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Students spend summer in Haiti helping disaster victims

By Susan White

MSW students Kristen Little and Megan Key never had much doubt about where they would spend their summer vacation. From the moment a 7.0 earthquake shook and devastated Haiti on Jan. 12, the students knew they needed to help. Both recently returned from Leogane — the epicenter of the disaster — where they worked as volunteers with Hands on Disaster Response (HODR), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that provides assistance to survivors of natural disasters around the world.

The work, they said, was backbreaking and at times, heart wrenching.

“Everything about Haiti was intense, like the heat, the living conditions and the work that we were doing everyday,” said Little, who lived for three months in Leogane. “Living in Haiti was a test of mental and physical endurance, and that was true even before you add the fact that 90 percent of the building structures in Leogane were destroyed or damaged by the earthquake and that hundreds of thousands of people died or were injured.”

Seven months after the catastrophic event, more than 1.5 million people remain displaced in temporary camps, according to news media reports. The quake ravaged most of the country’s already worn or damaged infrastructure, including roads and seaport. HODR specializes in rubble removal and volunteers were in the thick of it, the students said, hoisting “shovels, sledgehammers and pickaxes” to clear collapsed houses and other structures.

“Cleanup is still one of the biggest needs right now,” said Key, who spent seven weeks in Haiti. “Volunteers also helped with demolition and partnered with other organizations to set up temporary camps. We even got involved in building schools.”

The students also assisted orphanages, helped train local teachers in how to avoid risks during disasters and equipped them with some basic tools for handling trauma. “These were very rudimentary lessons for creative therapy, such as art therapy and music therapy,” Key explained.

“They were different things that a teacher can do that don’t require a licensed clinical social worker – very simple things that can help them start dealing with some of the problems.”

For Little, the day-to-day routine was often eye-opening. Such was the case during her work with doctors in a field hospital where she assisted in providing emergency services and OB/GYN care. “I was even involved in several births, which was amazing!” said Little, who plans to work in child welfare practice after graduation.

Although neither student had visited Haiti before, Key had some previous experience as a disaster relief volunteer, having worked with HODR in 2008 after flooding damaged 5,000 homes in Iowa and in 2009 after a tornado ripped through 600 homes in Mena, Ark. The international experience behind her, Key said she is determined to pursue employment with a disaster relief agency following graduation.

“This was kind of that make-it or break-it trip for me,” she said. “And even though there were times where I felt like what we were doing was such a small thing … for the people we were helping, it was something major.”

Little agreed that the volunteer work was “life changing.”

“The most rewarding part of being in Haiti was, hands down, having the opportunity to meet and get to know and fall in love with the people there,” she said. “The Haitians I met were beautiful representations of the resilience of the human spirit.”