MANATEE -- In the year since the 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, Manatee County residents have opened their hearts and their wallets to help.
Local schoolchildren, physicians, church missions, volunteers and relief agencies were moved in extraordinary ways to lend a hand.
But the vast scale of damage has made recovery slow.
“When I went back the last time, I hoped things would be a little better -- everybody was still without food, water, and there was more garbage,” said Dr. M. Claudia Mallarino, a Lakewood Ranch physician, who with her physician husband launched a nonprofit to operate a medical clinic in one of the poorest sections of Port-au-Prince.
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“I thought: What am I doing here?” she said. “I guess if you can change the pain, even for a little bit, feed the kids twice a week, it makes some sense.
“We see people that are alive because we were there at the right time; you have to accent the positive because it’s difficult emotionally to see so much misery -- it’s really hell there.”
Others who have been helping include teams of local residents assisting Hope Outreach International Inc., an Oneco-based non-profit that provides medical help and develops clean sources of water in the shattered capital and other parts of the Caribbean nation.
Then there’s Ken Sommers, a Lakewood Ranch teacher and coach, who raised $35,000 for another aid group that is rebuilding an orphanage. Sommers, who teaches history and coaches at The Out-of-Door Academy, is also helping with a program in a tiny fishing village that combines soccer and community improvement projects.
Bradenton graduate student Beverly Hill spent weeks as a volunteer in Port-au-Prince, supervising delivery of more than 28,000 ShelterBoxes containing tents and life-sustaining relief supplies that helped more than 250,000 Haitians.
The local Red Cross collected $1.5 million for Haitian relief from Manatee and Sarasota counties.
And SOLVE’s maternity home in Bradenton provided a refuge for months to two Haitian women and a baby with nowhere else to go.
Mission trips continue
Dr. Werther Marciales, of Bradenton, went to a rural community under the auspices of Hope Outreach International.
During his visit shortly after the Jan. 12 quake, he was part of a three-person team serving the community of Lamothe, north of the capital.
During his trip, Marciales treated patients and helped develop a clean water system designed to prevent the spread of cholera, a serious bacterial infection that spreads through contaminated food or water.
“It’s extremely important because the village we were attending had no access to clean water,” said Marciales. “The people were not treating the water, they were getting it from a ravine, using it for cooking, drinking etc. We taught people how to treat the water.
“I’m going again now in January to open a long-term clinic outside Port-au-Prince,” Marciales said, adding that it takes $60,000 to operate the clinic for a year.
Julio Volcy, founder of Hope Outreach International, has made 11 trips to his native land since the earthquake.
“We did a clinic and built two water reservoirs providing water for 10,000 people,” said Volcy, who is also senior pastor at Bradenton’s Hope Community Church, 4200 32nd St. W., which serves primarily a Haitian congregation.
“It took six months to do in Port-au-Prince,” he said.
The organization also provides schooling and training to young people to develop future leaders for Haiti.
In Lamothe, the group established a community center and helped restore electricity to the area, he said.
Volcy, who grew up in Haiti and emigrated to the United States in 1999, is now a U.S. citizen. His trips to his native land remind him how much needs to be done.
“It’s horrible, it’s horrible,” he said. “No human was supposed to be in that condition -- 97 percent of the people are still in the street, the debris is still there, there’s no construction at all. The government buildings are on the ground, collapsed.”
In additional to fatalities and injuries suffered directly from the quake, almost 4,000 have lost their lives to cholera; the presidential election is still in doubt; and the Haitian government is unwilling to do anything, he said.
Among the dozens of countries Volcy has visited, including very poor ones, Haiti’s the worst, he said.
Volunteers see progress
USF graduate student Beverly Hill, 40, made four trips between April and August, as a volunteer for ShelterBox USA, the Lakewood Ranch-based relief organization.
She escorted the ShelterBoxes, which contained tents and survival items, through customs and delivered them to the most vulnerable quake victims.
She described a place cursed with rampant homelessness and no jobs, people forced to camp in the streets,and mountains of debris delaying the rebuilding process.
The destruction was so severe, not much in the way of visible progress could happen overnight, said Hill.
Still, there were signs of progress.
“Areas of Port-au-Prince had come back,” said Hill. “You did see people in their own communities helping each other out.”
Some street camps did better than others, with latrine systems, laundry facilities and medical centers.
“There were even people enjoying recreational activities together, whereas many still lacked basic needs,” Hill said.
She met a tailor who was using an old sewing machine to make clothes under a tent, while a group of women living on the street set up a kitchen and were feeding people, said Hill.
“It’s important just to not forget what these people have been through, remember they are human beings caught in a social and political turmoil,” said Hill. “Really, one thing stood out to me was just how happy people were, they always smiled, and were so thankful for the things they were being provided.”
Families helped here
In addition to collecting donations, the local Red Cross also helped 37 families on short-term visas in the U.S. get medical attention and to recover financially, said Bobbi Larson, chief executive officer of the American Red Cross, Manatee County chapter.
Most were lucky to have immediate family in the area with whom they could stay, and their medical needs were not life-threatening -- but could have become so if no treatment were provided, she said.
The Red Cross referred many to Manatee County Rural Health Services, and helped to pay for medical care.
Zaph Manigat, president of the student government association at State College of Florida’s Venice campus, has been working with a multicultural nurses organization and the Charlotte County Medical Society, in hopes of establishing an orphanage or clinic in Haiti. The 20-year-old’s family hails from Haiti but is now living in the U.S.
Manigat, who is in his final semester at SCF, had heard that many Haitians had fled to rural areas after waiting so long for relief.
“I can only imagine millions just waiting for a relief effort that can be frustrating in itself,” Manigat said.
Former Peace Corpsman Ken Sommers, ODA coach and teacher, raised money to help rebuild an orphanage in Jacmel, a port town south of the capital.
“I loved what I saw,” said Sommers. “They are a great organization, great kids, despite having lost one of their three homes in the quake.”
Sommers also helped with a community development program called Global Outreach And Love of Soccer (GOALS), based in Léogâne.
The program employs sports as an incentive to spur community and environmental redevelopment.
In addition to education and environmental and community development, the program also provided one meal for the kids, just bland rice and bean soup.
But it spurred positive changes in a village he had visited, Sommers said.
“We ate together after playing soccer, so it was a great bonding experience,” he said. “I was told for most kids, it was the only meal they had that day.”
While years of recovery lie ahead, the help from Manatee County residents and others is making a difference.
“We don’t see any sign of hope, except for what we put there ourselves,” Volcy said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 745-7031.