Christina Rexrode  /  AP
This July 3, 2011 photo shows villagers as they help unload building supplies that will be used for new wooden houses in Maplat, Haiti. Dozens of villagers came throughout the week to help Farsight Christian Mission with the building process, sometimes showing up before dawn. Levern Halstead, who runs Farsight Christian Mission from his home outside Chattanooga, Tenn., says that his trips must have an objectively measurable result _ a new building, a new bridge, a new well.
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updated 8/4/2011 10:47:07 AM ET 2011-08-04T14:47:07

I went to Haiti last year after the earthquake, driven by an excited but vague notion of doing some good in a hurting country.

I went again this year with my eyes open a little wider, not jaded exactly but aware of why some people view these volunteer trips with justified skepticism.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, a place where sewage runs down the streets of the capital and children die because they don't have clean water. It is in desperate need of helpers. Still, I sometimes roll my eyes when Americans visit for a week and come home declaring that their lives have been changed, as if they were not going to happily resettle into their comfy routines. My editor asked me if these trips are just a way for rich people to lessen their collective guilt, and I think that sometimes they are.

But I was impressed by the group that I traveled with, a small nonprofit called Farsight Christian Mission. Levern Halstead, who runs Farsight from his home outside Chattanooga, Tenn., says again and again that his trips must have an objectively measurable result — a new building, a new bridge, a new well.

He grows frustrated by volunteer groups that come with good intentions but no plan. It's a sentiment echoed by others I talk to in Haiti, both Haitian community leaders and long-term aid workers from the U.S.

They don't want to discourage people from helping. But they're dismayed by the aid groups that bring what they think Haiti needs instead of asking what's needed, which is how bags of donated high heels end up in villages where people trek through forests. Or the groups that want to play games with children but won't haul around plywood, as if they could be better teachers than someone who actually speaks Creole. Or the volunteers who won't bother to learn and respect the local culture.

"Some groups, you can tell, they just want to make their Facebook page really nice," says Nego Pierre Louis, a 24-year-old Haitian who founded a community service group called the Bezalel Movement. He saw a flood of donated medical supplies come to one aid group in Jacmel, the coastal town where he lives, after the January 2010 earthquake. And, he says, he saw much of it get thrown away because it expired while the group hoarded it, not sharing with other relief organizations.

Still, there are good things to be done in Haiti. I was with Halstead last fall when he spoke to villagers from Seguin, in the mountains, about an idea where he'd buy 30 sheep for 30 families. The program would be self-sustaining, with families giving back every other lamb until everyone had a few animals.

The villagers told him they'd prefer that 15 families get two sheep each, because sheep get mopey when they're alone. Halstead changed his plans immediately.

After the earthquake, he raised money for Pierre Louis to buy vegetable seeds to take to another mountain village, Maplat, where people were starving as food donations got gridlocked in Port-au-Prince. The villagers in Maplat doubled their food supply.

"And it's not rice and beans with an American flag on the side," adds Halstead, 59. He's been coming to Haiti for more than 14 years, ever since he walked away from a career in computer programming.

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My team spends the week in that same village, Maplat, which is really just a handful of buildings on the side of a treacherous dirt road. We help the villagers build a couple of one-room wooden houses with tin roofs — nothing fancy, but they'll be useful for visiting doctors and other aid workers.

I have no particular skills in construction or any vocation that would be especially useful to Haiti, like medicine or agriculture. But I can hammer a nail and lug around lumber, and that's good enough when you've got a leader who knows how to plug cogs like me into a machine.

Maplat's village pastor, Louissaint Louime, is a smiling man with whitening hair. Like most of the men, he's up every morning before dawn waiting to help build the houses. Like a lot of rural Haitians, he isn't sure how old he is, but he thinks he's 61.

Louime cares for a congregation that mostly lives in cornstalk huts and rarely has enough to eat. But he doesn't particularly want a truck to speed by throwing out food and clothing, as happened after Hurricane Noel in 2007. Then, a few people will grab as much as they can and sell it later, and everyone else will get nothing, Louime and others said.

His wish, he says through a translator, is for an agronomist to help his village learn how to better use the clay-ridden land, and maybe someone who will start a microfinance program so that people can start businesses.

In other words, people who will take the time to teach skills, not just make themselves feel better by giving away stuff they didn't want anyway.

"We'll go into a new community and the kids, all the English they know is, 'Give me a dollar, give me a cookie,'" said Clayton Bell, a 28-year-old doctor from El Paso, Ark., who works at the Cloud Forest Medical Clinic in Seguin. "It's not their fault. But we have to retrain them, 'Okay, if you want that, you can help me work, you can help me clean the clinic.'"

If You Go...

Next door, Chrisnet Excellus walks through the school where he is principal and worries that he won't be able to pay his teachers. He has more than 400 students at Ecole Chretienne Emmanuel, who sit five to a bench in a concrete building without running water. Tuition is about $15 a year, but a third of the families can't afford it. Excellus lets the children come anyway.

Excellus, 40, is married and the father of four girls. He has kind eyes. On a chilly day, he wears a Winn-Dixie windbreaker.

I ask him what he needs for his school, and he needs everything, even pens and paper. I ask him what he wants for Haiti and he says, "Complete change."

I am not naïve. I know that a couple of buildings in Maplat will not fix Haiti's problems. I know that radical changes are needed, like good roads, clean government, renewed industry, replenished topsoil, and I cannot bring them about.

But that doesn't mean that we can't work for small victories.

At the end of the week I come home to New York, a city I love. I walk my favorite streets, hug my friends, enjoy hot showers.

But all I can think about are the dusty, barefoot children who grabbed my hands and grinned at me. And Jocelin, a Seguin teenager who wants to be a doctor "because that's what Haiti needs." Tony, a student who dearly wishes to buy some books for the children in Maplat. Benitho, a debonair 20-year-old who gets serious when I ask him what he wants for his country: "If I can go anywhere to find help," he says, "I will."

All I can think about is how I want to go back.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: A year after quake, Haiti still rebuilding

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  1. A Haitian woman prays with a Bible in her hand during ceremonies to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2011.The quake flattened much of the capital Port-au-Prince. (Kena Betancur / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Haitians hold hands during a ceremony at St. Christophe, where thousands of victims of the 2010 earthquake are buried, in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 11. Haiti began two days of remembrance ceremonies in honor of the nearly quarter million people who died in an earthquake. (Hector Retamal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Haiti President Rene Preval holds a wreath of flowers at a mass grave site at Titanyen, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, on Jan. 11. (Jorge Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Haitian workers celebrate after the inauguration of the reconstructed Hyppolite Iron Market in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 11. The historic trading center was originally constructed in the 1890s and has been rebuilt this year after a fire leveled it shortly after the earthquake. (Jorge Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A woman walks past an earthquake-damaged building on Jan. 11 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on the eve of the first anniversary of the earthquake. (Paul Chiasson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Martina Raymond, 5, center, stands in front of her family tent with neighbors Revdania Henry, 4, left, and Henderson Henry, 2, in a makeshift camp at the Petionville golf club on Jan. 11 in Port-au-Prince. According to UNICEF, more than half of the 4 million children in Haiti still do not attend school. In addition to educational difficulties, Haiti's children also suffer from poor access to basic water, health care and sanitation. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An aerial view of a tent city in a Port-au-Prince on Jan. 10. (Thony Belizaire / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A woman walks at a mass grave site at Tituyan, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 11. (Jorge Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Residents stand near an abandoned airplane in the middle of La Piste camp on January 11 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The camp is located on a former military airport and houses approximately 50,000 Haitians displaced by the earthquake. The one-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people will be marked on January 12. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Soccer players from Haiti's Zaryen team (in blue) and the national amputee team fight for the ball during a friendly match at the national stadium in Port-au-Prince on Jan.10. Sprinting on their crutches at breakneck speed, the young soccer players who lost legs in Haiti's earthquake last year project a symbol of hope and resilience in a land where so much is broken. (Kena Betancur / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Presidential candidate Jude Celestin, center, gestures to supporters during a campaign rally in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, Jan 10. An Organization of American States international monitoring team will recommend on Monday to President Rene Preval that Haiti's government-backed candidate Jude Celestin be eliminated from a presidential runoff election in favor of Michel Martelly, a popular musician who finished a close third in the contested official results, according to a copy of a report obtained by the Associated Press. (Ramon Espinosa / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Students practice a lesson at L'ecole Nationale Filles de Marie (Daughters of Mary National School) near the end of the school day on Jan. 10, 2011 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Catholic school collapsed during the earthquake in 2010, killing 16 nuns, but no students died because they had left for the day. The school has been partially rebuilt and houses 600 students. According to UNICEF, more than half of four million Haitian children still do not attend school. Approximately 5,000 schools were damaged by the earthquake and rebuilding has been crippled by the clearing of rubble and land issues. In addition to educational difficulties, Haiti's children also suffer from inequitable access to basic water, health care and sanitation. Jan. 12 is the one-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A Haitian evangelical parishioner looks up during a mass to remember earthquake victims at national stadium in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 9. Haiti will this week mark the first anniversary of the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and destroyed much of capital Port-au-Prince. (Jorge Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Achebelle Debora St. Til, 6, dances at the Festival of Hope, a rally led by Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, at a soccer stadium in downtown Port-au-Prince on Jan. 9. (Allison Shelley / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A boy plays in a refuse-clogged canal in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 9. When the ground shook Haiti a year ago, toppling homes like cards and killing some 200,000 people, world leaders promised quick action to ease the human tragedy and rebuild the country. A year on, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country is still reeling from the earthquake, and the international community's capacity to deliver and sustain aid effectively is being sorely tested. (Jorge Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Haitians stay in a tent erected in a destroyed house in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 9. (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Orich Florestal, 24, left, and Rosemond Altidon, 22, stand on the edge of their partially destroyed apartment on Jan. 9. (Allison Shelley / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A woman prays during services in front of the destroyed Port-au-Prince Cathedral on Jan. 9. Haitians gather for services outside the destroyed cathedral every Sunday. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. People walk on a street in downtown Port-au-Prince on Jan. 9. (Jorge Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. People displaced by the massive 2010 earthquake live in temporary shelters put up by Samaritan's Purse, a charity, on Jan. 8 in Cabaret, Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of people still live in temporary shelters. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The Presidential Palace is still in ruins as displaced people live in tents in a park across the street almost one year after the massive earthquake on Jan. 8 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Haitians wash clothes and hang them to dry on rebar remnants of a building destroyed by the 2010 earthquake. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Parishioners from St. Louis King of France Catholic Church dedicate a cross and a memorial put up in memory of the tens of thousands of people killed in the massive earthquake and buried in the mass grave at Titanyen, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Velune Noel, 24, lies with her cholera-infected 12-month-old son Peterson Sharmont, on a cot at a Samaritan's Purse cholera treatment center in the Cite Soleil neighborhood of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 8. (Allison Shelley / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A Haitian man builds a wooden house Jan. 8 next to houses destroyed by the January 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince. Reconstruction has barely begun in Haiti a year after its catastrophic earthquake, a leading international charity said on Wednesday in a report sharply critical of a recovery commission led by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. People play soccer at the site of earthquake-damaged houses in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 7. (Ramon Espinosa / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Haitians work on rebuilding an iron market building destroyed by the January 2010 earthquake in downtown Port-au-Prince. (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A man removes debris from the January 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 6, 2011. (Kena Betancur / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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