Helping Local Volunteers Help Haiti

Rendering the School

One of my favourite things about volunteering with All Hands Volunteers (AHV… formerly called Hands On Disaster Response) is how involved you’re able to get in whichever community you find yourself in. You’ll be helping individual families almost every day, whether it be building them a temporary shelter, shoveling mud from their home, removing ruble from their property of building a school for an entire community.

You’re visible in the community, people will know who you’re working with and the good work you’re doing, and you’ll probably find yourself getting invited to everything from weddings to funerals to vodou festivals to church. The more you participate in community life, the more you’re able to get out of the experience as a whole and it’s the perfect opportunity to learn about the culture and make new friends.

Helping people is one thing but being able to work with people who want to help themselves is a totally different and amazing thing and it’s happening in a big way here in Leogane through the Local Volunteer Program. The program was just starting as I left Leogane in May last year and, a year later it’s in full force. Initially, a few local volunteers  joined the rubbling teams and work with us to sledge, shovel and wheelbarrow concrete for other members of their community. It’s a year later and I’m so proud of what I’m seeing here right now. Especially when I compare it to the program in Gonaives.

The Gonaives, Haiti project which ran for 6 months from late 2008 was the first where local volunteers were invited to help out. One curious young local named Luco knocked on the door one day wondering why so many ‘blan’ (Creale for ‘white’ but also a name used for foreigner) had congregated in an old nightclub on the cities main highway. He learned that we were volunteering to help clean up his city and he wanted to help too… and so did a bunch of guys and in no time we had a waiting list and about 30 committed volunteers.

The guys joined the high intensity teams with tough leaders and, even though none of them liked wheelbarrowing, they put us all to shame on the shovel. As the program grew, some of the guys took on leadership and administrative roles and were trained on how to work with concrete in the well building program. But, as this was the first time All Hands had such a program, there were a lot of teething problems.

Some of the local volunteers continually took gigantic portions at lunch and it was therefore decided to serve up their food for them which meant that portions were always an issue. They were also only on one meal a day at first, even if they worked the full day. At one point they were asked to take their lunch in a takeaway style box and eat at their own homes… the logic being that the base was our home and we all needed personal space and time to unwind. Eventually this was scrapped and local volunteers were allowed to hang out until curfew at 11pm but the upstairs remained our space. There seemed to be a bit of an ‘us and them’ mentality and the local guys felt like they needed to flight for things. International volunteers were often pissed off at the staff over various issues and it wasn’t exactly the most harmonious experience.

So to see the Leogane program appearing to run so smoothly is a great thing. Many of the guys have been trained on the heavy machinery that’s been donated like Bobcats and a mini excavator. Apprentice programs have been set up for volunteers who have shown an interested and skill in the school builds and they’re receiving a small stipend as well, which is great. Some of the guys are leaving rubble teams and others have taken on leadership roles in other areas like the biosand filter and hygiene education programs.

The volunteers are also welcome on our base to hang out whereas at the start they were kept outside (the same logic about having personal space) which has been nice to see. They can be signed in to use the computers, play sports of just to relax and chat. While the Gonaives program was an overall success and many of the guys from there have landed jobs because of their work with All Hands, it was a rocky road at first. I’m sure there have also been some issues here in Leogane but what I’m seeing now seems to be running amazingly well.

I think when all is said and done and All Hands leave Haiti, the Local Volunteer Program could be one of the most important things they’ve done. I’m not sure what will happen when they leave but many of the volunteers are great workers who are learning a lot of new skills that will hopefully help them in the future. It might be naive to think that, I don’t know, but I do. So there! haha

I’m heading to London now and looking forward to a bit more time in the city before making my way back to Rwanda. I really miss it there. I mean… really miss it. I’m so looking forward to getting back, getting some work done and *gasp* settling back into a routine. I’m planning on sticking around until late next year so if anyone’s in the neighbourhood… drop me a line!

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