Group: Hope in Haiti, but help needed

There is hope in Haiti, reported Project Concern International’s George Guimaraes and Mark O’Donnell after their March 9 return from the country.

The representatives from Project Concern, a San Diego-based health and humanitarian aid organization, held a small presentation for local donors and friends at the Ocean Air Recreation Center on March 12, two months to the day after the Haiti earthquake struck.

While they painted a somewhat bleak picture of how much work still needs to be done in Haiti, they also spoke of the small steps of progress being accomplished.

“We [could] see change happening; roads are opening, businesses opening,” said O’Donnell, the chief operating officer of PCI. “In the midst of this, people have smiles on their faces, they’re focused on their communities and their families. I give them credit for being patient.”

“The heart and the resilience of the Haitian people was and is just incredible. They are working so hard to rebuild their lives,” said Guimaraes, PCI’s president and CEO.

The United Nations is working with Haitian President Rene Preval to rebuild Haiti and Guimaraes said it couldn’t happen fast enough. O’Donnell said they are in a race against time as the torrential rain season is approaching, which will bring increased health risks.

O’Donnell said Port-au-Prince was always a city meant for less than 1 million people and there were 3 million people living there when the earthquake hit. Its meager resources and “build as fast as you can” cement buildings all imploded when the earthquake struck.

Since the Jan. 12 earthquake, 230,000 people have been confirmed dead and many more are still buried in the wreckage. Guimaraes said 1.3 million people are homeless in and around the city.

Guimaraes said people are living in tents anywhere they can find space on the streets, in parks and up the hillsides.

“It’s just incredible, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Guimaraes said.

Many of the tent communities are without sanitation and some still have cardboard signs posted that read that they have no food or water.

PCI had a presence in Haiti as soon as 48 hours after the quake and the group plans to stay there for the long haul, Guimaraes and O’Donnell said. With its team of volunteers, the organization has distributed 6,054 hygiene kits, 14,619 water containers, 1,813 kitchen sets, 5,954 tarps and 3,638 debris removal kits benefiting more than 8,000 families.

PCI collaborated with Americares to provide hospitals and clinics with medicine and medical supplies, help create fixed and mobile clinics, construct latrines and provide safe places for children to play, learn and heal.

“I have to say I am very proud of the what PCI is doing. We are making a difference,” Guimaraes said.

PCI has focused on access to water, shelter and bringing back people’s livelihoods.

To help build temporary shelters, PCI is distributing plastic and rope to help secure homes made of wood with corrugated tin roofs.

To promote self-reliance, PCI offers cash-for-work employment. The group pays the government-set rate of $4.85 a day for help.

O’Donnell said it gets “messy” when other organizations offer more for a cash-for-work program, such as $5.25 plus a meal. O’Donnell said the Haitians get suspicious that one organization is offering less money, thinking they must be pocketing some funds.

While there are some issues, O’Donnell said for the most part the aid organizations have been working well together, organizing into clusters to serve different areas and different needs.

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Guimaraes said there are a handful of moments he’ll remember for the rest of his life from his travels with PCI over the last seven years. One of them occurred Sunday, March 7, in a yard of a collapsed school in Port-au-Prince.

“A woman walked up to me, took my hand and kissed me,” Guimaraes said. “With tears in her eyes she said, ‘Thank you. You have saved my children.’”

PCI’s work in Haiti inspired many of the people in the room at the March 12 presentation to offer their support. Camilla Sinclair, a yoga instructor in Solana Beach, presented PCI with a check for $212 she raised by holding a benefit yoga class.