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Upper Iowa University students return to serve in Haiti

Dr. Katrina Farren-Eller had not been back to Haiti for two years. During her last trip, the Upper Iowa University assistant professor of English remembers feeling desperate and angry about the conditions that Haitians have lived in since the devastating earthquake over four years ago. This year, however, Farren-Eller saw progress. The tent city of Canaan located just 20 miles from Blanchard now has access to clean water thanks to an entrepreneurial resident who started a water delivery business. The construction of an Olympic training center nearby is putting people to work. A team from Pennsylvania is making headway on an effort to provide electricity for the Partners In Development complex through the aid of solar power. Duplexes and other projects worked on by Upper Iowa University students in past years are now in use.

Upper Iowa University offers the optional May term travel abroad experience to provide students the opportunity to immerse themselves in another culture to learn and to serve humanity through a variety of service learning projects. Fourteen UIU students, including one from Upper Iowa’s Prairie du Chien Center, participated in the pre-trip preparation that included classroom discussions and daily presentations on aspects of Haiti’s history and culture. Post-trip, the students were required to offer reflections of their trip in a comprehensive essay, as well as keeping a journal of their experiences during the trip.

Working closely with Partners In Development (PID), a nonprofit organization that works to improve the lives of the world’s poorest of the poor, UIU students and faculty assist in the construction of concrete duplexes, which will provide a first-ever home with walls for some living in Canaan. They hauled boulders, dug the foundation and poured the base walls for a duplex that will one day be home for two families.

Rachel Lueder, a student from Fayette, Iowa, worked in the PID clinic part of the week. She said it was a rewarding experience, despite the language barrier. “(It) helped me to see that we as members of the human race have universal problems,” she said. “We can all relate to this happening. We all have weight, temperatures and blood pressures that need to be taken to help diagnose the actual ailments.”

“I did learn through my lack of ability to communicate with people in general that there is also a universal language that everyone understands,” Lueder added. “When I gave someone a smile, they understood that I was trying to comfort them in the best possible way I could.

“A woman came up to me asking how she should give her child a medicine that was prescribed to one of the males for whom I had taken weight, temperature and blood pressure. She thought I was a nurse. I had no idea what to tell her at first until I discovered that this man was giving the woman two adult Tylenol for her child. I tried my best to help her understand the correct amount of Tylenol her child should receive. I was thankful she spoke fairly good English, as it would have been much harder to explain how to treat her child if she only spoke Creole. This is when it really hit me that there were more people to help than PID could help. They are doing the best they can with the resources they have, but many still do not receive the help that they need.”

For Laura Pigato, a UIU student from Aix en Provence, France, it was a little easier to communicate in her native French because of its similarity to Haitian Creole, the language spoken by the vast majority of the people. For this, she was dubbed by the Haitian children as “the one who understands.”

Because of her ability to communicate, she learned that it is a widely held belief among the Haitian people that the earthquake that destroyed half the country and killed thousands of people was not a natural event. “Even highly educated men and women think that it was man-made,” Pigato said. “The theory is that some northern countries provoked the earthquake in order to (destroy) Haiti. They think that because, within two hours of the disaster there were a lot of foreign ships around the island. They think that the ships could not have been that quick if they did not already know that the earthquake was going to happen. They blame the United States and European countries, countries that only tried to help them. Before going to Haiti, I thought they would blame God for their despair. On the contrary, we saw the names of God and Jesus everywhere: on buses, on the houses, on trucks and on walls.”

One of the resounding themes seen and written about by the Upper Iowa crew was that of hope. Ashley Finnell from Boscobel, Wis., said she did not understand the meaning of hope until she experienced Haiti. “Previously, hope to me was something that could go in my favor. Such as, ‘I hope I win the lottery,’ ‘I hope the Packers get to the Super Bowl,’ and ‘I hope my tomatoes come in this year.’ However, hope in Haiti is something completely different. Hope is the opportunity of getting an education or your children receiving an education. Hope is living in a house with four walls. Hope is getting at least one meal a day. It was a different type of optimism I’ve never seen before.

“(Before Haiti), I was so unhappy with what I had or didn’t have, when Haitians are lucky to have the option of having at all. They were proud of their hard work and accomplishments each day. It wasn’t a fight to have the biggest prize, the best education or the greatest job in the world. Hope was not an individual feeling in Haiti, it was a group feeling. Everyone had hope for each other and hope for the future.”

A key component to the PID mission is the child sponsorship program. Farren-Eller, along with her husband and former UIU associate professor of international business, Dr. Eric Eller, who has led the UIU trip to Haiti for five years, sponsor two children, Anya, 4, and Venia, 6, along with a 66-year-old man named Fritz. They visited all three during the trip and brought them clothing and food items. Following this year’s trip to Haiti, some of the students have now agreed to sponsor more Haitian children to ensure food, clothing and a proper education until they turn age 18.

Other UIU students on the trip were Traci Schmidt from Blue Grass, Iowa; Pinima Godpower and Dosia Kumbe, both from Port Harcourt, Nigeria; Travis Granberg from Oelwein, Iowa; Benjamin and Rio Farren, both from Fayette, Iowa; Kentaro Harasaki from Fukuoka, Japan; Shane Kafka from Stewartville, Minn.; Kaylee Schwake from Sumner, Iowa; Sydney Cyzon from DePere, Wis.; and Harry VanAusdall from Johnston, Iowa.

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