The Epitome of Resilience: A Field Diary From Haiti

Anita Sands (second left), 2012 Women of Concern honoree, in Haiti with (from left) Alessandra Radaelli, Concern Haiti; Irene Sands; Marie Evett with her nine-month-old son; Alain Descieux, Concern Haiti; and Joan Carroll, Concern Worldwide U.S. board member. Courtesy of Concern Worldwide U.S.

June 18, 2012

By Anita Sands, Head of Change Leadership, UBS Wealth Management; Irish America Wall Street 50 honoree; and 2012 Women of Concern Honoree

What it takes to build a school in rural Haiti is something you have to see for yourself to fully appreciate.

We set out from Port-au-Prince, recovering but still badly scarred by the 2010 earthquake, along a steep but well-paved mountain road to rural Saut d’Eau, which sits on one end of Haiti’s Central Plateau. The trip, which once required 6-8 hours of slow, plodding travel over barely passable roads, now took less than three hours thanks to a pre-earthquake highway construction project managed by Concern Worldwide. The verdant Central Plateau seemed a world away from the teeming streets and honking horns of the capital. In the place of Port-au-Prince’s crowded and colorful mini-buses or tap-taps, we saw donkeys weighted down with people and goods, and clusters of small children walking along the roadside as we went.

Once we arrived in Saut d’Eau, our journey was far from over.  Our first stop would be a new school construction site outside of Saut d’Eau town.  To get to the school itself, we had to wind our way up a steep and twisted hill, riddled with rocks and boulders. If it had been paved, the ascent would have taken only 10 minutes, but it took us about an hour. I was told that when it rains, the road is completely impassable.

As we grinded up the hill, it was unimaginable to think that this same route is the one that has to be taken to get the bricks and building supplies where they need to be so that children living in this area can go to school. While arduous, the payoff could not be greater: 600 students, who are now jammed into one room of a dilapidated, hot, dark church will soon move into three beautiful and spacious facilities  – all because there are people dedicated to serve those who are often forgotten.

I had the opportunity to travel to Haiti with Concern Worldwide U.S., the stateside affiliate of the venerable international humanitarian aid organization founded in Ireland over 40 years ago. I made the whirlwind trip with my sister Irene, Concern Worldwide U.S. board member Joan Carroll, and Aileen McCloskey from Concern’s New York office. I met children in makeshift schools, in both urban and rural settings. I experienced a nutrition stabilization center, where children are being nursed back to health from the grip of malnutrition. I visited a site that, just a few months ago, was packed with tents and families and is now half empty thanks to Concern’s  “Return to Neighborhoods” program, which is helping move families into more permanent, secure homes. I saw how Concern is delivering clean water and sanitation and ensuring that the most vulnerable, especially women and children, are protected from harm in these areas. After witnessing all of this work first-hand, I can say wholeheartedly that Concern is an organization that the Irish-American community should be proud of.

In short, Concern is a first-class organization working in the worst-class areas of the world. In Haiti, they responded to the emergency needs following the earthquake and, while others have left, Concern continues to work hand-in-hand with Haitians to rebuild their country.

Whether in the most remote, rural communities or on the most densely populated city streets, Concern is truly reaching the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in society. To do this, Concern will go where others don’t and do what others won’t. Their employees don’t hesitate to go the extra mile, work the extra hours, or forego leave, if it means that they will have a greater impact on the people they are there to serve.

You can see the impact of Concern’s work – and what can be done with so little – in women like Yvette, whom I met while visiting Concern’s “Pathway to a Better Life” program in Saut d’Eau. Yvette, who lives day-by-day in a one-room hut with her three children, embodies the lives of Haiti’s rural poor. To help her break the cycle of extreme poverty, Concern gave Yvette some basic assets, namely a pig and two goats, as well as training in entrepreneurship, animal rearing, hygiene, nutrition, and other critical life skills.

While these investments were deeply appreciated, Yvette was quick to tell us that the most important gift that Concern and the program had given her was hope. Giving people hope – for health, for their children to go to school, for a better life – strikes at the heart of what Concern does. It is far more than a hand-out. It is a process that involves working hand-in-hand with the local people to make sure that every program and intervention will save and improve lives not only today, but long into the future.

I also met an abandoned orphan boy at Concern’s nutrition stabilization center who was blind because he was so chronically malnourished during his first month of life. Even in this bleak context, Concern’s team is restoring hope and dignity wherever they can. The child is alive largely because of Concern’s meticulous care—as are countless others.

It is hard to believe that New York is just a four-hour flight away from children who would be lost if it were not for organizations like Concern. While there are many families struggling in the U.S. and Ireland, our troubles are small in comparison. But no matter how big the challenge or long the struggle, the people of Haiti are the epitome of resilience.

I will proudly accept the Women of Concern Award at the luncheon later this month, and as I do so I will applaud the Concern team in Haiti, with whom I was honored to spend two days.  But most of all I would like to celebrate strong women like Yvette and the millions of other women and girls whom Concern’s work touches – their lives are true examples of extraordinary accomplishment.

Anita Sands is the honoree at this year’s annual Women of Concern Awards Luncheon in New York.  The event recognizes women of extraordinary accomplishment for their leadership, contributions to public service, and efforts to empower women throughout the world.  She is honored to join the company of past Women of Concern such as Hoda Kotb, Pat Mitchell, Loretta Brennan-Glucksman, and Ann Curry, but the greater honor is having met the people who live in some of the poorest communities in Haiti and witnessing their efforts to rebuild their lives with Concern’s help.

More photos from Anita’s trip to Haiti with Concern Worldwide, US:

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