My Experiences in Haiti

By Professor Lori Weeden

If you were to look at a map of Haiti, you would immediately notice that most of the cities and towns are located along the coast. This reality is why much of the 10 million plus population of Haiti is threatened by sea level rise resulting from climate change. Of course, sea level rise is not the only threat to Haiti posed by climate change. The island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic is relatively mountainous. Haiti occupies the western side of the island, or the lee side of the mountain range. This means that the country receives roughly 20% less rain than its eastern neighbor. As Haitians have little consistent electricity, this problem has been compounded by the clearcutting of slopes for wood fuel. These bare slopes are far more prone to landslides. During the week of January 16th, Professor Lori Weeden explained basic geoscience to students of l’ecole de Sainte Marie des Anges in Les Cayes, Haiti. Her workshop included basic rocks and minerals, earthquakes and landslides and the properties of sand. This is her story.

Team Photo

I came to Haiti to teach a geosciences workshop to a group of roughly 200 elementary students. How I got there is a long story.

Dr. Robert Giles approached me a few years ago when we were both participating in a weeklong UML-Middlesex Community College bridge workshop. Dr. Giles was leading the electronics workshop and I was leading the environmental geosciences workshop. He told me I should come to Haiti and teach my workshop to local students who rarely have such opportunities. He appealed to my heartstrings and moral sense of obligation. Thus began my commitment to this adventure.

The Haiti Development Studies Center (HDSC) is a nonprofit located in Les Cayes, Haiti, one of the most impoverished parts of the western hemisphere. It was established to serve as a bridge for UML student ingenuity to reach Haitian needs. These innovations have included water purification, solar panel installation and other engineering marvels. The teaching outreach began in 2015 when Dr. Silas Laycock taught an astronomy workshop at the St. Marie Des Anges Elementary in Les Cayes. Each time I would run into Dr. Giles in the hallways of Olney, I would feel anxious. I am not one to back out of a commitment, but what took me so long to finally get here was the financial cost. As a person in academia, I assumed there were plentiful grants to support my trip and necessary supplies. I was mistaken. Every grant dollar that is allocated to the center is used to keep it open and support the people operating it. I was on my own.

Damage from Hurricane Matthew

The financial obligation was a huge setback and probably should have signaled my removal from the project. Then I would run into Dr. Giles and get that nagging sense that this was something I had to do. I needed to get creative. I began collecting supplies. When a neighbor mentioned a friend had rock and mineral samples from Milton Academy and was offering them for free, I took advantage and filled my trunk full. I coerced my Chair, Dr. Nelson Eby, to help with supplies. He donated microscopes and bags of materials that unfortunately were lost after they were shipped to Haiti. I was back to square one. I still have enough rocks and minerals to piece together an exercise, but not enough for a three day workshop. I knew I wanted to cover earthquakes, but didn’t want to scare any of the children. I could always talk about sand. It was something most Haitian are familiar with and is one of my favorite subjects. I began to write up the worksheets.

In March of 2016 I was promoted to Senior Lecturer. This was at least a year after I told Dr. Giles I would help him in Haiti. With the stress of promotion over, I needed to get to work on this project in earnest. I sought out a student to come with me. I would not ask the student to pay, but he or she needed to realize that this was not going to be a vacation. I needed help and it would be an experience he or she would not soon forget. Emma, a student volunteer, stepped forward. She was willing to take on the challenge and would hopefully be able to help me find funding. 

Funding turned out to be a nightmare. I am not independently wealthy, so I could not fund the trip myself. I just didn’t have the money, period. I approached the local rotary club. They were polite, but not helpful. I tried funding from several foundations and either it wasn’t in line with their organization’s goals or it didn’t meet their minimum. (I was asking for $4,000. Most foundations have minimums in the tens of thousands and I could not justify that amount. I did not want to obligate myself to additional trips, nor did I have the time to reach out to other faculty to join me in this endeavor.) Dean Mark Hines graciously donated the airfare. I was grateful, but felt even more pressure to make this happen. I continued to put together my worksheets and supplies. I applied for the Chancellor’s 2020 grant, but with Dr. Giles and Emma’s father on the board that decides the receivership of the grant, the conflict of interest made me ineligible. Finally, in October when I realized there was no hope that I would receive financial assistance, I turned to crowdfunding.

I do not think it is possible to explain how much I hated the idea of crowdfunding. The idea that I would be asking my friends and family to bail me out of this mess I got myself into was humiliating and embarrassing, but I felt I had no choice. My husband was upset that I got myself into this situation and I cannot blame him. I didn’t ask my family to take this on, and I would also be putting myself at risk by coming to Haiti.

The response to my GoFundMe account was immediate and humbling. Although I didn’t reach my goal of $2500—down from $4,000 once airfare was covered by the Dean’s office, but I was close. Former students, colleagues, friends, neighbors and family all chipped in. It was truly amazing. I was able to purchase all the remaining supplies, pay for our immunizations and pool together the necessary funds for ground transportation and room and board. Steve Tello was gracious enough to make a donation directly to the center through the UML fund. We were all set, then the news from Haiti got scary.

On January 11, Reuters reported that Haitians in Port au Prince and the Grand Anse region were targeting Americans. It was in response to the arrest of Guy Phillip by American authorities and extraditing him to the US on drug related charges. I immediately contacted Dr. Giles and the head of the center Connie Barna. They assured me that Les Cayes was still safe. Regardless, it was enough to scare away my student from joining me in Haiti. Of course, I was still obligated, but increasingly worried. I did feel a sense of relief that I wouldn’t be responsible for a student in such potentially dangerous conditions. The problem was I was without an assistant and the cost increased for each person still on the trip, as the ground transportation cost was split by the number in the group.

Laura Magee, a UML biology student in the honors college, was going to Haiti on this trip with the hope of observing my teaching one day, and observing an orphanage on the other days. It didn’t quite work out the way she planned, as she became my partner in my teaching workshop, taking over for Emma. She proved to be an excellent teacher and assistant. She had never had a geology course, but took copious notes on the class materials and jumped in to teach over 100 students with the help of an interpreter. Although her trip didn’t turn out the way she thought it might, she has been an enthusiastic leader. Laura in the classroom

Our Haitian interpreters are long-distance UML students who live either at or nearby the center. Sattoya Pierre-Louis, Dayana Alabre and Ralph Douyon have been truly amazing. Dayana had a geology course in high school and was working with Laura. Sattoya and Ralph split the responsibility of working with me. They were great. They helped maintain order, interpret and setup the materials. There is absolutely no way I could have done this without them. If the center did nothing else, but support these wonderful young people, it would be justified.

We were met with hugs from the Center staff upon arrival. We were shown to our rooms and given a nice pasta meal. We went to sleep early and started Monday morning refreshed. After breakfast, all of the students, the director of the Center, Connie Barna, Dr. Cecil Joseph, Dr. Giles and I met to discuss the week’s activities. Tuesday, the engineering team (Michael Stockwell, Maureen Kelly and Nicole Belanger) would head to a trade school to discuss design plans for a yard waste shredder. Dr. Giles, Dr. Joseph and Ralph would accompany them. Wednesday, the same team would discuss the biodigester with the director of an orphanage. Thursday would be another work day, Friday would be an opportunity to visit a local retirement home, see the central market and possibly visit another orphanage. On Saturday, we would visit a beach hit hard by Hurricane Matthew. Dayana and Sattoya would be working with Laura and me at the school.

On Monday afternoon, the four of us went to the St. Marie Anges Elementary school to meet the headmaster, Father Leslie. Gregarious comes to mind when I think of Father Leslie. He was very welcoming and grateful to have us at his school. I think he would have kept us all day and have us meet with 1000 students, instead of the 200 or so that we did. As wonderful as it would have been to do that, I don’t think I would have been very effective, nor did we bring enough classroom supplies. The rest of Monday was spent in leisure, reading, and working on proposals.

Tuesday morning, we headed to the school after a full breakfast. It was hot, and the importance of drinking copious water could not be overstated. The first group of students consisted of 8- and 9-year-olds. They were not unlike American students of that age in that they were excited to learn, loud and easily distracted. My lesson plan morphed to fit the audience and the session went very well. There were roughly 45 students in those first classes, and the first break was very necessary. Laura seemed a bit overwhelmed at first, but when we went to the second classrooms an hour later, she found her stride. After the second group of students (9- and 10-year-olds) we headed back to the center for lunch. The final group of students was older still at 11 and 12 years of age. They were also enthusiastic and asked excellent questions.

Wednesday’s lecture was about earthquakes. Initially, I was hesitant to cover this subject, but felt I could not go to a region so greatly affected by the phenomenon and not discuss it with the students. It hit home too. Dayana lost a brother in the 2010 quake that killed so many in Port au Prince. I intended to stick to the science of what causes an earthquake and how seismic waves vary. I used a good ole slinky to demonstrate seismic wave motion and even threw in information about tsunamis and landslides. The children got to make their own, very crude, seismometers and each class asked important questions. My heart broke a little when a little girl in the third class asked what they can do to protect themselves. I gave them the standard answers of if you’re inside, get under a table or desk and hang on. If you’re outside get to somewhere wide open, like the school’s courtyard. I hope I didn’t give them a false sense of security.

The final day at the school we discussed the many varieties of sand, and used samples from four different locations to solve a crime. This idea came from a lab exercise that Nelson Eby developed for the Forensic Geology course we offer at UML. The exercise was fun and the students were engaged. Many students brought me rocks to identify and even a few to take home. One student gave me a bible studies book, another read me a letter of thanks and the last class sang me a thank you song. The song got to me, and I started to cry. It was a little embarrassing. Classroom Lori

After the last class, Father Leslie invited our entire group including Sattoya, Ralph, Dayana and the Center resident director, Connie Barna, to what could only be called a feast. The food was amazing and I ate way too much. My French speaking skills were enough so that I could understand about a quarter of what was said. In one rather stressful moment, Father Leslie asked what I thought of his country. I told him I love rocks, sometimes more than people. The geology of his country is beautiful, but the environmental issues are so extreme, it is going to take exceptional leadership and love of one’s country to fix them. I went on to tell him that it all starts with the children, and his school is the kind of institution that could nurture just that kind of leader by being open minded enough to bring in outside scientists that teach different material and use a very different teaching methodology. I only hope that Dr. Giles will be able to bring more science workshops to his school for as long as he is willing to have us. He seemed to like my answer. I would hate to be a diplomat. It’s just too stressful!

Friday, we visited a local retirement home and toured some of Les Cayes. We visited town markets, but did not get out of the car until we were in a less crowded market that was familiar to Connie. We all bought coffee for home. We saw areas hit by Hurricane Matthew and other regions along the coast that employed tons of trash to combat erosion. Lastly we visited a local beach that was fairly polluted. Ever the geologist, I took the opportunity to collect some sand.

Saturday meant it was time for our beach day. We traveled, in a pickup truck –students inside and faculty in the bed of the truck—to Port Salute, approximately ninety minutes from Les Cayes. When we arrived, it became obvious that things had been greatly affected by the hurricane. Buildings were all but erased from the area. Roads were in disrepair and the local people desperate. The beach was beautiful, with carbonate sand and clear turquoise water. Signs of rebuilding were evident, but conditions for this resort area were harsh. We stayed for a few hours to the delight of both the students and the locals. One of the servers (we felt compelled to order soda at the very least) said we were some of the only people that have been to the beach since the hurricane back in September. Many people felt the beach was now cursed.

I purposely have not asked Dr. Giles to explain the mission of the center. I thought I might try to evaluate its purpose by my observations. The center provides an opportunity for entrepreneurial UML students to tackle environmental, humanitarian, and technical challenges in a region unlike any they have ever seen. Their ingenuities are not just ideas for a science fair, they are designed to change the lives of a very desperate population. In my time here, I’ve seen Michael work with his shredder design to figure out how to bring affordable, efficient cooking fuel to the Haitians. This real-world setting provides invaluable teaching moments with regard to innovation. Maureen and Nicole have brought their idea of a biodigester to a local orphanage, only to discover that their needs are more immediate. The biodigester is excellent technology, but they need an efficient septic system. This showed them the importance of adaptation and recognition of future opportunities, as well as the immediate needs of an impoverished people. This experience could not happen in the United States where we are safe. In Haiti, they live day-to-day without any thought of a life free of the continuous struggle for survival. The UML students see the need and understand the seriousness of the situation only when they experience it for themselves.

For students to experience Haiti, they need somewhere safe to stay, known local people to interact with, and an in-residence staff that understands the local conditions. Haiti is not an English speaking country, nor is it the same French that we learn in the United States. In Haiti they speak Kreyol. You must have interpreters when working in Haiti. Having Haitian students, who can act as interpreters as well as interact and relate to our UML students seems the perfect partnership. These Haitian students are so essential to the success of the Center that providing them with a college education as part of their compensation seems incredibly logical, as UML is an institution of higher learning. Once you meet these exceptional Haitian students, you realize you want to give them the same opportunities for an education that we enjoy, not because they work for the center, but because they deserve it. 

When I was asked by the director of the Center if I would be returning to Haiti any time soon, I responded “no.” I went on to explain that I hope to help the people of Haiti by tackling climate change. The problems that Haiti faces today will be much greater, if we continue to ignore the problem of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. My job is to work on educating the public on the importance of reducing our carbon emissions. If we do so, then perhaps sea level rise, stronger hurricanes, landslides and extreme weather will not affect the country as that which is expected with the ‘business as usual’ approach to greenhouse gas emissions.