Building communities, rebuilding Haiti

It is obvious that when disaster strikes, communities are formed, but when these communities are formed hundreds of thousands of miles away from the disaster, the true power of an old motto, “service above self,” comes to the surface. Canadians have poured out hundreds of thousands of dollars to relief agencies through donations, both large and small. One of these agencies is a relief effort known as ShelterBox. Simply put, Shelterbox is the basic necessities of life provided in a quantity that will house and provide for ten individuals. An amazing way to provide immediate relief, individuals and companies around the world have chosen this as their contribution to the people who have to pick up the pieces and begin anew in Haiti.

The University of Lethbridge Rotaract Club chose to raise funds for ShelterBox as a way to give aid to Haiti. Alix Blackshaw, Rotaract President for the University of Lethbridge commented “We have seen how effective it is and how much it can help. Our district has been a strong supporter for years, and I think that was just a chance thing because somebody knew someone.”

Rebuilding this country is not as simple as hiring the crews and drafting plans. It will take months, even years of intense financial and developmental aid, of providing expertise on proper building methods and ensuring that a government is in place who will lift up the poorest Haitians to a level of basic survival. Yes, this disaster was a magnificent force of nature, and no one could have prevented it from creating havoc. However, when homes are built nearly entirely of mud and tin, and millions live in abject poverty, there is more needed than a simple re-building plan. The entire country needs to be restructured and rebuilt from the ground up.

For this reason immediate aid, and suitable, even if only temporary, shelter, is so absolutely necessary. The basic concept of shelter, of a home, and the psychological desire to have a safe space for yourself and your family is universal. The pictures of the makeshift tent cities, and hundreds thousands of people camped in squalid conditions is enough to provide solid evidence that what Haitians needs right now is a place to sleep at night.

International aid organizations are in the process of setting up three sites that would be safe for the creation of the tent cities that will serve as homes and communities for the people of Haiti during the time it takes to build proper infrastructure. Conditions are bad right now, and as the dead lay decomposing in the street and sanitation systems have been all but eliminated, the basic services a community needs to thrive are stripped away.

Aid organizations are doing everything they can, and the outpour internationally has been immense. For a country whose people have toiled in obscurity for too long, this incredible disaster has finally woken others up to their desperate cries for help.

In Haiti itself, it is the sense of community that constantly astounds those who crowd around their radios, televisions and computer screens to witness what some are calling “disaster porn.” Regular worship is still occurring, whether it is inside the church ruins or outside. Families continue to beg disaster workers to not stop searching for their loved ones, and despite rising tensions and increasing desperation Haiti is not devolving into the violence many were predicting would occur. That is not to say that the worst is over; there is a lack of government presence, a ruthless sense of law and order, and an increasing need for sanitation services, clean drinking water and food. Still, despite this, the Haitian community is still present.

Art continues to reflect the current circumstances, and photos depict children laughing and smiling as their parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents wash clothes and cook small, inadequate meals. Here in Canada, that sense of community is not lost on those reaching out to help another country in during these desperate times. Rotary was founded close to the time of our own country and has reached out to its members and its community to raise funds and awareness to help the Haitian people in this current catastrophe. The ShelterBox initiative was started with a Rotarian, Tom Henderson, who had the very simple idea of a kit equipped with everything a family would need to survive for a temporary period of time. From that conception, ShelterBox has gone on to provide basic needs such as blankets, a ten person tent, dishes, tools, water purification tablets and more to families in disaster-affected areas. This kit has been used successfully worldwide to provide basic shelter to families in need. In Haiti, nearly 4,000 Shelter box have been dispatched already, providing hope and security, albeit temporary, to nearly 40 000 people.

Though, helping people is what Rotarians do; their motto, “service above self” is inspiring for anyone. Speaking to Alix Blackshaw, President of the University of Lethbridge Rotaract club, her passion for community service is evident in the way her eyes light up when she speaks about Rotaract’s achievements and activism through volunteer work and the people she has met and the organizations she has served. “First off it just shows you how to be a member of your community,” Blackshaw says, “I’ve volunteered with every non-profit in Lethbridge. It teaches you how to be an international citizen, just the fact that even the smallest things really do help. Even the smallest fundraisers we do can help, in the big picture.”

The personal connection to the organization is shown through the dedication Alix and other club members have for the work they do and the volunteer efforts they undertake. Theirs is a community dedicated to both local and international efforts, teaching students how to be stronger citizens while creating a strong community at home. It is this community that allows Rotaract members to help people in Haiti. It is the Rotarian spirit that gives incentive to those involved in postsecondary education to increase their community visibility and to give back to the community their institutions are situated in. One of the ways Rotaract works in their local community is the annual bowl-a-thon that raises money for the Lethbridge hospital’s “Books for Babies” which provides educational resources to low income families in Lethbridge.

Communities can be created over mediums other than the traditional lunchtime Rotary template, and no one understands that quite like Elsa Cade, a Lethbridge Rotarian. Cade is a member of an American based, Democrat oriented forum/blog, and until the disaster in Haiti used it primarily as a forum to discuss science education and to voice her disapproval of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education programme.

“I don’t write a lot, I like to read but then once this Haiti thing came out, and I had an opportunity to say look at this, this is a good thing to donate too,” Cade explains. “It’s really desperate in Haiti, and desperation is because they don’t have any place to stay, and I put this thing out there, and before you know it, I was getting all these donations and in my mailbox I’m hearing from the Executive Director of ShelterBox USA, and heard from several ShelterBox rescue teams.”

The thing she is referring too is the ShelterBox initiative, and through her appeal Cade has raised over $122,000.00 for ShelterBox, primarily through American donations. This on-line community has surprised Cade, and she expresses the momentum an on-line community can generate, “It says something about the Internet, that you can connect with people like that. It is such a powerful tool in terms of disseminating information.”

The message most prominent through these examples of humanitarianism is that community both empowers us and can serve others. Whether it be in a traditional format like Rotary, through a University club, or an on-line forum, there is are individuals at the beginning and end of each these connections, and it is people who are making the effort and have the desire to help others.

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