NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Almost exactly a year ago, Bethel College students had a chance to join with the wider community under the auspices of a local nonprofit to respond to a devastating earthquake in Haiti.
This year, several of them “closed the loop” by visiting a school in Haiti that received some of that aid, as part of an interterm class offered for the first time.
Seven students took “Seminar in Cross-Cultural Learning: Haiti” with Cliff Dick of North Newton, a Bethel alumnus and president of HOPE International Development Agency-USA as well as director of operations overall for the Canada-based charity.
On Feb. 10, 2010, Bethel hosted a meal-packaging event organized by Numana Inc. Bethel alumnus Rick McNary founded Numana, which is not even two years old and had just launched – settling, by coincidence, on Haiti as the first destination for its high-protein meal packets meant to feed the desperately hungry and starving – when the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake all but destroyed Haiti’s capital and most populous city, Port-au-Prince.
Not long after the Bethel meal-packaging event, Dick remembers, he said to Bethel faculty member Patty Shelly: “That was a great thing – now who’s going to take the interterm class to Haiti to see where the food goes, and complete the loop?”
Bethel could not easily spare a faculty member for a new interterm offering – much less did they have someone who, like Dick, has spent extended time in Haiti and, in particular, the neighboring Dominican Republic, where HOPE International has a long-time partner organization. So Dick soon realized if there was going to be a Haiti interterm, he would have to do it.
In the first week, the class was on campus – journaling with questions Dick posed for them, researching Haiti on the internet and through suggested readings and making class presentations, and visiting charities based in Kansas that have a history of work with Haiti.
One of them was, of course, Numana, where the students toured the organization’s office and warehouse in El Dorado and heard staff members talk about their roles. The class also went to the Mennonite Central Committee-Central States office, just north of campus in North Newton; the warehouse for Heart to Heart International, a medical aid charity, in Kansas City, Kan.; and the Wichita headquarters for Hospitals of Hope, known for the “clinic in a box” (fitting the supplies and equipment needed for a clinic into a 40-foot shipping container).
The students spent the remainder of the interterm, about 15 days, in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. “This was a unique time in Haiti’s history,” says Alison Schmidt-Tieszen, a senior social work major from Newton. “This is the only time it would be ‘one year after the earthquake.’” She was the only one of the seven Bethel students who had not taken part in the Numana event because of spending a semester abroad in India.
The class visited health, development and direct aid projects in and around Port-au-Prince, including the Salvation Army school complex that had depended on Numana food to feed children in the earthquake’s immediate aftermath.
They also spent several days near Hinche, in the central part of the country, before traveling to San José de Ochoa, Dominican Republic, where HOPE International has been partnering with a local organization for more than 30 years.
An important part of the experience was staying in an international guesthouse in Port-au-Prince, where the students met people from many faith backgrounds, with a wide variety of experience, most of whom were in Haiti to offer some kind of assistance – including health workers, educators, missionaries and engineers.
In Port-au-Prince, of course, they saw the direct effects of the earthquake. Only five percent of the rubble has been cleared. The guesthouse lost one of its three buildings, in which five people, including three visitors, died in the quake.
That realization made for some sobering conversations, says Schmidt-Tieszen. “An earthquake has nothing to do with politics, the social situation, economics, religion – it’s totally out of your control. Even at the guesthouse, people died. What makes the difference between me and someone else [being killed]?”
A main focus of the class was to learn about humanitarian aid, from “start to finish,” and consider its effects and its value.
“I learned that it’s a lot more complicated than you can ever imagine,” says Rachel Gaeddert, senior social work major from Larned, and one of the student team leaders for the Numana packaging event last February. “An organization can be doing the very best it knows how and it’s still not working. Good intentions mean nothing.”
Yet these students also found reasons to hope – in the generosity of people they met, such as the Dominican man who took time to lead Landon Bartel, sophomore from Newton, on an early-morning hike up a mountain; in how much natural beauty they found in Haiti, “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere”; in a in a girls’ volleyball team in Hinche that took pride in its abilities.
“It emphasized that our ideas and expectations about what a Third World, poverty-stricken country is like aren’t always accurate,” says Schmidt-Tieszen. “They have power and ability.”
“We met a Haitian man who talked about what people thought of [Haiti and Haitians],” Gaeddert adds. “People need a sense of self-determination. They need empowerment. That’s what I want to do as a social worker – empower people and help them to love themselves. I don’t always know how to do it, but it made me want to more than ever. The Haitian people don’t need to change themselves – their culture, who they are, but rather embrace it. Hardly anyone says that.”
For Bartel, the most powerful thing was going outside the United States for the first time in his life. “On the most basic level, it was eye-opening,” he says. “I had never experienced being in a racial minority. And before, I’d heard all about the earthquake, the poverty, on the news. But it’s completely different to see it firsthand.”
In addition to Bartel, Gaeddert and Schmidt-Tieszen, the Bethel students in the class were Danica Cox, junior from Weskan, Kara Gerber, sophomore from Conway Springs, Breanna McConnell, sophomore from South Haven, and Whitney Steingard, sophomore from Henderson, Neb.