Lending a helping hand

Volunteers return from Haiti following trip to establish sustainable resources

LAKE COUNTY — In January, a group of Lake County residents traveled to Haiti to try and provide help for the troubled populace and begin the process of providing a new form of help.

The group consisted of Lake County residents Gary Dode, Jerry Heim, Sally Sweiger and Laura VanVleet, and was led by Father Ron Schneider, the pastor of St. Ann's and St. Ignatius' Catholic Churches in Lake County. Schneider had traveled down to Haiti twice before to provide help and share his thoughts about sustainable projects.

"We were trying to provide some assistance, but we don't have resources to take on any big projects," said Schneider. "It was more about lending a helping hand and building relationships."

Devastated by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010, the already impoverished country was hit hard, including losing more than 220,000 lives. This was made worse by the loss of resources that resulted from the earthquake, including the destruction of cities, utilities, government services and industries.

The group flew down to Porte au Prince, toured the city, visited an orphanage and then proceeded to fly to the town of Fort Liberte where they would do their work.

"The trip was basically a relationship building experience," said VanVleet. "Our parish plans on financing a sustainable project for the people of the parish in Fort Liberte, and in order to do so we needed to listen to what their needs are and what strengths and assets they have, so we know how to proceed. I think we were successful in relating that this will be their project, not ours."

The core of the trip was making connections with the communities there and begin the process of instituting those sustainable projects.

"A lot of resources have been pumped into the country since the earthquake, but no matter how much money goes in, eventually it runs out again," said Schneider. "What we're focusing on are projects that are self sustainable. This way it will affect their lives positively and permanently."

Among the projects the group was hoping to help get off the ground was a clean water initiative in the region of Fort Liberte, bringing in seeds to help rebuild the town's agriculture capabilities and bring in chickens as a renewable source of food and income.

"In a country as poor as Haiti, agriculture has to be their primary resource and it has to be able to continue after we leave," explained Schneider. "We were fortunate to have three young people down there from elsewhere who could help us. One was an English teacher and the other two were agriculture experts."

More than anything, the groups wanted to give the residents of Fort Liberte and the rest of the country hope and remind them there were those who cared about the problems facing their nation.

"After the earthquake, a bunch of governments rushed in, threw a bunch of money at them and left," remarked Heim. "We were trying to give them hope and remind them there were still people out there trying to help them."

VanVleet agreed and said she hoped more people would take a good look at the situation there and find constructive ways to help.

"The Haitians that I had the pleasure of spending time with are beautiful, loving, kind, spiritual people," remarked VanVleet. "They have no running water or soft beds, like I do, yet they are the happiest people I've ever met. I cannot wait to return. It was difficult to walk away from the suffering and I've already begun saving for my next trip."