”The streets are filled with everything from UN tanks to what are called “tap-taps” (brightly painted buses or trucks that act as a kind of public transportation). Mostly, though, the streets are filled with people: people walking by or working along the side of the road or knocking on your window to try to sell you something.

It took us over three hours to drive 20 miles what with the roads and the traffic, but we finally got here.

5/19/10 – 7 p.m.

OK, so first off, some stuff about Christianville. Basically this place has way more than any of us expected. There’s a guest house that wasn’t damaged at all in the quake. It has a large communal area in the middle that’s open on both ends to accept the breeze. That’s where we eat and hang out in the evening. It has rooms off it that open to rooms on both sides, and that’s where some of the missionaries are sleeping until their houses can be repaired. One is the girls’ bunk room. There’s clean, running water out of every tap on the complex! There’s electricity from a generator most of the time! The girls have their own bathroom and shower, and the guys have an outdoor shower. What we were told was a “temporary plywood bunkhouse” is anything but temporary, and that’s where we’re sleeping. They supply us with actual mattresses, pillows, and sheets! The bunk house also has a bathroom with flush toilets. Everyone I’ve encountered here so far has been extremely friendly, as anticipated. The food is amazing. It’s mango season, so we eat mango with every meal (yes!).

The project’s a little frustrating so far. First we were on a pile of rubble that used to be a medical clinic, sorting rocks from concrete. The building construction students started to lay out for a generator/storage building. I was hoping to get right to work on the medical clinic, but this is important, too.

Some things are much more advanced than I expected, like having a concrete mixer and metal cutting chop saw, but other things… not so much. So when we need to excavate a footer, that means you go get a shovel. I had thought that at least we’d have like 20 Haitians with shovels, but most of them are busy making blocks. We have one Haitian named Francois helping us, and he’s awesome. He just keeps working, and hardly even stops for water. He doesn’t speak any English, but I’ve been having fun communicating without language.

I’m not picking up Creole words as fast as the others are, but I’m doing pretty well with hand gestures and “merci.”

5/20/10 – 8:30 p.m.

First thing we learned when we got up is that there was a 4.5 aftershock around 1 this morning. One of the missionaries joked, “I’m not even interested if it’s less than 6 these days.” The thing didn’t even wake me up.

Today was a little better ‘cause we knew what we were doing, but it was sunnier. Also, we had a lot more digging to do, all in the sun. Beth and I had to take turns digging while the other one recharged in the shade with water. After lunch it rained a little, and that cools things down a bit. Francois helped me finish up the excavation, and I almost kept up with him! At one point a Haitian teen-aged boy was standing there watching me work at the mud with a pick. Finally he couldn’t stand it anymore and said something in Creole I didn’t understand. I let him take the pick to show me how it’s done, and watched as he dug half the ditch for me. He didn’t know I just needed to take it down a couple inches, but I appreciated it anyway. Kyle and Phil worked on setting rebar so maybe we can pour tomorrow.

5/21/10 – 7:10 p.m.

So today was concrete day. We started by finishing up the rebar for the first slab, and then the Haitians started mixing. It’s a combined slab/footer, but we started with the footer all the way around. At first, we thought the mix was way too wet, but then we realized how fast it dries in the heat.

We were lucky to have a mixer, but still it’s not like a pour back in the States. Usually, we’re trying to keep up with the trucks, but here we spent most of our time waiting on the mixer. It ended up taking all day for one little 14’x20’ slab. 6 p.m. and it was just Beth, Dwayne, and me who stayed to work on it. At that point it was all ported and screeded, but only about half of it was set enough to trowel. Beth and I went to get dinner, and that’s when it started to rain. Really rain. All week I’ve been hoping for a real tropical downpour. Would have welcomed it any other time, except tonight. Nothing we can do about it now. We’ll just live with however it comes out.

5/22 – 6:40 p.m.

Saturday! That means we take the day off. At first I wanted to keep working (the slab is kind of ugly from the rain, but not too bad), but now I’m glad we didn’t. I’m still feeling a little guilty about having fun on a work-trip, but recreation time’s important too. So today, we went to the beach!

The beach was in a pretty nice place where you have to pay $2.50 to get in. It’s in an area that I guess is kind of the Haitian club scene. Still pretty run down, but American enough to not really be the real Haiti.

It’s a rocky beach, but the location is beautiful. The beach looks out on a little island. On the other side of the island is a coral reef. After we floundered around in the shallows for a while, a guy in a dugout canoe paddled up and offered us a ride. We talked him down to $3 a person both ways, and he ferried a few of us out there.

Once we got back to the beach, we were introduced to tamarinds. They’re these seed pods that kind of look like big peanuts. You knock them down from the tree by throwing rocks, and then crack them open and suck on the seeds. The seeds are covered in a sticky pulp that has this sweet/sour taste; almost like some sour candy.

The day at the beach ended with a bad sunburn [for me]; a cold shower felt beautiful, and chilled aloe was even better.

5/23 – 7:03 p.m.

Haiti Relief Trip Spring 2010Church was neat. Their church building is standing, but not safe to occupy, so the community gets desks out from the school tents and meets under the trees. Made me think a lot about what church really is.

The service wasn’t at all as wild as I had hoped, but still there was lots of singing and keyboard playing. Even heard some Bee Gees thrown in at the end.

After church, we just hung out in the guest house. Later, we helped load up rice, beans, and oil into bags to be distributed to seniors in the area.

We also went on a ride through Léogâne. My photos tell the story best, but it was crazy to see all the destruction. You really can’t comprehend it till you see it in person. I don’t think I can even comprehend it now having not seen it before the quake. The Haitians are so full of life though. I don’t think I can go as far as “happy,” but they just keep going.

5/24 – 5:33 p.m.

Monday, back to work.

Beth and I spent most of the time prepping the second pad while Kyle, Phil, and Dwayne argued with the Haitians about mortar. They were making it way too dry and thick. Finally, they convinced the Haitians that our way is better.

All day it was cloudy and rainy which was nice. Mostly. Beth and I got closely acquainted with the Haitian mud. It’s so sticky you gain about a foot and a half after you’ve been walking through it all day. At the same time it’s so slippery I almost ate it more than once. Pretty much it just slows down work altogether.

A Haitian guy about my age named Jonathan showed up today. He’s an old friend of the Piersons, speaks very good English, and he’s one of the ones who got a scholarship to go to Alfred State next fall.

5/25 – 5:49 p.m.

Rainy Tuesday! Clouds and gentle rain was nice for the heat, but makes the mud worse, and the mud makes everything worse.

We started off by stacking blocks into benches for the eye clinic patients to sit on while they’re waiting.

The rest of the day Beth and I worked on rebar in the mud. Not the most fun thing ever, but had to be done.

The second group came today! It’s been awesome seeing everyone. We were the experiment team, but now we get the fun of sounding smart to the newbies. We just had our evening meeting and we went around giving advice to the second team. Lots of good things said.

5/26

Quick one tonight. It was the last day for team one. We successfully poured the second slab, and Beth and I were very proud of it ‘cause it’s the one we saw through from start to finish. Also, I laid 3 block, just to say I did.

It’s crowded here now, with both Alfred teams and now another team from the water purification group.

5/27 1:20 p.m.

Heading back today.

I spent the morning packing, and Beth and I went to the job-site to say goodbye to people there.

I rode in the back of the truck with six of the others all packed into the steel cage like so many monkeys in a traveling circus. I wanted to ride in the back so I could experience Haiti more directly, and that’s what I got. By the time we got to the airport, I was hacking on dust, diesel exhaust, and all the other fumes that contribute to the Port-au-Prince smog. They say living in Port is the equivalent of smoking three packs a day.

We’re on the plane to Miami now, after a three-hour wait in the Port airport.

The Piersons have done a really good job at making this trip a time of mental and spiritual contemplation. Haiti is a good place for some serious self reflecting. I feel a little weird that I haven’t had any huge revelations. No culture shock, no big surprises. I dunno, maybe I’ve learned more from Haiti than I realize. Maybe I won’t figure that out till I get back to the States.

See more photos of the Haitian relief trip.