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.
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.'"
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.