STIFLING heat, humidity and exhaustion. These are just some of the words used by Sixmilebridge’s Laura Gallagher to describe her experiences of volunteering to help build homes in Haiti. The others – amazing, fantastic and unforgettable.
Laura first travelled to Haiti in 2009, returning to the earthquake-devastated country in 2011. She was one of many Irish volunteers who travelled as part of Build it Week with Haven, the Irish NGO working to provide shelter, water, sanitation and training to vulnerable people in Haiti. A secondary school construction, woodwork and technical graphics teacher, the 29-year-old says she knew little about the country when she first decided to go.
“I had been looking for something interesting and different to do with charities and I heard the Haiti trip being advertised on the radio. I researched it and decided to go. I knew nothing about Haiti at the time, I barely knew where it was but I thought it would be an interesting challenge. It was the first Build It Week trip being organised by the charity Haven Partnership and each volunteer had to raise €4,000. The founder of the charity, Leslie Buckley, had worked in Haiti and experienced the extreme poverty and decided to try and build homes for people, along with training and upskilling,” she says.
She describes her arrival for the first time in Ouanaminthe as “a shock to the system”.
“There were very few houses and mainly a lot of shacks, corrugated sheets to make up a house. We arrived at the site, which was where we were sleeping and working for the week. We slept on beds in a house that was already built for the Haitains with mosquito tents around us and toilet and shower outside.
“When I say house, it’s obviously nothing like the comfort and luxuries we have here. It consisted of two small bedrooms and another room, a porch for cooking as the Haitians like to cook outside. The facilities were pretty good for the volunteers. Food was in a big mess tent and was generally very nice.”
The volunteers worked hard all week from 5.30am to 5pm or 6pm, stopping in the middle of the day when the heat was too much.
“As I am a woodwork teacher, I was set to work with a group of carpenters but there are also many unskilled workers out there also. I spent the week roofing the houses with my group. I spent a lot of the week carrying the rafters to the house, cutting some wood and lifting them up onto the roof.
“I don’t know if I have ever worked so hard in my life. Every day we all worked to our max to try and ensure we met our end-of-week target. The heat and humidity was stifling, hitting around 47oC for most of the week. I spent most of the week covered in sweat, exhausted but determined to give it everything I had.”
While the work was hard, there was still plenty of fun, she says. “There was a fabulous sense of camaraderie and a common goal among us and there was entertainment like a quiz or a Haitian band in the evenings with a few beers. The craic was mighty. Nevertheless, we were all up at the crack of dawn and ready to get started. What really surprised me was if you asked me to get up at 5am at home and work until 5pm or 6pm in that heat I would laugh but over there, no one complained, we just got on with it,” she says.
For safety reasons, the volunteers are not allowed to leave the site unless they have security. Laura left the site twice, once to visit an orphanage which she described as “heartbreaking”, and the other to meet with the beneficiaries of the houses they were building.
She describes the conditions these people were living in as “appalling”.
“They were shacks with no toilets, no running water and no electricity. Kids were asleep on the ground with nothing to cover them. Yet they were all running around us laughing and smiling, trying to see their faces on our digital cameras. On the last day, we handed over the keys to the beneficiaries and seeing the smiles on their faces was an amazing feeling,” she says.
Recalling the trip, she says it was “physically and emotionally difficult but it really was the most amazing experience. I simply loved every minute of it.” As soon as she returned home, she knew she wanted to go again but little did she know what the future held.
“The January after my first trip, on January 12, 2010, put Haiti on the world map when disaster struck with the devastating earthquake. My heart broke for the Haitians. After seeing how hard their life was before the earthquake, I couldn’t comprehend the devastation and poverty following the earthquake. The houses we had built were not damaged, which was a little consolation but not much. I was packed and ready to go in October 2010 with another €4,500 raised, when the trip was cancelled at the last minute due to a cholera outbreak. It was so disappointing. I knew I wouldn’t be able to go again for another year because of school, so it was October 2011 before I finally got to go again,” she says.
This time, they went to Leogane, not far from the epicentre of the quake. “Arriving in Port au Prince this time, 21 months after the earthquake, was truly shocking. The destruction of the earthquake was visible everywhere – buildings collapsed, roads full of rubble and hundreds of thousands of tents crammed in on top of each other as far as the eye could see. To see people living like this is shocking. This time, we were camping but facilities were still very good. We couldn’t complain really, considering what we had just seen.
“I worked as a foreman on this trip. This just meant that I was in charge of a group and we had a target that I had to ensure we met. The houses had changed a bit from the first trip and were a bit more basic. The beneficiaries worked with us on their houses, which was brilliant,” she recalls. The biggest challenge once again was the heat but Laura still describes it as an “amazing week, very difficult, exhausting and deeply moving but amazing none the less. I have never worked so hard and enjoyed something so much.”
Laura will be taking a break from going to Haiti this year, having fundraised for the last three years. However, she is urging others to follow her example and get involved.
“I would love to go out again at some stage. For anyone thinking of going, I would say go for it. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a skilled tradesperson. There is plenty of other work to do and you will be given a job no matter what. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t know anyone else going. The atmosphere is always fantastic, relaxed and friendly so it’s easy to mix and you will get to know your group fairly quickly.
“The Haitians are so welcoming, friendly and deserving of this help that it gives you a huge sense of achievement to be a part of improving their lives. It really is an amazing experience and one you will never forget.”
Haven hopes to bring up to 90 Irish volunteers to Haiti for the upcoming Build It Week, taking place in Leogane. The Build It Week departs Ireland on Friday, November 23, returning on Sunday, December 2, taking place in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project. During this week, Haven volunteers will partner up with volunteers from all over the world to build 100 homes.
To take part, volunteers are required to raise €4,500, which goes towards the cost of building materials and local community development programmes. All meals, accommodation, security and transport to and from Haiti are covered in the cost.
For more information on Build It Week, November 2012, contact Cathy Brooks on 01 6815443, see www.havenpartnership.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.