Thursday, March 12, 2015 may have been typically hot and sunny in Haiti, but it was far from an average day in Grande Saline. For the first time, the people living in this community had access to clean safe drinking water…and that changed everything.
The clean water project is part of SUNY Broome’s first global service learning course, Health for Haiti. Health for Haiti brings students, faculty, local professionals and community volunteers together to address some of the most pressing needs of our global neighbors in Haiti. Since our inaugural class in January 2014, fifty talented, dedicated and enthusiastic college students have traveled to Haiti and, working under physically and emotionally difficult conditions, have provided care, comfort and opportunities for hundreds of Haitian children and adults living in both rural and urban areas of Haiti. We believe that by working together we can make positive progress, one step at a time. “Never believe you can’t make a difference whether you are one person or a small group,” says Jean Musa, Health for Haiti 2015.
While there have been definite signs of improvement in this beleaguered Caribbean nation over the past few years, there are still many Haitian citizens who lack access to things that most of us take for granted, such as adequate food, clean water, appropriate shelter, education, healthcare and sanitation. Health for Haiti has tried to meet these needs by working with our partners in Haiti to provide some basic services and supplies, and by initiating and supporting projects that are aimed at improving the quality of life in Haiti.
For many of us, it was a shock to see what living conditions were like for the people we worked with in Haiti, and it helped us to be more grateful for what we have here in the United States. “I feel that the most important thing I learned from my experience in Haiti is how fortunate I am and how thankful I should be for what I have,” explains Ashley Cable, Health for Haiti 2016. “Just being able to have access to clean water, have enough food to eat, and have a warm bed to sleep in are things we would never think of as luxuries. But for many people in Haiti, they are.” Sierra Merrick, from the 2015 class, says “I think we grew such an appreciation for what we have, easy access to clean water, healthcare, food, a roof over our head, transportation, the opportunity to improve ourselves through career, education and so much more.”
Our Health for Haiti students have been assisted by SUNY Broome faculty and local professionals who work with us in the US and in Haiti. Together, we learned about our differences, but we also learned an important lesson about our shared humanity. “The human connection I was able to experience in Haiti, even with the language and cultural barrier, really surprised me,” says Kaylin Smith, Health for Haiti 2016. “At the end of the day we were all human beings. It didn’t matter what we were wearing or how we lived. We all smile the same, laugh the same, and hug the same.”
In addition to hugs, Health for Haiti students provided education by delivering lessons on cholera, oral hygiene, clean water, hand-washing, nutrition and malnutrition. Through our partnership with Bridging the Digital Divide, a collaboration between SUNY Broome and the Binghamton University Center for Civic Engagement, we have taken nearly eighty laptops to Haiti and helped to create four computer labs where children and adults can receive regular computer literacy lessons. Digital lessons have been created by local elementary students and by students from SUNY Broome. These education programs would not have been possible without our amazing translators. They are such a pleasure to work with, and we have developed deep friendships. “If you can think about the nicest person you’ve ever met. That was every single person I met while in Haiti,” says Carolyn Butler, Health for Haiti 2016.
We helped the community of Grande Saline to build two classrooms so that the local children can attend school near their homes and, working with ETM Solar Works of Endicott, New York, we have completed two solar installations to provide power to the school. We have also solicited donations to support teacher’s salaries and provide school supplies that can enhance educational options for these kids.
New classrooms, lessons and electricity are great, but with nearly two hundred hungry school children, many of whom can’t count on receiving even one meal every day, a nutritious lunch is also an important part of a productive education. Health for Haiti worked with the community to develop a sustainable plan for meeting this need. We helped to create a community garden that is now being used to grow corn, beans, melons, pumpkins, bananas, papaya and eggplant. The first harvest yielded 504 pounds of beans and 252 pounds of corn. Food from the garden is now being used to supplement the school lunch, and the community is already planting more.
SUNY Broome Health for Haiti has worked with and learned from our friends Dr. Ken and Andrea Taylor at their beautiful clinic in Port au Prince. We have also partnered with a Haitian doctor, Dr. Robinson, to provide free medical services in Cite Soleil and Grande Saline. By collecting over-the-counter medical supplies and donations to purchase prescription medications in Haiti, the team has helped to treat high blood pressure, malaria, worms, anemia, and malnutrition. In 2015, they even helped Dr. Robinson deliver a baby! In January 2016 Health for Haiti brought Dr. Tom Bucker, a local dentist, and five dental hygiene students to Haiti. The team worked with Professor Hankin to provide critical dental services for rural and urban communities in Haiti. Health for Haiti is also compiling health records for the children and adults that they treat in Haiti. We hope that this health data will provide new insight into how our efforts, like the clean water project, might improve health in the community.
Health for Haiti’s clean water for Grande Saline project is possible because of the water filtration system that was donated by the Pall Corporation in Cortland, New York. Working with the talented and generous engineers from Pall, Health for Haiti installed the system in 2015. It is a municipal grade microfiltration system that cleans the water from the local river, filtering out disease-causing pathogens. The filtration system is operated by three members of the local community and provides 4,000 gallons of clean water daily in Grande Saline. A Health for Haiti team consisting of Pall engineers and students provides periodic maintenance and operator training when we travel to Haiti.
After a year of clean water, there are signs of better health in the community. “The water filtration system is, for the people of Grande Saline, like water in the desert. The water changes life. We have a reduction in diarrhea in the children in Grande Saline,” says Dr. Robinson. “Your contribution is visible and brings great change in the population.” Water system operator, Cesar, says, “I don’t have enough words to explain to you how this water is so important for everyone in Grande Saline. My job also helps me so much to take care of my children.”
And access to clean water has opened brand new opportunities for improved health in the community. The leading causes of death for children in the developing world are respiratory and diarrheal diseases. One simple intervention that can reduce the spread of these deadly diseases is hand-washing. Health for Haiti helped to build a community hand-washing station, called a tippy-tap, that makes use of the clean water. Now children and adults can wash their hands with soap and clean water, and hopefully stay healthier as a result.“One thing I’ll never forget about being in Haiti was watching the first little girl washing her hands at the tippy-tap,” says Kaylin. “She had the biggest smile on her face and it warmed my heart so much to see the excitement over something that to us is so small. My experience in Haiti has allowed me to gain so much compassion for others. I now know that no matter where I go in life, I always want to be involved in something meaningful that will help someone else.”
Health for Haiti also built a bathroom in Grande Saline, providing four hygienic toilets outside the new school. Access to a safe toilet has important implications for health, dignity and education. Open defecation contributes to poor health and diarrheal disease, while lack of privacy may interfere with the ability of girls to attend school after puberty. Although this is just a modest start, it is an important one. There is no doubt that improved sanitation will also lead to better overall health for the entire community.
All of these projects have made a lasting impact on those of us who have been fortunate enough to travel to Haiti. “I learned that one small act of kindness can mean the world of difference for somebody in Haiti. Going to Haiti lets you try out so many different things, whether it be nursing, working in the pharmacy, being a teacher, climbing on the roof to install a solar panel, or just simply playing with the kids,” explains Josh Brady, Health for Haiti 2016. “The Haitian people were so thankful, but I should be the one thanking them; I learned so many valuable lessons and genuinely grew as a person.” And Nancy Walling, Health for Haiti 2015 says, “I gained a huge new family.”
The Haitian people also taught us some important lessons. “While I was in Haiti, I learned so much about myself,” explains Ashley. “Happiness is something I thought about very much while I was there, and still do today. In our society, which is full of opportunity, we are all so negative. If one thing doesn’t go our way or as planned, our day is seemingly ruined. The amazing Haitian people I came in contact with have only a minute amount of what we all have and yet are the happiest, most loving people I have ever met. If people with such misfortune have the ability to be happy and show it, we have no excuse not to!” “Haiti was such an eye-opening experience for me. I learned that you don’t need much in life to be happy,” echoes Josh. “I learned that all you really need is your family or people who care about you. Everything else is just a bonus.”
“When we were riding on the bus to Grande Saline, we came across a funeral procession,” says Iyan Warren, Health for Haiti 2015. “Many people were dancing around the coffin, and even dancing with the coffin, to celebrate the life of the person they lost. Even in death they celebrated life rather than mourning loss.” And Jenna Fetterman, Health for Haiti 2016 says, “The pictures I took on our trip show how happy and passionate the Haitian people are about life, even having little to nothing. They have such great love for their country, faith, family, and one another. It is something we should all admire.”
As we approach March 12. 2016, the one year anniversary of our clean water project, we can be fairly sure that it will be another hot and sunny day in Grande Saline. But we can be absolutely sure that none of us who have been a part of Health for Haiti will ever be quite the same. And the people in Grande Saline are enjoying a new kind of routine day as well. It will be a day that includes clean water, new educational opportunities, food grown by the community for the community, clean hands, hygienic toilets, and the hope for a healthier tomorrow. Water system operator Duckens says, “The water system is my life. Thank you so much. I was dead, but with the water I am alive because I am living a new life.”