Aug. 16, 2010
NOTRE DAME, Ind. -
Today's 24-hour news cycle can be unforgiving. American media sources rush to the scenes of natural disasters and conflicts to break a story, only to relegate the ongoing struggles to the back pages when a more sensational scandal emerges.
While the coverage of the rebuilding effort in Haiti is no longer at the forefront of the minds of the American public, the need for international assistance is still significant after a massive earthquake destroyed much of the island nation in January 2010. But as those who cover and observe Haiti still assert, the resiliency and inner fortitude of the Haitian people make their future all the more promising.
It is also an observation to which former Notre Dame lacrosse teammates Chris Parent ('93) and Rob Williamson ('93) can attest to after spending a week in Haiti this past July. Although much of the country's infrastructure has been reduced to rubble and most of its citizens are living in tent camps, Parent and Williamson found that, in large part, the overall spirit of the Haitians has not been broken and many citizens continue to remain positive despite the country's bleak outlook and current state of affairs.
Building A Foundation For Recovery
The trip was precipitated by Parent's prior involvement with Forward Edge, an organization based in Vancouver, Wash., which mobilizes teams of volunteers from across North America to provide disaster relief in countries around the world.
After Parent and his wife worked on a Forward Edge team in Nicaragua in 2009, the Denver, Colo., native planned on returning to the Latin American country with his long-time friend Williamson.
That was before the earthquake struck in Haiti.
"I was watching the coverage from Port-au-Prince and the reporters and citizens were pleading for assistance," Parent said. "I was moved by the sights of the devastation and inspired to do something. I called Rob and said, `Change of plans. We're going to Haiti.'"
After receiving confirmation that Forward Edge was organizing trips to Haiti, Parent signed up his wife, Melissa (J.D. '00), Williamson, and Williamson's son, Colton, a high school student in Williamson's hometown of North Attleboro, Mass. The four joined a 12-member team consisting of individuals from throughout the United States that set off for Haiti in the scorching heat of mid-July. The team was assigned to work for the next week in Jacmel, a coastal city of about 40,000 residents approximately two hours southwest of Port-au-Prince.
Once the group arrived in Haiti, it was apparent that the relief effort was moving slowly and little progress had been made since the earthquake. According to Parent and Williamson, garbage and rubble still lined the streets as much of the city's infrastructure and basic services were non-existent.
"We knew the country was in a poor state even before the earthquake so we did not have high expectations," Williamson said. "But I think the real disappointment was that it didn't seem like much of the aid and many basic essentials had reached the people yet."
A functioning medical center in one of Jacmel's outlying communities was one such essential need that Forward Edge had identified early on during their scouting missions. Accordingly, it became one of the focuses - along with running a daily food distribution program - of the team. Armed with building materials and medical supplies, Rob and Colton Williamson spent most of the first two days finishing the center's construction and building shelves to hold the medical supplies that had been donated by outside sources.
What struck Williamson was the eagerness of the Jacmel residents to assist in the facility's construction.
"Colton and I started out building cabinets and an exam table. We had a lot of spectators that first morning. By the end of the week, the [Jacmel] boys were taking the hammers and the nails from us and doing the projects on their own," Williamson said. "Seeing how proud they were of the work they were doing, the bonds that formed among them, it made a lasting impression on me."
When Parent arrived to open the center in the waking hours of Wednesday morning, he estimates that there was already a line of approximately 80-100 people waiting for treatment.
"It wasn't chaos though," Parent said. "By the time Melissa and I got started, it was touching to see how they ushered the older women, young children and babies to the front of the line."
To streamline operations of the new medical clinic, Parent utilized his basic French skills to check patients in, organize permanent records, and document previous visits. From there, patients were sent to the next room where Melissa Parent took blood pressure, checked vital signs and performed basic medical tests. Then, an army medic - along with Haitian nurses who were learning best practices from an American doctor - was stationed to diagnose the patients and provide immediate treatment as needed.
"Most of the ailments stemmed from a lack of clean water supply - dehydration and disease - an issue that could be addressed if Haiti had a more stable government and economy," Parent said.
With Forward Edge providing these services in addition to a bevy of medical supplies, the community now has an established infirmary that will function long after the volunteers have gone.
The Youth of Jacmel
Resilient is a word both Parent and Williamson used when discussing the people they encountered in Haiti. The determination of the young people was especially evident to the duo upon their arrival in Jacmel.
One teenager made a deep impression on the Parents. While surveying the queue in front of the medical center, Chris Parent came across Larry Jean Eglantin, a student who was taking a break from his classes to visit the center. Because his grasp of English was sound, Parent enlisted Eglantin's support at the medical facility. Eglantin was fascinated with America and had taught himself English through any resource he could find - books, movies and CDs.
"He's an incredible person," Parent said. "His desire to learn and for self-improvement was inspiring. Here is a young man who has faced enormous adversity everyday of his young life. His father left him when he was a baby and he had relatives die in the earthquake. Yet he still faced each day with a positive attitude. What he lacks are opportunities. Hopefully, we can help to change that - for him and some of his counterparts."
At their farewell dinner, Parent presented Eglantin with a Notre Dame visor and wished him well. After putting it on, Eglantin asked for a favor.
"When you go home," Eglantin said. "Please don't forget me."
"It was a profound request and one that I can definitely heed," Parent noted.
A Family Affair
The fact that Parent and Williamson were accompanied by family members fueled their ambition to serve. For Parent, his wife Melissa has dedicated her life to those less fortunate and was the primary catalyst for the trips to Haiti and Nicaragua.
"She embodies what Notre Dame is all about," said Parent. "She does not approach the situation or deal with the people in a morally superior way. Melissa is very compassionate about her work and understands that these folks - like those in Jacmel - while poor in possessions are blessed with so much and have an enormous amount to offer."
For Williamson, an Army Special Operations Attorney, the chance to spend a week with his son proved an invaluable opportunity to connect.
In reflecting on one of the first days in Jacmel, Williamson recalled, "I was carrying a load of lumber on my shoulder, walking through the rubble of Haiti with my son on our way to help open the medical clinic. It was hard work in a difficult situation, but a very proud moment as a father."
Colton Williamson, who is Parent's godson, left a mark on Chris.
"Having a young man - especially such a mature one - on the mission proved an invaluable asset. It was important for the Haitian youth to see that our future cares about their future. [Colton] could have spent his summer occupying his time with a lot of other things. Instead he spent it serving others. That's special."
Now back in the United States, the Parents and Williamsons are contemplating ways to continue aiding in the relief effort. Melissa is researching ways in which the Notre Dame facility in Leogane, Haiti can combine aid efforts with the Jacmel community, while Colton Williamson plans on pursuing future missions in Haiti and elsewhere. All four are cognizant that Haitians have gone to great lengths to rebuild structures and heal families in crisis, but outside help remains crucial to the successful resurgence of the country.
"It's promising because they want to make a better life for themselves," Williamson said. "It's a massive effort, but the resilience of the people gives you hope."
Former president Bill Clinton has spearheaded American aid efforts in Haiti and recently spoke in Esquire magazine about the dire predicament of the Haitian people, especially their youth.
"People in really poor places don't have predictably good outcomes for good behaviors," Clinton said. "It's a disorienting experience. Poor countries need predictability. In Haiti, we have to build systems."
Parent and Williamson assert that by concentrating on small communities, as Forward Edge does in Jacmel and Notre Dame's relief group does in Leogane, Haiti has a chance to turn the proverbial corner.
But Williamson and Parent concur that the reality is, it is an outside chance, especially if desperation sets in and the gangs that are strengthening in Port-au-Prince gain control of the nation. If that happens, Haiti's future may be bleaker than it has ever been in its desolate history.
With Haiti at such an important crossroads, Parent and Williamson stress now, more than ever, continued assistance is required.
"At the least, we must heed Larry Jean's words and not forget him and his people," Parent said. "It's our obligation to spread the word, especially to those affiliated with Notre Dame, where so many people get fired up to do great things and make a difference."
Williamson feels that Notre Dame and its tradition of service fuel the school's former and current student-athletes to give back to society in a number of ways. For Parent and Williamson, it was no different.
"Notre Dame means so many things - the friends, the academics, the athletics, and Catholic values. But at the heart of Notre Dame is the notion of public service, especially in a Christian context," Williamson said.
To read more about the University of Notre Dame's involvement in Haiti, click here.
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