By Jean Collins-Stuckert, Clinical Director at The Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows
As we were walking thru Croix-de-Bouquets, a metal workers village outside Port Au Prince where artisans transform used oil drums into beautiful art, I came across a metal sign that said “Haiti Rising.” It stays with me. Haiti is rising but struggling to get on her feet. Already one of the world’s poorest countries, it is fraught with corruption, poor healthcare, and poor educational systems. All of this was compounded by an earthquake in 2010 which claimed a quarter of a million lives. Six years later, the country is still struggling to recover.
The Meadows recently sent a handful of professionals to Haiti to present current information on trauma and addiction at a conference in Port Au Prince. The Meadows partnered with the University of Notre Dame and sponsored the conference on Psychotherapy and Spirituality. I was fortunate to be selected among many volunteers to join this well-appointed group.
It was my first experience in a third world country. I was stunned, vacillating between being on the verge of tears to feeling detached. It was too much to take in at times. It has taken me awhile to sort out my conflicted feelings about this divergent country.
Haiti is a contradiction. It is so close—only a one and a half hour flight from the U.S.—but so far away. Haiti is a dichotomy of crushing poverty and amazing resilience.
Rising out of the rubble in Haiti are fierce heroes and sheroes making a difference on both a large and small scale. There are dynamic leaders on the ground, selflessly working to develop amazing organizations. Nancy Sobel, for example, founded the Global Adolescent Project (GAP) assisting orphaned teens. She is a force of nature. Selena Jenkins and Sean Penn formed the Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization (JPHRO) that is responsible for creating sustainable programs on six different fronts. The Association for the treatment of Alcohol and Other Addictions (AAPAC), the one and only Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) for substance abusers and their families, was founded by two Haitian women, Maggie and Gaetane.
I also include our humble leader, The Meadows CEO Sean Walsh, in this category, who has adopted two sons from a Haiti orphanage. He has great passion for improving conditions and increasing awareness about trauma and addiction in Haiti. He organized and led our team.
I learned more than I taught on the journey. I attended a presentation from one Shero calling for all Haitians to clean up their piece of the polluted planet. Haiti has beautiful landscape contrasted with cement rubble from the earthquake and littered with garbage. She introduced me to a term I hadn’t heard before, “horizontal violence.” She used the expression “You can’t trust a Haitian,” as an example of horizontal violence. She used a bucket of crabs, crawling over one another in order to elevate themselves as a metaphor for horizontal violence. This concept is, of course, not unique to Haiti, but it is problematic. She pleaded with Haitians to lift one another in an effort to elevate the community.
Our team quickly became friends with a handful of Narcotic Anonymous (NA) leaders who were bringing the message of hope and recovery to Haiti, creating relationships, and connecting people with the proper organizations. There are many caring professionals in Haiti attending to pragmatic needs such as food, shelter, and medical care. There are also many who are attending to the needs of their souls by bringing counseling, music, dance and art. Sometimes these organizations are unaware of one another.
These extraordinarily generous people created within me inspiration along with self-doubt, making me wonder what I have done with my life. I’m left feeling uncomfortable in my own skin, in a good way. My brief time in Haiti has created a discomfort that I’m hoping will propel me into more altruistic service.
I attended a 12 step meeting in a foreign land and listened to people share in Haitian Creole and yet I felt at home. Far away and yet at home: another dichotomy.
I was also conflicted residing in an air-conditioned resort with a pool while the masses were withstanding unbearable heat.
I felt combined joy and pain as I observed beautiful majestic women carrying large objects on their heads with such grace in the midst of squalor. Haiti is 95 percent black, so it was rare to see someone white outside of our small group. It was one more way in which my world was a contradiction.
We visited bright university students sitting in classrooms made of fabricated walls with slats for ventilation without air conditioning in 95 percent heat with high humidity. I was so impressed. They were attentive, respectful, and remained after class was dismissed to ask questions about addiction and how they could help their families. Family is a strong value in Haiti. Opportunity occasionally presents itself and when it does most Haitians will take full advantage.
Our last stop was the Apparent Project, through which parents determined to keep their children out of orphanages were making amazing art to earn a living. They were transforming rubble into pottery and making beautiful beads out of garbage. (You can check them out at http://apparentproject.org.)
I don’t miss mosquito nets, being drenched in 100 percent deet, being overly cautious of the food and water, “American pizza” which translates into pizza made with American cheese, the chaotic traffic and feeling like a mark at times. I do miss the openly affectionate warm beautiful people I met while there.
Since returning, I am hyper vigilant of my self-centeredness. I have conflicted feelings. I feel a bit squeamish, a form of survivor’s guilt I suppose, combined with deep gratitude. Simultaneously, I feel incredibly blessed and guilty about the size of my home, my walk-in closet, my job, my vehicle. I have a different perspective on “problems” in the face of true human suffering— what some might call rich white people problems. I feel good about what I did and feel bad about what I haven’t done. I have received much more than I have given; I am in a process of transformation that won’t be complete until I take action. I am changed.
It was an enlightening adventure. I am proud to work for a man and an organization that truly places people before profit and thinks beyond their small piece of the planet. They have had a hand in Haiti Rising.