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Sisters of Mercy build homes in Haiti

11 November 2011


On 29th October 2011, seven Sisters of Mercy travelled to Haiti to participate in Build it Week with the Haven Partnership, along with three family members of the sisters. We were delighted to be able to sponsor Sr. Mary Walshe’s sister and nephew and Sr. Mary Madigan’s sister to take part in the Build it Week from the additional funding that was raised by those who travelled to Haiti in April 2011. 

On this occasion, the Sisters of Mercy and the Haven volunteers worked near the epicentre of the January 2010 earthquake, a place called Leogane- 18 miles outside Port Au Prince, capital of Haiti. 

Reflection by Mary Madigan rsm on her week in Haiti

It was a challenging experience and one that I'm glad to have had. It reminded me again of what real poverty is - people living in the midst of nothing, in the midst of rubbish and rubble, wearing faces of desperation and hopelessness. I asked myself many times that week and since,”What do they get up for each morning?" I asked myself many times, “Who is this God who lives here in the midst of powerlessness, poverty, disease and fragility? “I am your God too", is the answer I get. And so the mystery of life and of God becomes even more mysterious for me. 

During my week in Haiti I lived in a tent with 3 others. My few belongings for the week I kept in my rucksack under my bed. I shared dining space, shower and toilet space with 300 others. Since I came home I am ever so aware of how secure, comfortable and rich that I am. I am ever so conscious of how easy it is to trust and have faith in God when I have all this safety. If I were to lose all this security would my faith be weaker or stronger? Yes, my week in Haiti was a grounding one in my notions of God and in the authenticity of my faith. I am grateful for the experience. 

I was a water carrier for the week. There were 8 of us on the water team. We were responsible for making sure that all those working on the building site drank a sufficient supply of water so as to not become dehydrated. I loved my job because I was out on the site all day, meeting the other volunteers, chatting with them as they took time to drink. I had a chance to interact with the security guards, the waste disposal management as well as with some local Haitian people. In this way I was able to ask questions and gain insights into the life and developments that were happening there. 

It was an intense week, heat been the biggest obstacle, reaching 47 degrees most days. The task and target was to build 50 houses. That task was achieved (55 houses were actually built). There was a tremendous sense of teamwork and Haven's partnership with Habitat for Humanity (an American group) was another sign of working in unity for transformation and change. I am grateful to have had the chance to be part of this. 

Reflection by Kate Morris rsm on her week in Haiti

Haiti is really a land of contrasts. On the one hand, there is a beautiful lush countryside full of fabulous, tall, broad leafed trees and productive rich soil, a few cows and some goats. On the other hand, there is so much evidence of grinding poverty where thousands of families are still living in tents, tiny shacks with no clean water supply or toilet facilities. We saw first-hand the uprooted roads, hundreds of young unemployed men sitting around at every corner with no future prospects of work or a meaningful future. At the same time, we saw many young people going to school in pristine school uniforms, ribbons in their hair and perfectly pressed pants on the boys. School is a noisy place where the students repeat everything in unison after the teacher, but the reality is that only 50% o children receive an education which costs $200, a sum many families can only afford for one or maybe two of their children. 

Sisters of Mercy

                                                  Mercy Group

There were 280 volunteers in the October Build It Week from every corner of Ireland. We lost a day due to a medical emergency of a crew member but that set-back only strengthened our resolve to build 50 houses during our time in Haiti. And build them we did in glorious fashion! We began with a thunder storm, torrential rain, some flooded tents and unbelievable humidity the first night. The 5.30am start was a shock to the system but feeling well fortified with a great breakfast we all felt ready to begin the work. I went as a painter while others took on the roles of catering, carpenters, water carriers, house and medical teams. Each team had a foreman who gave us directions for the day's work. Us painters had lots of variety in our work and were delighted to have the experience of painting the houses built by the group, giving a major face-lift to the local school, painting a church and orphanage run by "The Reverend". I was truly shocked by conditions at the orphanage. 

We discovered that the children slept on little wooden beds with no mattresses, pillows or bed clothes. Others slept on metal beds and had to put their clothes under them for some comfort so they could sleep. It was only later that we learned that while painting the outside of the houses where the children slept, some of the 11 and 12 year old girls had been locked inside without light, air, water or food. Those in charge of the orphanage did not want us to know about them because the girls were pregnant. Those who saw the girls coming out of the huts asked no questions but when they returned to our compound ensured that Haven were made aware of the situation. 

The highlight of the week was the handover of the houses to the recipients. This particular hand over was special because three nationalities had worked together on this project. The workers from Haiti had built the concrete foundations for the houses before we arrived. Then, we worked with them building the wooden frames for each house, later that week we were joined by 30 Americans. These were to be joined by a further 500 American volunteers the following week to complete a total of 200 houses over the two week period. 

I left Haiti feeling proud to be Irish. While we worked hard, we also cared for and looked out for each other. We all made friends with the most unlikely characters and had fun too. I felt I made a difference to the lives of people who are living in extreme poverty. 

Reflection by Veronica Jones rsm on her week in Haiti

My visit to Haiti generated many mixed feelings. As we travelled from Port au Prince to Leogane our Camp site on the first day I was overcome with feelings of shock and a sense of numbness that left me without words. It was very disturbing to see the human reality there and the lack of basic human needs were inhumane and appalling.

As we reached the camp site enclosure it felt safe and very different where there was sanitation showers, food and adequate shelter,

However one had to get into the work mode fairly quickly. I was assigned to the catering team. This involved for the most part working along side the cooks and kitchen team so that over 350 people were fed, nourished and hydrated. While the mornings involved an early start there was a marvellous team spirit and great sense of energy around.

I was also out on the work site for some of the day where breaks and lunches were provided. I had a great opportunity to see the work in progress and to witness the hive of activity on the site as everyone went about their jobs. The transformation on the site was amazing as houses popped up one after the other. Food was provided for everyone on the site including the local people and one could see how much they appreciated it.

My week in Haiti gave me some small insight into what real poverty and deprivation is and I found it so unsettling to see people hungry. It brought me back to what it must have been like for Catherine McAuley when she begun her journey of mercy as she endeavoured to meet similar needs back in the 1830’s.

It was a memorable week and gave me a deeper understanding of what a group can do when there is a common vision and sense of purpose. The team work and spirit was amazing and the energy contagious. 

Overall the week was personally a most enriching experience and gave me a deeper appreciation of the things I just take for granted. I am grateful for the experience and for the sponsorship that I received that made this week possible. 

Reflection by Mary Walsh rsm on her week in Haiti

“As the snow flies on a cold, gray Chicago morning, a poor little baby child is born in the ghetto and his Mama cries......” that touching song of Elvis Presley’s rings in my ears as I hear another little child being born in the ghetto of Leogane, Haiti as I paint one of the 55 homes that we completed in this October Build It Week 2011 Just the opposite to Chicago’s cold, it was the other extreme of intense heat and equally humid(47degreesC) .We were working in the epicentre of the January 12th 2010 earthquake, much of its havoc and devastation still visible 22 months on...I felt overcome with that intense heat but I wondered how that Mother felt under her plastic covered little shack closeby and the future her child faces... I sure hoped that her family would be one of the beneficiaries of one of the houses we were completing that week or at least one of the 150 homes to be completed the following week by 500 more volunteers from Canada who were with an organization called “Habitat for Humanity” set up by Ex President Jimmy Carter and his wife Roselyn to build homes for some of the poorest people in the Planet. 

While what we did was like 55 drops in the ocean of life, it gives me joy to think that “Haven” (the organization we volunteered with) have already built 2,000 homes and have given shelter from it’s sweltering heat and the havoc caused by the hurricanes and its recent earthquake to 2,000 of some of Haiti’s poorest families and some security from all that threatens their lives. We were so happy that the Haitian people were involved so much with us in our Build It Week. The foundations and the cement part of the walls (Half was Timber) of 205 homes( as “Haven” worked in partnership with “Habitat for Humanity”) were built by the Haitian tradesmen themselves together and with the guidance of both “Haven” and “Habitat for Humanity” trades people who work on a longer term basis in Haiti “Haven” longer term volunteers will continue working there too doing community development and sustainable community work that will give these people more hope and hopefully a better life into the future. 

I could not help but feel grateful while there and more since to all the Irish, American and Canadian people who supported us in our different fundraise activities so that the construction and other materials needed to build those homes was possible as well as what went towards supporting us to go to Haiti. The extraordinary goodwill, teamwork and desire of all the volunteers to give of their very best are in itself an amazing experience to be a part of... The effort alone of so many young people especially to raise €4,500 each in order to go to Haiti in these recessionary times is a witness in itself The awareness raised doing that fundraise together with the experience of going and working in those conditions has to be a life changing experience. I’m remembering the McCrery Family who raised €36,000 for Haiti and all went as volunteers. Their only son got a very severe reaction to the Anti-malarial medication required and had to be flown to a hospital in Miami. Thankfully Rory will be fine again. He suffers from a loss of memory, so keep him in your prayers. 

While we achieved more (apparently!) on the Build It Week April 2011 in terms of infrastructure, this October Build It Week exposed us to Haiti’s awful poverty and destruction after the earthquake each day as we had a 40 minute bus ride to the site where the houses were being built. Besides we painted a school and an orphanage while children were there. We painted a church too the\t would be used as a multi-purpose centre as well. 

I could go on with my experiences but I choose to finish with one of the funny incidents that happened in Haiti. As we approached the Airport of Port-Au- Prince having been blest with a downpour of rain and got through security without a hitch (it was like a cattle mart last time!) as we were the last flight to leave this time so the airport was quiet and there was a great sense of relief. The ‘poor’ and very small airport had some cockroaches and other flying creature wandering around as well as us! One of the volunteers wanted to capture a close up photo of one of these creatures now on the ground and was bending cautiously down as close as possible to it when our chief security man gave him a fine pinch in the bottom that sent him leaping as he thought he had got a bite from another flying creature. The rapture of laughter that overtook the whole group was such that airport security drew on us only to join the gang too! 

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