Project 81 making a difference in Haiti


DEVASTATION IN HAITI  — Conrad resident Mark Bergstrom took this photo on his relief trip to Haiti as part of Project 81.  The picture was taken in the Delmas district in Port-au Prince and shows just some of the devastation that occurred during the Jan. 12 earthquake.  Photo Courtesy of Mark Bergstrom





Special for the I-O by Mark Bergstrom

I recently returned from a relief aid trip to Haiti.  I traveled to the disaster stricken country with Project 81, a humanitarian non-profit organization co-founded by my college roommate, Clay Nylund, a Cascade native.  The other founders being his sister, Annie Brown, and her husband Jared Brown.

In the past six months I have become closely involved with the organization and visited Haiti for the first time back in September.

The objective of the organization is simple: To help provide the people of Haiti with the means and resources to meet their most basic needs, thus enabling them to reach a higher potential and break out of the poverty trap that envelopes them.

The primary goal of the relief trip team was to support Mayor Jean Gael in his efforts to assist the 800,000 residents of Delmas district, Port-au-Prince.  Project 81 has been a friend and supporter of Jean Gael’s for several years.  Under the direction of the mayor, the relief team was able to treat approximately 500 Delmas residents at a temporary clinic, distribute 5,500 lbs of rice, deliver several thousand pounds of materials including two generators,  medical supplies, shoes, tents, tarps,  and canned goods.  Project 81 further funded the mayor’s aid program that puts street children in school and feeds them daily.  Project 81 also funded a free telephone service that allows the people to contact relatives in the United States.

But the lasting achievement was the breaking down of some barriers between Mayor Jean Gael and aid agencies and organizations.  In a relief effort system where the bureaucratic structure and red tape proved immensely trying and frustrating for an American humanitarian organization, the situation is nearly impossible for a Haitian official wishing to bring aid to his people.  Of all the agencies and organizations Project 81 contacted, only one cut through the bureaucracy and opened their hands to Mayor Jean Gael.  The Love a Child organization is donating 70,000 meals weekly to the mayor for him to dispense amongst his people.

On the trip I saw the massive destructive power of the quake.  Buildings everywhere are little more than a heap of rubble.  Almost all of the government buildings are demolished.  Schools and churches far and wide are gone. Small stores and residencies disappeared. Some seemed to pancake, crushing anything and anyone inside.  Others were up heaved and appeared turned upside down.  The buildings left standing are almost entirely unusable.  At first glance they appear fine but upon further inspection it becomes apparent that often the inner walls and roof have collapsed leaving a shell of walls on the outside.  Others are still intact but have deep cracks that left them too unstable and dangerous for use.  The mayor’s house is still standing but due to several massive cracks, he lives in a makeshift tent in his yard with his family.

Several million people were left homeless by the quake. Most people live in large tent cities scattered throughout the large city.  Many people have left the city only to come back as resources in the distant communities become strained by the influx of people. Some people are unwilling to leave their destructed property and have simply blocked off a piece of street in front of their house and constructed a makeshift tent as new living quarters. They live here as cars and trucks rumble by on the dusty streets only a few feet from where they sleep.

The massive loss of human life was not nearly as noticeable as the physical destruction.  At least 250,000 people perished in the quake.  I did not happen to travel by the mass graves or places of mass incineration.  Undoubtedly there are many people still buried in the destructed buildings I passed by, but almost all are so deeply buried that their existence is undetectable. Other team members did pass by a building that had human limbs protruding from a crushed floor; fortunately I was not witness to that.

Under the direction of the mayor, Jean Gael our team set up a makeshift clinic to serve the Delmas residents; as many as 500 people were given medical attention.  Many did not show the physical wounds from the quake one would expect.  It was the added hardships and poverty that affected most people.  Dehydration, poor sanitation, and lack of basic medicines and immunizations proved wide spread.  The elderly and very young were in the most need.  One young father brought in a baby whose mother had perished in the quake.  His child was getting very little sustenance, as it was still breast feeding at the time of its mother’s death.  Fortunately cases of baby formula were a part of our supplies.  The young man had deeply bloodshot eyes and his grief was unquestionable.  He carried with him a photo of his wife.

The local children appeared strong and resilient in light of the recent tragedy.  Most were able to smile as they happily savored a piece of candy as they waited in line at the clinic.  The teens, adults, and elderly were not as joyous as the young children, but they were enduring with relative hope.  These people lived in abject poverty before the quake.  What they faced now is unfathomable to us.  But they somehow have the ability to persevere.  Besides this massive quake, the Haitian people have endured through destructive hurricanes in the past several years as well.

Most of the people were remarkably clean.  Living in a makeshift tent on the dusty ground in a place with little sanitation or garbage disposal, I would have assumed their appearance would be somewhat dirty.  But we were the ones who were dirty and grungy by comparison.  How they are able to properly bathe and wash clothes in those conditions is beyond me. They will be fighting mud not dust though, as the wet season will begin soon and the people lack adequate structures to protect them.  The rain will bring streams and pools of runoff which coupled with the lack of sanitation will most likely spread disease.

Our team distributed 5,500 lbs of rice from the back of a dump truck, that only a week earlier had been used in the removal of the massive amounts of human bodies.  We utilized the mayor in deciding what location was most in need of food. Then the team had the local community organizers seek out the people in the deepest hardship and gave them the vouchers that would entitle the holder to a bag of rice.  When it was time to distribute, the community organizers had the people line up in a relative orderly manner as the Haitian police and mayor’s security team provided stability.  In ten minutes we methodically distributed 5,500 lbs of food that benefited several thousand people.  It was quick and systematic and further more we did it in the added obstacle of darkness.

Since the January 12 quake, Jean Gael has struggled to aid his people.  A lack of Haitian resources and a lack of cooperation by U.S. government agencies and international aid organizations have undercut his ability to assist his people.  Being the leader of 800,000 people and basically being the only government ministry in full operation, it would seem obvious that his knowledge and abilities would be tapped by the foreign relief efforts.  This has not happened.  Sadly, it is often assumed that Haitian officials are all corrupt and inept.  It would appear that most government agencies and many international organizations have left the Haitian people standing on the side lines of the effort to aid their country and their people.

Everything our team accomplished was in direct cooperation with the mayor of Delmas.  Without the input, organization, and support of the Haitian people none of it would have been possible.  We faced a tirade of adversity on this trip from start to finish.  Nothing was done easily but I think we were able to accomplish what we did because we utilized the local people and their knowledge and eagerness to help themselves.

It was an amazing trip and I encountered remarkable people.

The rebuilding period will be indefinite.  Massive amounts of work and great strides will need to be taken to lift this country out of despair.

The foreign countries will need to show Haiti the road to recovery, but at the same time we could stop for a moment and learn a thing or two from these resilient people.