Haiti’s Got a Piece of My Heart

I can’t read or see anything about Haiti, and especially about the earthquake that shook the poorest country in the Western hemisphere on January 12, 2010, without tearing up and feeling a heavy tug in my heart. But I’ve never even set foot there, I’ve never witnessed the earthquake’s destruction in person, and I certainly don’t speak a word of Creole.

To understand why Haiti pulls at my heartstrings so much, all I really have to say is that I almost lost my only sister Rachel to that earthquake. But that’s only a tiny part of the story. The real story is not so much about my sister narrowly escaping the earthquake’s destruction that took the life of her friend Molly Hightower, a hospital volunteer halfway through a year-long stay there, who she was visiting on her winter break. The real story is how my little sister became my hero, by taking a tragic and traumatic experience and the loss of a dear friend and turning it into a personal mission to do as much good as she can for Haitian people that touched her heart and literally rescued her from the rubble.

My sister, Rachel, in Haiti with an abandoned baby.

To say the least, Haiti was a mess before the earthquake reduced much of its capital city, Port-au-Prince, to rubble. Upheaval and political turmoil have long been a big part of Haiti’s struggle, and the majority of the population there lives in poverty. Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and was not prepared at all for such a disaster. The earthquake crumbled what little infrastructure they had and threw the country into a state of chaos and desperation that they will be struggling to overcome for some time. Sadly, very little of the aid money poured out by the world shortly after the earthquake actually went to helping the Haitian people. The earthquake destroyed countless homes, shattered families, and reduced much of the city and surrounding area to rubble. I can’t even imagine the devastation my sister must have witnessed as she was taken from the 7-story building she was in that pancaked to the hospital and then to the US embassy in a pickup by a group of Haitian men who brought her to safety before even checking on their own families.

When Rachel first visited in 2010, she was in a Physical Therapy program at University of Puget Sound. The earthquake shook her foundation and made her question whether she could even go back to school. But she did, and in May 2012 she graduated with her doctorate degree, and has returned to Haiti every year since the earthquake to help at the hospital and orphanage where Molly worked, cuddling orphaned babies, bringing toys to the children (and sponsoring one herself), and training PTs in Haiti.

Not only has she returned to Haiti to help the organization her friend worked for to continue Molly’s legacy, she has also given speeches and interviews about her experience, raised awareness and funds to help the earthquake relief effort, and redirected her entire life to focus on helping Haiti. She also founded and chairs the NPH USA Northwest Associate Board to raise funds and awareness for the organization Molly worked for in Haiti. Additionally, Rachel founded a scholarship at her alma mater in Molly’s honor to provide a college education to a Haitian student who grew up at NPH. The student who was awarded the first scholarship to University of Portland, Jean Francois, grew up at the NPH orphanage and is now working on his degree. He has become a member of our family and spent the holidays with us last year, where he got to experience skiing for the first time.

Through her work on the NW Associate Board of NPH, she has organized fundraisers, including one in Molly’s honor called Music for Molly, shortly after the earthquake. NPH runs a number of homes and hospitals in poor countries throughout Central and South America, and Rachel’s board has planned and organized several events in the Northwest benefitting NPH. I’ve had the privilege of working with her to create flyers, logos, and event promotion materials for several of them, and though these are but small contributions to the cause, it is nice to be able to use my design skills for such a noble purpose. Last fall, Rachel put together a stroke manual in Creole to help families and caretakers care for stroke patients and aid their recovery. It was the first thing I have ever designed in Creole, so that was a challenge, but I hope that our simple booklet helps Haitian stroke patients and their families. On her most recent visit, which is just now wrapping up, she led a tour group of NPH supporters, including my parents, around the facilities at NPH. Now that my parents have been to Haiti, I guess next it’s my turn!

Music for Molly Poster

Haiti will never be the same, but with the dedication and hard work of people like Rachel and organizations like NPH, there is hope. Aid organizations may have long forgotten about Haiti and squandered the money meant for rebuilding, but the hearts and souls of the Haitian people are obviously strong and resilient. And though I haven’t been there yet, Haiti will always have a piece of my heart.

Ever since the earthquake I have tried to think of a way I could help Haiti. I have no medical training like my sister, and I’m not sure if I could even handle seeing the pain and desolation caused by the earthquake, poverty, and turmoil I’d see there. But if I have even a tiny fraction of the strength and compassion my sister has, I am sure I could help somehow. Recently I have begun dreaming up an idea, a way to use my passions and talents to help make life a little easier for the people of Haiti. It may not seem like much — I have no cure for cholera, nor do I know how to build houses or even speak the language — but sometime I would like to bring the joy of flow arts to Haiti. There isn’t much in this world that makes me happier than hooping, and play is a universal language — so someday I hope to raise enough money to build and take hoops, poi, staves, and other flow props to the orphans of Haiti and teach them how to spin. I am not a teacher, or even that great of a spinner, so teaching flow arts would be something I’d have to practice and learn. It would surely take some time to gather up the funding and supplies to build hundreds of props, round up donated props from the spinning community, and maybe even recruit some spinners to join me in this mission (I know James is on board at least!). But, inspired by organizations like Spark Circus and Performers Without Borders, who bring the joy and fun of flow arts to disadvantaged communities around the world, and of course with the inspiration and help of my amazing sister, I’m sure that we can make it happen. I look forward to seeing a sea of smiles and colorful spinning toys arising out of the rubble of Haiti, and I will surely keep you all posted as I start planning to make this journey happen.

In the meantime, I urge anyone touched by this story to visit Rachel’s blog and learn more about Haiti and her work there. If you are moved and able to help, you can donate here.