World Vision: Haiti like a patient who needs to be stabilized

Friday is the one-month anniversary of the earthquake which devastated Haiti and opened the floodgates to an outpouring of international aid and compassion.

Relief organizations of all stripes have emphasized that the road to any meaningful recovery for the already deeply impoverished nation will take years and that keeping donors and the general public engaged over the long haul will prove challenging.

Those sentiments were echoed by Laura Blank, a Boston-based disaster communications specialist for World Vision. Blank was dispatched to Haiti the day after the quake hit and returned earlier this week.

Her overall assessment of the situation in Haiti took on a medical twist.

“The priority is still to help stabilize the communities affected by this disaster,” Blank said.”One helpful analogy is this: You can’t do surgery to fix the underlying problem until the patient has been stabilized. Similarly, World Vision’s first priority is to make sure that the communities we are working with are receiving enough of the basic items for survival first.

“Our job right now is to help stabilize the displaced population so they’re not at a point of desperation. Then, once that has been accomplished, we can come alongside them to begin working on more big-picture issues to help Port-au-Prince recover and rebuild.”

From a Christian perspective that means relying on more than the still important financial contributions over the coming years.

She said, “Anytime there is a need, we know that Scripture calls on us as Christians to provide comfort to our neighbors (Matthew 25:36, James 1:27). We often think that if we don’t have any means to give financially, there is no way we can help those in need, but it’s important to think creatively about the time, talents, and treasures that the Lord has given each of us to serve our neighbors. In fact, World Vision has declared the month of February as a month of prayer for Haiti’s children, dedicating specific prayer requests for each day of the week. … Right now, nearly a month after the quake, we have seen a sort of ‘compassion resilience’ from Americans who have been generously giving to the relief efforts, despite a crippling recession and high unemployment rates.

“Rebuilding Haiti will take years, not months. For our aid workers on the front lines, compassion fatigue is not an option, and World Vision is asking its donors and the public to stand with us for the long run as well.”

Security is also a factor in that equation, which particularly dicey in the immediate aftermath of the quake.

“In the initial days following the disaster, people were desperate to find loved ones and try to find food and water for their families,” Blank said. “Understandably, this created some tension as people were going about the business of trying to rebuild their lives in the midst of a country and a government that had been almost completely destroyed.

“World Vision’s distributions proceeded without any major incidents, but we continue to assess the security situation on a daily basis to make sure that both our staff who are working on the frontlines and the families we are serving will be safe and out of harm’s way as we distribute relief goods.”

Much of the recent news out of Haiti has focused on 10 missionaries from Central Valley Baptist Church in Idaho and their arrest for attempting to take a busload of children across the border into the Dominican Republic. Blank said it is impossible to determine how many children have been orphaned by the quake and that it will remain so even after corpses are cleared from the rubble.

“Even before the earthquake, Haitian children were vulnerable,” she said. “Despite improvements, Haiti still had the worst child health and education indicators in the Western Hemisphere, and many children were already exploited as child laborers and restaveks — child slaves.

“World Vision’s child protection specialists are actively working with UNICEF and other child-focused organizations on the ground to being the reunification process. In addition, World Vision is working to set up child-friendly spaces in the camps where we are operating. While these spaces provide a safe space for children, they also give parents a place to take their children where they know they will be well-cared for while they begin the process of rebuilding their lives.”

The ability of children to have any sense of what most Americans would consider ordinary childhood experiences – going to school, playing with friends, having outside interest in sports or other activities – has been turned on its head, and establishing some sense of normalcy will be critical to Haiti’s future growth.

“I was in the camps almost every day of my deployment, and it was difficult to see children and their families living in such crowded, dirty conditions,” Blank said. “Neighbors and strangers were packed tightly together with little more than a thin blanket separating each family. Medical care was often unheard of, and I even saw some people treating themselves or others with whatever dirty bandages or clothing they could find to help cover their wounds. Food and water were unpredictable, and the sanitary conditions were terrible.

“As we would drive through the city, the smell from the camps would fill the car; it was a pungent, strong smell, indescribable, but one can only imagine that it was a combination of the unsanitary conditions and the decaying bodies still buried beneath the rubble. The children were also left with little to do as schools were damaged or completely destroyed. Many of them were eager for the opportunity to be children again – to play with their friends, to have a toy, to listen to music. World Vision is working to train up community volunteers to help run our child-friendly spaces in these camps, giving children a safe space to be children again.”

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