For the third consecutive summer, Cheri Pfeiffer is heading to Haiti to help families whose lives were devastated by the January 2010 earthquake. A volunteer with the Haiti Family Initiative, she’s headed to Jacmel, a city of about 40,000 where more than 300 were killed, another 4,000 were injured and about 70 percent of the homes were destroyed. Pfeiffer, a social worker, will help impoverished and uneducated women learn how to better care for themselves and their families and to develop skills that will make them self-sufficient.
“How could I not do something like that?” she asks. “I have the resources. I have a comfortable life. We’re giving them an opportunity for some education, a chance to build self-esteem. They’ve never had anyone tell them they were important.”
Pfeiffer’s attitude is typical of those volunteering with the Delaware-based organization, created after the massive earthquake that killed an estimated 316,000 Haitians, injured another 300,000, and left about 1 million people homeless.
This summer, HFI will run a five-week camp that provides about a hundred children with a nutritious meal each day, along with an array of educational, recreational and arts and crafts activities. Women will be offered various educational, wellness, and esteem-building programs. HFI ran a similar camp in Jacmel for seven weeks in the summer of 2010 and for three weeks last summer. The city is about 40 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital.
Haitia Family Initiative was founded by Lynn Shapira of Arden and Carole Downs of Wilmington in 2010. They wanted to expand on the help offered by the Delaware Medical Relief Team, which brought primary care medical services to Jacmel the summer after the quake.
While many relief organizations tend to lose support as the disaster in question fades from memory, HFI is strengthening its foundation and broadening its reach for volunteers, Lynn Shapira said.
It has applied to the IRS for non-profit status, she said, and a decision is expected within 90 days. Thanks to listings on the Internet, Downs added, the Delaware-based organization has attracted volunteers from New York, Texas, California and Washington.
This year’s camp runs from July 7 through Aug. 11. “The first two weeks are full, with more than 20 volunteers each week,” Shapira said, “and the other weeks are filling steadily.”
Nonetheless, the group is looking for more volunteers and supplies.
Her husband, Dr. Nadiv Shapira, a thoracic surgeon with Christiana Care Health System, said he needs eight to 10 doctors and other health-care professionals per week to staff the medical clinic that will operate in conjunction with the camp.
Christiana Care continues to support the program by letting employees participate in HFI’s relief efforts, with pay, for up to two weeks.
This year, Pennsylvania Hospital, part of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, is also helping out. It will pay expenses to send 10 of its staff members to Jacmel for a week.
That donation — worth about $10,000, Shapira said — came about after Melissa Miller of Glenolden, Pa., a social worker at the hospital, heard about the HFI program from Pfeiffer, one of her friends, and decided to volunteer.
“I mentioned it to my supervisor, just to make sure I could take the week off, and she said, ‘you know, Penn likes to sponsor things like this,’” Miller said. “It just rolled from there.”
More than 10 hospital staff members are likely to volunteer, Miller said, so there may be a lottery to determine who makes the trip. “The big thing is that everybody gets an opportunity to go. It’s a kids’ camp, it’s a clinic, it has the women’s program, so people with just about any background can help,” she said.
The children’s camp, for youngsters ages 5 to 13, runs each morning, with volunteers supervising music and dancing, board games, arts and crafts, and sports like volleyball, soccer and baseball, along with walks to the nearby beach, Shapira said. Around noon, the children receive a hot lunch. Then they typically go home to nap and get out from the torrid afternoon sun, she said.
“In the first year, the hot lunch was the only meal many of them had all day,” Shapira said. “Last year, we noticed some improvement. There were not as many starving children.”
While the children are napping, the focus in the afternoon shifts to the women of Jacmel. “The women have never been educated,” Pfeiffer said. “We try to empower them, show them how to take better care of themselves.”
Each year, the program changes slightly to meet community needs, Pfeiffer said.
In the first year, right after the earthquake, the emphasis was on one-on-one trauma counseling, discussions about grief and post-traumatic stress, death and dying, anxiety and depression.
Last year, she said, post-traumatic stress was still an issue, but discussion topics expanded to include significant local health issues, including tuberculosis, malaria and cholera, as well as the female reproductive system.
Because jobs are scarce in Haiti, especially for women, the program includes talks on building self-esteem and instruction in skills like sewing, so the women have a better opportunity to develop a sustainable lifestyle, Pfeiffer said.
Team-building exercises and group projects also help the women learn to rely on each other, Downs said.
Many Haitian women lack knowledge of things most Americans take for granted, said Pfeiffer. “They don’t know what is normal [about their health] and what is not. If they are told they have high blood pressure, they don’t know what it means. If they are not seeing well, they think that’s just the way it is.”
“It’s rewarding to see these women begin to understand what we perceive to be the most basic things,” she said. “They really soak it up.”
To bridge the language gap, the program relies on a group of Haitian translators, college-age men and women who have learned some English while attending the Haitian equivalent of high school, Shapira said. Working as camp counselors, the translators will receive $15 a day, a boost from the $10 a day HFI paid in 2010 and 2011, she said.
“For some of these young adults, this is the only job they can get all year,” she said.
First-time volunteer Miller is looking forward to her experience in Jacmel this summer.
“I like the idea of letting kid be kids for a day, for a week, taking them out of their element. And letting the women come, and laugh, and do art projects and not be 100 percent focused on the grief that’s all around them,” she said. “I want to be part of something like that, something so simple that can really make a difference.”