LES CAYES, Haiti — Asked to stand in line for a dose of Vitamin A and an anti-parasitic pill, a group of 3-year-olds suddenly went numb with fear.
One started crying, then another, then a handful. Of three groups being tended to recently by nurses and volunteers in the classroom at St. Michel of Charpentier, this group was the most distraught. They trembled as they approached the front of the line, where a volunteer would snip a capsule and drip its contents into the child’s mouth.
Patrick Eucalitto of Hope for Haiti stood nearby.
“The other ones went so smoothly,” he said. “This is like the Inquisition when you bring one up after the other.”
Call it a teachable moment. Eucalitto, 23, program director for the Naples-based organization, is working with volunteers from around Les Cayes to train them in such situations, from administering vitamins to teaching children about hygiene and basic nutrition. The volunteers are expected to take their knowledge to the classrooms of their hometowns, many of which are isolated and in need of health education.
If successful, the organization envisions a public health education program that is local and can be spread across the area.
“That’s what this is about — try to find things that work and scale them,” said Tiffany Kuehner, vice president of Hope for Haiti.
The program was born of the nonprofit’s longtime work with nearby schools and its expanded health clinic in Les Cayes. During the past 20 years, Hope for Haiti has subsidized teachers in 40 schools and installed water purifiers in 12. The clinic expanded earlier this year, from a staff of one doctor and one nurse operating out of the nonprofit’s headquarters, to a stand-alone building that boasts four doctors, five nurses and a dentist.
Last in a series of reports from journalists Steven Beardsley and David Albers in Haiti.
Brown University graduate student Will Perez added the final piece by creating a curriculum for staff to train the health workers.
The program began in November after Hope for Haiti shifted focus from relief for the January earthquake. After spending half a year in Port-au-Prince, the staff decided to return to Les Cayes and the health education program.
“While so many organizations are in Port-au-Prince and focusing all their efforts, I don’t want all of our efforts to be there,” Kuehner said. “Because we’ve got ‘X’ amount of dollars and it can be spent a lot better in the south where we say, ‘Families, this is a reason to stay (in the south).’”
In Les Cayes, Eucalitto and Hope for Haiti country director Sarah Dutcher, 29, oversaw the search for volunteer health workers. They asked directors at 12 schools to pick two people from their communities, one man and one woman, whom they believed met criteria of education, trustworthiness and speaking skills. Each volunteer had to have strong ties to the community, giving them a voice of authority.
Among those selected was Samuel Terasma, 29, an unemployed mechanic from the small town of Careme. Active in Careme’s church community, Terasma was nominated by his school director, he said.
Like other volunteers, he will travel to Les Cayes three separate times for training in six modules, as well as for the occasional ‘check-in,’ like the one last week. Each trip takes hours.
The modules offer various lessons on nutrition, hygiene and sanitation, and they make reference to diseases like cholera, which continues to claim victims across the area. Volunteers completed the first two modules in November and will soon return for the next two.
Terasma said he was excited to be chosen for the program and that he’s already learned a lot, including the importance of washing multiple times a day and wearing shoes.
“All this stuff is for body hygiene, to avoid rashes and to avoid worms,” he said in Creole. “Depending on the caution you take and the body hygiene, you will be able to avoid these illnesses.”
Eude Pierrette Nicolas, one of two nurses teaching the volunteers, said the program’s success will be measured by what clinic staff sees in the towns where volunteers live and teach.
“At the least when we go back, we will find fewer cases of diarrhea, fewer cases of stomach ache,” she said. “At the least they will know the importance of Vitamin A. At the least when babies are born they will be born in hospitals; the children will be able to get vaccines.”
Many concerns in Haiti aren’t shared by most people in the U.S.
Vitamins are widely available in the U.S., for example. Our food is fortified with them, our diets diverse and our supermarkets well-stocked with whatever we’re missing.
In rural Haiti, residents lack both knowledge of and access to vitamins and health information. The government provides little assistance.
“It’s always education and access,” Dutcher said. “If people don’t know what makes their children healthy, they’re not going to ask for it.”
After returning from the school trip, volunteers discussed what they learned. They talked about the challenges of speaking to children and the need to ease their fears.
Volunteer Michaelle Janvier, 26, worried how her school would compare to St. Michel, which is run by an order of nuns. She said children in Les Cayes receive a different education than those in her hometown of St. Louis Du Sud.
“Meaning they are watching TV, listening to the radio, seeing other things than the children in the countryside,” she said after the discussion. “(Rural children) don’t see that stuff. The way they talk is different. The way they understand things is different.”
Whether the pilot program succeeds depends on its volunteers, many of whom face their own pressures at home. Lacking regular work, some continue to look for education or employment wherever they can find it. Although Hope for Haiti offers a small stipend of $25 a month, it can’t require that volunteers stay in their home towns.
Instead, they hope volunteers will embrace the program and make it their own.
“It’s more empowering for community health workers because it’s their program,” Eucalitto said.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
- Hope for Haiti
- Mission of Hope - Haiti
- American Red Cross
- Text "HAITI" to 90999 to donate $10 to Red Cross relief efforts in Haiti
- World Harvest Mission
- Catholic Relief Services
- Contact Nesly Loute of the Haitian American Association of Southwest Florida at firstname.lastname@example.org or (239) 601-2023.
- Contact Angie Valentini of Helps Outreach at 239-273-2258 or visit them at 2025 J&C Boulevard in Naples.
- Text YELE to 501 501 and 5 dollars will go toward Wyclef Jean's Yele.org Haiti earthquake relief fund
- Americans concerned about family in Haiti can call the U.S. State Dept. for info: 1-888-407-4747
- ABOUT THE EARTHQUAKE: Major quake hits Haiti; many casualties expected
- PHOTOS: Haiti Earthquake
- VIDEOS: Haiti Earthquake
- INTERACTIVE: Earthquakes - causes and consequences
- INTERACTIVE TIMELINE: Haiti earthquake
- SPECIAL SECTION: Get more coverage of the Haiti earthquake relief efforts in our special section