When the ground shook in Haiti on January 12, the emotional impact could be felt 1,500 miles away in the heart of the West Virginia University campus.
Mountaineers’ connection to Haiti is stark and personal, with stories coming to light every day of faculty, staff and students who are deeply involved in some way.
There is a Haitian native on the football team; an undergraduate who works for musician and activist Wyclef Jean, one of Haiti’s most famous sons; a faculty member whose parents devoted much of their life to caring for Haiti’s sick; and a countless number of others who’ve stepped up to help.
These are just some of the stories:
Guesly Dervil, who came to WVU to play cornerback, may have felt the deepest tremors. A successful student-athlete, who will graduate with a degree in sociology this May, Dervil was born in Haiti and lived there until he was 11 years old.
His mother moved Dervil and his brother Guerlin, a former North Carolina State linebacker, to Miami and then Jacksonville, FL, while his sister, Guerline, stayed behind in Haiti, along with numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, and childhood friends.
As soon as news of the earthquake broke, Dervil rushed to Miami to be with his family and wait for word from loved ones still on the island. Needless to say, the first hours and days were tense, with no way to get in touch with anyone.
Dervil eventually spoke to his sister, who was OK, but the news was not positive.
“Bro, come get me,” she said. “I’m tired of seeing dead bodies.”
His family spoke of the trauma of seeing devastation and lifeless bodies everywhere and there are many cousins and friends whose fate is still unknown.
“Right now my auntie, my uncle and three of my cousins, we don’t know where they are,” he said Thursday (Jan. 28).
Relief is slowly making its way to his family. They have food and water, but are still sleeping in the open air. They are just a few of the thousands of Haitians who are in need of shelter.
Dervil is coping the only way he knows how, by staying positive, pragmatic and proud.
“One of the things about the Haitian people, we come together,” he said. “One of the things that we bleed is loyalty so that if we’re friends, and I’m eating and you’re starving and your kids are starving, we’re going to take care of you and your kids based on our friendship.”
Though it is excruciatingly hard for him to hear about the horrors and contemplate the whereabouts of his friends and family, he maintains a positive outward appearance, “crying on the inside,” as he puts it, in the way that he says Haitians get through tough times.
Dervil felt out of place when he arrived in the United States, speaking only Creole and French, wearing drab clothes, and kicking a soccer ball while his classmates, dressed in trendy jeans and flashy sneakers, taunted him in English and played the totally foreign, to him, game of football.
It was football that, in the end, helped him and his brother learn English, make friends, and succeed in school, along with a positivity and willingness to help those in need that Dervil credits to his upbringing as a Haitian.
This is heritage he remains proud of, never losing sight of Haiti’s rich history and culture.
Dervil finds strength in Haiti’s historic achievements. Haiti is site of the first massive and successful slave uprising, which resulted in Haiti becoming the first black independent republic in the world in 1804.
Although Haiti has been beset with outside troubles that led to great economic poverty, Haitians are far from emotionally bankrupt. Nor are they into feeling sorry for themselves; they’re into doing.
Dervil points out that he would give his last nickel to buy a starving man a meal.
“This is just what Haitians do,” he said.
Dervil and a friend are working at WVU to gather material and donations for Haiti, and this is his message to the WVU community: Give. Give money, shoes, clothing, water, or time. Every small gift will help.
Matt Sunday, pre-journalism major at WVU, was deeply affected by the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, affected in a way he never was with other recent natural disasters.
“It’s different when your friends can’t find their sisters and cousins,” says Sunday, of Venetia, PA.
Before, Sunday saw Haiti as a place in need of change.
After, he saw friends and strangers in need of help.
In the hours after the earthquake hit, Sunday spoke with two friends that he knew from working as a digital intern for Haitian-born and Grammy award-winning musician Wyclef Jean. The three discussed how they could bring their passion for Haiti and their talent for concert promotion together to make a positive impact on the relief efforts.
They knew there were benefit shows being organized. But they also knew these small-scale productions wouldn’t get much, if any, press.
Sunday’s group reached out to promoters and artists, asking about the fundraising concerts being organized in their cities. The response was fantastic, and Sunday quickly put together a website to publicize these grassroots efforts.
iRelief (www.irelief.info) has three components: links to donate money, a list of drop locations for physical donations (shoes, water, medicine) and a listing of Haiti benefit shows being held across the country.
The site has had great word-of-mouth response. High-profile artists have stepped up to spread the word, and, in the first four days the site was live, it recorded 600 unique views.
Sunday hopes the response will grow once the social media effort to publicize the site gets under way.
iRelief is currently focusing on helping Haiti, but Sunday is confident that should another disaster hit, the website can quickly be updated to raise awareness for any situation.
Sunday would like iRelief to be an effective part of the current relief efforts for a long time, especially after the initial days and weeks.
In an effort to keep the momentum going, Sunday is coordinating WVU’s ongoing shoe collection, as well as organizing a few small concerts in Morgantown in the coming months as a way to raise money and maintain awareness of the Haitian peoples’ plight.
“It’s not just about the next two weeks,” Sunday said. “Helping has to last beyond the fad. People can’t forget about Haiti.”
Gwen Bergner, WVU professor of English, took her first trip to Haiti before she was even born. Her mother and father, both physicians, had been traveling to Haiti to practice medicine at Hospital Albert Schweitzer since 1961. In 1963, Renee Bergner was pregnant with Gwen when she and her husband made their yearly visit.
Since then, Gwen has been back to Haiti often, even living in the country from 1969-1970. She has served on the executive committee for the HAS Alumni Association and written for its newsletter.
“My experience with Haiti and HAS has been the single most important influence and privilege of my life,” Bergner said.
“The people are kind, charismatic and vibrant. So many visitors get hooked and keep going back. My family’s story is not unique,” she added.
HAS was founded in 1956 by Dr. Larry Mellon, heir to the Mellon family fortune, and his wife, Gwen. Mellon was inspired by Albert Schweitzer, Noble Peace Prize winner, philosopher, theologian and physician, who founded a hospital in rural western Africa.
Schweitzer’s philosophy, “Reverence for Life,” is the guiding principle at HAS: “Help life where you find it,” which Bergner interprets as “You might not be able to save everyone, but you help those you can.”
HAS has been helping all those it can since the first hours after the disaster, currently serving 500 patients in a facility with only 80 beds.
Located just northwest of Port-au-Prince and not damaged by the earthquake, the hospital has been performing surgeries for people who have escaped the devastation but are in dire need of medical attention, all while trying to maintain stamina within its ranks and maximize utilization of dwindling supplies.
Hearing about the hospital’s enormous need, and knowing Bergner’s long-standing involvement and commitment to the organization, her friends and colleagues responded quickly and generously to the relief efforts, including the WVU English Graduate Organization, which launched a fundraising campaign benefitting HAS as its annual spring community service project.
Bergner is grateful for the help that the WVU community has shown to Haiti and HAS, and feels that those who help will be rewarded with gratitude and grace from the Haitian people, even from afar.
“What is true of everyone I know who has been to Haiti and worked to help the people there is that we feel we get more out of it than we give. That is certainly true for me,” Bergner said.
Bergner wants people to know that, although Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, it is not primitive or barbaric place.
“It is a nation of love and laughter, pride and hard work,” she said.
Jason Stupp, WVU graduate student studying English, was deeply touched by the images he saw of children and parents suffering in the wake of the recent Haiti disaster.
Not being able to offer help directly, he decided to present Haitian literature to his students as a way to teach them about the culture of the island-nation, as well as to provide the students with stories that put recent events into context and allow them to make a connection they might not from just reading news reports.
“I think it is important to remember that literary studies often involve us in significant cultural work, and, some might even say, in an intervention into common misconceptions about the cultures and histories of the world’s people,” Stupp said.
Stupp, from Senaca Falls, VA, also wanted his students to make a connection between reading, writing and giving back.
“As a part of a large university with many resources, I think we can show students how they can use their writing to promote change and make the world a better place,” he said.
Fifteen members of Stupp’s English 242 class have volunteered to do public readings of Haitian literature and their own written responses to the events in Haiti at different Morgantown coffee shops. Stupp is working to confirm the dates and locations of these readings, as well as recruiting local musicians to perform alongside his students.
Students in Stupp’s English 102 class will be writing letters to newspapers and lawmakers as a grassroots public relations campaign to raise awareness about an older problem in Haiti, restaveks, that will only worsen in the aftermath of the earthquake.
Restavek is a Creole term for the 300,000 poor Haitian children who have been sent away from home to perform domestic labor for more affluent Haitian families. The exchange is supposed to benefit both families – the needy children get food, clothing, shelter, and an education while the host family gets household help.
It turns out that many restaveks are treated as slaves and abused.
“I think it’s important for the community to remain informed about these issues so we can collectively discuss them and lend our support. Some of these issues, such as the deplorable restavek system, go unnoticed or unspoken in popular culture and in the news, so one of the most important things we can do is just spread the word,” Stupp said.
“Support doesn’t always mean contributing money. Sometimes it is just taking the time to make others aware of the situation, participating in local events, volunteering to help at collection booths, writing to newspapers and representatives to raise awareness. Haiti will need help not just in the next few weeks, but for a long time to come,” he added.
These are only a few of the stories of Mountaineers’ response to the tragedy in Haiti. The WVU Center for Civic Engagement, under the umbrella of “Dollars for Disaster,” is coordinating a multitude of events and campaigns to help the relief effort.
Information is available at http://dollarsfordisaster.wvu.edu.
For more information on the organizations mentioned here, follow theses links:
Hospital Albert Schweitzer: www.hashaiti.org
Jean R. Cadet Restavek Foundation: www.restavekfreedom.org
By Liz Dickinson
WVU News and Information Services
CONTACT: News and Information Services