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About: The trip to Haiti
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The executive wants to be an example. The ad man wants to do more than write a check. The academic sees herself as a witness. And the mother can't not go.
Shannon Wallace, the mother, had scratched an itch in volunteer work that took her to home-building sites in Vietnam last year and will take her to Guatemala in March. The 36-year-old had quit her high-flying corporate job to simplify, downsize and commit herself more fully to her 9-year-old son and to newfound loves of travel and service.
So when Habitat for Humanity's Omaha office asked Wallace and the others to go to Haiti to build some of the country's much-needed post-earthquake houses there — actual houses, not the makeshift tents some 550,000 Haitians are still living in nearly two years after a devastating 7.0-magnitude quake — they said yes.
Yes to one week of their time and sweat. Yes to some prep work and shots. Yes to a trade-off decidedly in their favor: They could feel like they were actually doing something to ameliorate the long suffering of the Haitian people, for whom the earthquake was yet one more injustice.
They would work alongside former President Jimmy Carter, some 400 other U.S. volunteers and Haitian families. They would see devastation and perhaps redemption and know their stint included a return ticket home.
They land in Port-au-Prince today and will travel about 18 miles west to the coastal city of Léogâne, near the epicenter of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake and where nearly all buildings were leveled.
There, on a 34½-acre sugar-cane field, the group will help build 100 homes of what will eventually be a 500-home development with a school, community center and health clinic. Nebraska is providing six volunteers, including two from Kearney. A group of 10 Iowans will also be among the Habitat volunteers.
The volunteers hope to bridge two worlds: one where geography and a strong public infrastructure at the ready blunt nature's cruelty, where tap water is drinkable, where electricity is a given, where a roof is more than a bedsheet. And the other, where basics — food, uncontaminated water, and certainly permanent, safe shelter — are in short supply.
Haiti draws pride from its distinction as the world's first black republic, with slaves having overthrown the French. But its history is troubled, its present is hard and complicated and its hoped-for future depends on the world making good on its promises to "build back better," fixing more than what the earthquake broke.
Habitat might be one small part of that answer. The Georgia-based international ecumenical organization has a nearly three-decade-old presence in Haiti. After the quake, it spun off a relief effort that has included tens of thousands of temporary shelter kits (ropes, tarps and tools), some 4,000 intermediary shelters (plywood-wall, tin-roof structures), and house assessments to determine what can be fixed and what can't. And Habitat has provided training and jobs for Haitians in desperate need of both.
What Habitat aims to do this week in Léogâne is what the organization is known for worldwide: house-building. In a country with little in the way of building regulation, where Haitians' ramshackle homes pancaked when the earthquake struck, these homes in Léogâne are supposed to offer both durability and potential. They can be added onto or otherwise improved as Haitian families are able.
They are not, however, akin to anything Habitat builds in Omaha. There will be no electricity or plumbing. No closets, kitchens, bedrooms or carpet. The core Habitat house in Haiti is a simple 280-square-foot structure with a concrete floor and walls that are half concrete block, half plywood. Roofs are metal.
That said, it beats the alternative: camp life. Upward of 1.5 million Haitians were living in tent camps a year ago. That number had been reduced by two-thirds as of September, according to the International Organization for Migration. Many moved in with relatives and friends as camps closed down.
As time goes on, disaster fatigue has set in, and sympathy is wearing thin. The Dominican Republic, Haiti's more prosperous and not-always-friendly neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, has begun deporting Haitians who fled the earthquake.
Cholera, a curable disease not seen on the island in more than a century, appeared last year. More than 550,000 people, according to press reports and accounts from groups such as Human Rights Watch, are still living in squalid, unsafe, tarp-and-bedsheet campsites where women and girls are particularly at risk of sexual assault.
Monday, Habitat's volunteer crew, led by the organization's highest-profile volunteers, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, start trying to chip away at the problem.
Every year the Carters lead a Habitat home-building blitz somewhere on the planet in hopes of raising more than houses. Habitat also wants to raise awareness of its unique anti-poverty program, which requires beneficiaries to put in labor and pay for homes through zero-interest loans, and raise money to support it.
This marks the first time Omaha has sent a Habitat team to participate in the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project.
Amanda Brewer, Habitat's executive director for Omaha, said the nonprofit wants to expand its reach beyond the city.
Wallace, the 36-year-old mother on the Haiti crew, will lead a separate Habitat trip to Guatemala in March and is recruiting volunteers now. Wallace sees the Haiti trip as closing a circle her grandparents started 31 years ago, when they arrived in Haiti as missionaries.
"It's a calling," she said. "It's like I have to do it."
The other Omahans said they were drawn to the hands-on experience of a Habitat build and a desire to help.
John Bunch, an executive at TD Ameritrade, said one of the many reasons he signed up was to inspire his colleagues "to want to make a difference." TD Ameritrade directs its charity work at two nonprofits, including Habitat. The company has helped build a dozen homes in U.S. cities, including Omaha.
Bunch is a 46-year-old married father of three who spends two-thirds of the year traveling for work. He takes his family on exotic trips to Europe, Japan and, most recently, the Galápagos Islands, where they swam among sharks. A many-time visitor to the Caribbean, Bunch is making his first trip to Haiti.
He said he sees it as a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do something that you could almost build a legacy around." He said he's optimistic despite the bad news pouring out of Haiti.
"I still think," he said, "people can make a difference."
His difference as of Wednesday amounted to $18,446. Each of the participants is raising money for Habitat Haiti with an overall goal of $50,000. Bunch, who asked former TD Ameritrade CEO Joe Moglia and other well-heeled friends to contribute, began his pitch with the $4,000 price tag it costs to build a core house.
"I asked my friends 'How many houses do you want to build?'" Bunch said, adding that he hadn't "put out the full-court press yet."
A belief in community service has driven 56-year-old Mary Lopez, who recently retired from the University of Nebraska at Omaha's School of Public Administration. An Iowa native, her folks were both active in the community and she followed that lead, serving a number of Omaha organizations including a stint on the Omaha Housing Authority's board. At one point she juggled graduate school, full-time work, 20-hour-a-week volunteer activities and raising two children with a husband who travels often for his job. She has seen dire poverty during travels to India and Africa but never the devastation wrought by a single event.
"That," she says, "will be very eye-opening to me."
Don Browers, a 61-year-old retired TV ad salesman and producer, has traveled the world and lived in Germany, but thinks Haiti's poverty will be a shock. An amateur photographer, he has videotaped underwater scuba-diving trips and photographed his many travels to India, Nepal, Egypt, Vietnam, Namibia most recently ... and the list goes on.
"It's a big, interesting world out there," said Browers. "It's a unique opportunity to contribute something."
Browers said he has always been drawn to Habitat's inclusion of beneficiaries in the process, saying it gives the poor dignity and investment. He was particularly interested in being involved beyond writing a check.
He said the world's contrasts in haves and have-nots seemed most obvious in India, with "beautiful high-rise apartments, a lot of money right next to tar-paper shacks in the street."
It's hard to reconcile that, he said, paraphrasing an Omahan who'd top the list of haves, Warren Buffett.
Buffett, Browers said, attributed his success to being born American.
"We are so lucky," he said, "to be born American."
Wallace saw that in Vietnam, where she spent two weeks on a Habitat build last year following what she termed "midlife enlightenment."
She was putting in long workweeks as the media and interactive director for Zaiss & Co., her closet held only suits, no jeans, and she felt like a drive-through parent with her son, Ted, who splits his time between her west Omaha home and that of his father, her ex-husband, whom she described as an involved father and friend.
"I looked at my life," Wallace said, "and I didn't like any of it. I have all this stuff. I have this great job. It's so insane: I wasn't grateful."
So she quit and cashed in her 401(k). Bought some jeans. Spent the summer of 2010 romping on the paths of Platte River State Park with Ted, now age 9, and fixing up her house to eventually sell because she doesn't need the room.
"I have a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home, and Ted only lives here part-time," she said. "It's ridiculous."
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