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Locals open hearts, wallets for Haiti

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Posted on January 21, 2010 |
By John Flowers



MIDDLEBURY — Humanitarian efforts in earthquake-ravaged Haiti are getting a big assist from Addison County residents, scores of whom are either reaching deep into their pocketbooks or are trying to wing their way to the suffering Caribbean nation to provide direct support.

“I knew they needed help and I was getting so agitated sitting up here waiting,” Lincoln resident Mari Cordes said on Tuesday, less than 24 hours before flying off to the Dominican Republic with a delegation of Vermont medical professionals who will treat Haitians injured in the massive Jan. 12 earthquake that demolished much of the capital city of Port-Au-Prince. Estimates on Tuesday placed the mounting number of dead at 200,000, with 1.5 million rendered homeless by the magnitude-7.0 quake.

Much like in the aftermath of the devastating Indonesian tsunami of 2004, local clergy, foundations, students and individuals have been touched by the images they have seen of Haitians trying to rise above the rubble that shattered their world a week ago. Locals have volunteered to do some of the heavy lifting as that nation makes the long, arduous trek to recovery.

Contributions have been running the gamut from Cordes and fellow nurse Jackie Schlein of New Haven donating their time and expertise near the front lines of the catastrophe, to students and church parishioners tossing their spare change into collection jugs.

STUDENTS MOBILIZING

Even the small contributions are adding up, noted Rob Feliciano, a Middlebury College sophomore and member of the Pan Caribbean Student Organization, which has been working feverishly this past week to raise awareness, and funds, for Haiti relief.

“We are devastated by the fact that this earthquake hit Haiti,” said Feliciano, who is of Puerto Rican descent. “A lot of students have been asking how they can help out.”

The most immediate means of helping has been contributing money. Students have been standing outside dining halls after breakfast, lunch and dinner to collect spare change for Haiti relief. As of Monday, that effort had yielded more than $3,000, according to Feliciano. That amount was expected to grow appreciably following another collection at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebratory events on campus Monday evening.

College students and faculty were expected to gather this week in a series of brainstorming sessions and panel discussions on ways to help Haiti.

Feliciano anticipates students and college officials will have organized a full-fledged Haiti relief campaign by next semester.

In the meantime, Feliciano and some of his fellow students will be getting a chance to directly help Haitian nationals affected by the crisis. He will co-lead a Middlebury Alternative Break Trip to Little Haiti in Miami, Fla., over the college’s February break. That weeklong (Jan. 30 to Feb. 6) trip — which had been scheduled weeks before the earthquake hit — was originally planned as time during which participating students would renovate parks in Miami’s Little Havana and Little Haiti neighborhoods, as well as speak with children about the value of higher education.

The focus of the trip agenda has dramatically changed in light of the earthquake. Instead, participants will help Miami-based Haitians work through the grieving process, as well as offer to watch their children as the parents check on relatives and issues in their native land.

“We will collect a lot of food and help for families in grief,” Feliciano said. A lot of food will likely be boxed and shipped to Haiti from Miami, he noted.

CHURCHES IN ACTION

Local places of worship these days have been making Haiti a top recipient of collection plate offerings.

The Lincoln United Church, for example, designated Haiti as the focus of its “One Great Hour of Sharing (OGHS)” offering, said the Rev. David Wood. OGHS is a joint effort by many Protestant churches to pool their resources to advance charitable causes, including disaster relief, where it is needed.

Wood said his church will let people know other avenues through which they can help Haiti.

“I will put together a list of (Haiti aid organizations) I know are reputable,” he said.

As of Monday, Wood had received five phone calls from people wanting to know how they could help. Once caller offered to organize a spaghetti dinner in Lincoln to raise money for earthquake victims.

As with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Wood stressed Haiti’s recovery needs will be persistent.

“This is going to one of those one-, two-, three- or four-year efforts,” Wood said.

Parishioners at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Middlebury donated a combined total of $3,500 for Haiti this past Sunday, according to parish administrator Beth Stamway. She said the money will be made available to reputable aid organizations helping provide basic services to earthquake victims. Among those organizations is Rutland-based “Pure Water for the World,” which has been working with Haiti to provide potable water.

The Vergennes Congregational Church also took up a collection on Sunday for Haiti. That money will be passed on to the Church World Service, administered by the United Church of Christ, to further relief efforts, according to parish administrative assistant Mike O’Daniel.

Area residents are also making donations directly to aid organizations or through the Vermont Community Foundation (VCF), a Middlebury-based nonprofit that helps manage charitable funds.

Stuart Comstock-Gay, president and CEO of the VCF, said organization fund-holders as of early this week had requested that a combined total of $40,000 to $50,000 in donations be directed to Haiti assistance efforts. The VCF is also counseling its fund-holders on long-term donation plans for Haiti, given what is likely to be a long recovery process.

In an effort to provide guidance to its fund-holders and the public-at-large, the VCF has posted some helpful donation tips on its Web site, www.vermontcf.org. The VCF provides direct links to recommended aid organizations — including Vermont-based initiatives like Pure Water for the World, Peacequilts and the Vermont-Haiti Project — along with some national and international organizations like the American Red Cross, CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam, Mercy Corps, the Salvation Army, Save the Children and UNICEF.

“Vermonters have a tradition of being generous when there are problems around the world,” Comstock-Gay noted.

Area businesses are also pitching in. For example, American Flatbread announced it will host “Haiti Benefit Bakes,” through which a portion of sales will be donated to earthquake relief efforts. The company pledged to give $2 per flatbread to the Partners In Health organization for every flatbread sold Tuesday, Jan. 19, through Saturday, Jan. 23.

NURSES ON THE SCENE

Some area residents will be donating their time and expertise to the cause.

Cordes and Schlein were set to leave on Wednesday, Jan. 20, as part of a Fletcher Allen Health Care medical team that will spend the next two weeks providing services to Haitian earthquake victims.

More than 70 healthcare professionals have already volunteered for what is anticipated to be a series of trips to Haiti during the coming months. The Vermont Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals (the union at Fletcher Allen) is organizing the trips and is paying for airfare and communication tools for the team, according to a press release issued by the union on Tuesday.

Schlein said she has always felt a draw to Haiti because of its music and culture. When she found out there was an opportunity to help the people there during this humanitarian crisis, she jumped at the opportunity.

“When I heard about this, I said ‘I have to go,’” Schlein said. “(My husband) said, ‘I support you.’”

This will be Schlein’s first foray into relief work in a nursing career that began in 2008. She’s ready to rough it with the rest of the team, which will be based in the neighboring Dominican Republic to treat patients from a still fractured and volatile Haiti. This first medical team will lay the groundwork for future Vermont teams that follow it.

“I’m excited, and glad to do it,” Schlein said.

Meanwhile, Cordes is no stranger to service in foreign lands during a nursing career that has spanned more than two decades. She has provided healthcare services in such locales as Ghana, India and Nepal.

This will be Cordes’s first stint providing relief work, but she believes she is up for the challenge.

“I’m sure I will see things I haven’t seen before,” Cordes said. “But the heart of a nurse is to be ready for anything, and that is where I am functioning from.”

Cordes and Schlein will be bringing sleeping bags, mosquito netting and other everyday supplies for a stay that will include few creature comforts.

But Cordes isn’t thinking twice about roughing it and using her vacation time for a cause that is dear to her heart.

“I’m so grateful it’s working out,” Cordes said.

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