By Jeff Brumley
College student Shelby Johnson missed the March 3 announcement that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was shifting its work in Haiti from disaster response to long-term projects, like community health and economic development. But the English and Spanish double major at Mars Hill College ended up on the same page during her spring break mission trip to Haiti on March 8.
For five days, Johnson and her colleagues distributed food, dug irrigation ditches and volunteered in a school and medical clinic in Terrier Rouge, a small town located a few miles inland of Haiti’s northern coast.
“The main point of the trip was to get immersed in the culture to get to know what they go through as people so we could bring that story back,” said Johnson, 20, a Baptist and native of Cashiers, N.C. Another goal was “just to be that extra pair of hands.”
Since the 2010 earthquake, CBF’s main goal in Haiti was to focus money and field personnel on relief and recovery. Also during that three years, approximately 1,200 individuals and 350 American Baptist, Canadian Baptist, CBF and other churches were used through short-term mission projects.
When that work concluded, CBF officials shifted focus to long-term economic development that will continue to provide opportunities to help. Chris Boltin, short-term assignments and partnerships manager for CBF, said churches are already lining up to help.
Boltin said last week that six teams were on the calendar to make weeklong visits to Haiti in March. Many of them are college groups on spring break. For some, it is a return trip for different kinds of projects.
“When we went in, we built relationships based on what was needed of us from the earthquake,” Boltin said. “People who may have gone in to build a Rubble House may have noticed a different kind of need in that community.”
CBF’s short-term mission project calendar for Haiti shows trips booked out as far as November 2013, Boltin added.
The Mars Hill trip was coordinated between the college and Bethlehem Ministry, a U.S. nonprofit dedicated to establishing a Montessori-style school and sustainable agriculture in Terrier Rouge.
The project was selected by the students and school because it addresses the systemic causes of poverty that existed before the 2010 earthquake, said Deb Myers, director of LifeWorks Community Engagement, which coordinates service learning and volunteerism at Mars Hill.
“Estimates of unemployment are over 40 percent,” Myers said. “As you drive around the villages you see people just hanging out.”
The result leaves most Haitians unable to buy food, and there is also no one to produce it. There is no running water, no treated water and a lack of electricity.
“They live in very, very sparse conditions, so there really is a need for education and economic development if Haiti is going to climb out of the situation that it’s in,” Myers said.
One way the Mars Hill group helped was by paying for services such as interpreters, guides and food and lodging, she said. The group of five students and two staff also paid a lot in sweat to help Haiti’s economy – and not the least of which was helping to dig an irrigation ditch between a well and storage tanks on a small farm.
While rewarding, the work was also back-breaking, Johnson said.
“We were using pick-axes and shovels to dig these trenches – we just aren’t used to that,” she said. “Plus the heat was a challenge.”
But just as challenging is seeing poverty and malnourishment in Haiti, Johnson said. It’s why she left with less concern about long-term planning in Haiti and more about convincing people to go help with immediate needs.
“The big, overall picture is important, but Haitians don’t need big pictures,” Johnson added. “They can’t afford to be planning so far ahead because they need to be working on food and poverty.”