Rebuilding Haiti, One House at a Time

The 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010 not only brought a host of new troubles but also threw light on the many longstanding challenges of this impoverished nation. Many well-intentioned benefactors, including members of the South University community, have struggled to determine how best to help.

Provide medical supplies? Send food? Erect homes? Faced with the urgency and immediacy of the crisis, the South response was swift, a reflex conditioned by long experience.

Andree Pun-Sufrin, a part-Haitian alum of the South University — West Palm Beach campus paralegal studies program, has urged students, employees, and alumni to support a relief effort that she helped set in motion when she was a student in the paralegal program about a decade ago. Led by the campus student affairs office, South students and faculty have collected cash donations to Food for the Poor, a group that provides not only emergency relief but also clean water, medicines, and other forms of support.

“We must really start to think beyond this immediate relief now and plan for the rebuilding, the rebirth of [Haitian capital] Port-au-Prince,” says Angel Aloma, executive director of Food for the Poor, a Florida-based group that works broadly to end poverty in the Caribbean and Latin America. “It will be a huge undertaking, and it will take a long time — I estimate it’s a job that will take 10 to 15 years.”

Pun-Sufrin’s commitment to Haiti has deep roots. Though she was born in the United States, Pun-Sufrin lived in the Caribbean nation from age six until she was 16. In addition, her mother is the former executive director of Food for the Poor’s program in Haiti, where Pun-Sufrin worked as a volunteer for many years.

“I’ve always been very proud of the work that my mother has done and how she has made us aware,” says Pun-Sufrin. “The young society sometimes is not quite aware of the level of poverty and illiteracy that exists there.”

At the West Palm Beach campus, Pun-Sufrin became vice president of the school’s Pro Bono Club and worked with one of her professors, Doris Rachles, South’s director of legal studies, to raise awareness. “I got very active in the club and wanting to do something meaningful,” Pun-Sufrin says. “A lot of the students were of Haitian background, and some of them were wanting to explore what the country had to offer.”

Pun-Sufrin and Rachles launched an initiative to build a home for a poor Haitian family. Every $5 contribution purchased a red cardboard “brick” bearing the donor’s name, and the bricks all were assembled to build a model house on campus. Once half of the $2,600 required to build a house was raised through donations, South University matched those funds, and Food for the Poor erected a real cement-and-block house, sturdy and safe, for a family in Haiti.

“It started as a school project, but then it became more than that, and it became very personal to me to open people’s eyes,” says Pun-Sufrin. The initiative made a difference in a place where many people live shacks made from scraps of wood, metal, plastic and cardboard, she adds.

Pun-Sufrin isn’t the only member of the South community with personal ties to Haiti. On the West Palm Beach campus, where 65 percent of students have Haitian backgrounds, news of the January 2010 quake wreaked havoc, according to Maria-Lorena Santos, dean of student affairs there.

Students walked out of their classes, many in tears, trying to reach relatives and friends on their cell phones. “It’s a devastating situation,” says Santos. “It’s definitely something that hits close to home.”

By promoting Food for the Poor on the university website and through flyers and emails to faculty, staff, and students, the West Palm Beach campus raised $1,900 within just a few weeks after the disaster, says Santos. The money was sent to Food for the Poor at the start of March to help build new houses.

“We are so grateful that the students and faculty at South University have reached out to the people of Haiti through our organization,” says Aloma, the executive director at the charity’s headquarters. “Given the daunting nature of the devastation from the earthquake, rebuilding will take years. Through efforts like this, awareness will be raised, and relief and recovery actions can continue.”

Besides meeting immediate needs of food and clean water, Food for the Poor has set a goal of building 5,000 homes in 2010. Work is already underway on homes in Pierre Payen, Trou Du Nord, Demier, and Chastenoye. After that, schools will need to be built, along with clinics and fishing and agricultural centers. All of this will cost money, which charity leaders such as Aloma look to the international community to provide.

For her part, Pun-Sufrin, a professional event planner, is working with her sister to organize fundraising events in Florida and New York. And her mother, who retired from Food for the Poor in early 2009, has founded another charity in Haiti, called Open Hands, to address the needs of young orphans.

“If you’re going to come and help, don’t look at it as help for six months, but really commit to something for the long term,” says Pun-Sufrin. Natural disasters can cause long-lasting difficulties for even the most resourceful nations, as the United States has learned in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, she notes. “Help is one thing. But rebuilding is the true answer.”

Written by freelance talent for South Source.

© South University