Cleveland resident Ray Aubrey, a 65-year-old materials group leader at the Whirlpool Cleveland Division plant on Benton Pike, has seen for himself the progress being made on the Caribbean island; he has returned from a recent weeklong community build in-country where he had a hand in the massive restoration.
Aubrey, who was sent by his U.S.-based company as part of a four-member delegation of Whirlpool ambassadors, was one of 619 volunteers who helped to construct 100 new homes in six days during the 29th annual Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project. The spirited rebuild took place the week after Thanksgiving.
But it wasn’t just about erecting new homes alongside displaced Haitian families. It was about teaching them construction skills, empowering them to organize their modest communities into the Hispanola equivalent of neighborhood watch programs, and training them with viable life skills for the present and future.
Sharing an island with the Dominican Republic, Haiti was already a terribly impoverished country on Jan. 11, 2010. Its plight as the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation plunged the country into a deeper abyss a day later when a 7.0 earthquake killed by some estimates 316,000 people, destroyed 250,000 residences and 30,000 businesses, and left more than 1 million Haitians homeless.
In the nearly three years since the tragedy, global organizations like Habitat for Humanity, UNICEF, the United Nations and an Irish nonprofit called Haven — among many, many others — have been instrumental in helping the crippled country to its feet.
Much has been done, but much work remains.
Since launching its recovery project, Habitat for Humanity has built 40,000 homes alongside victimized Haitian families. The organization will construct 10,000 more by the end of 2013.
The recent Carter Work Project added another 100 small homes to the community of Santo located in the town of Leogane which is located about 18 miles west of the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. Leogane was at the epicenter of the earthquake which destroyed 90 percent of the buildings in the region. In a similar home build in 2011, the CWP erected 155 new homes.
“Unfortunately, Haiti is almost a typical third-world country,” Aubrey, a veteran of past missions to Africa, said upon his return to Cleveland. “There’s just not the support there that it really needs [to recover quickly].”
By support, Aubrey was referring to infrastructure — which the poor country already lacked — and a government that is overwhelmed with need throughout its dense population of almost 10 million people.
Aubrey and three Whirlpool co-workers from different cities — Daniel Page-Wood, Benton Harbor, Mich.; Amy Gardner, Chicago; and Amy Gemmel, Knoxville — got their first look at the task ahead on the hourlong ride on 12 buses from Port-au-Prince to Leogane, and on to a fenced compound named Christianville whose array of tents and cots would become their homes for the next week.
“We were on a fairly heavily trafficked road and yet there was open water coming [across the route],” he recalled. “There were numerous places where you barely squeezed by oncoming traffic because of the congestion of the road. There were no road markings per se so people were driving helter-skelter. You sometimes had two lanes of traffic coming at you and it was only a two-lane road.”
Aubrey described the primitive roads as a “hodge-podge” that reminded him of cow paths.
“It was almost like they’d taken a cattle trail, and you know how they meander through a field, and just widened them to make room for vehicular traffic,” he described.
Yet, the brief trip to the encampment also provided evidence of three years of progress. Aubrey said he sat beside a repeat volunteer from the 2011 CWP build who told of how much of the debris had been cleared and that foliage and green vegetation had now taken its place.
Security, especially for foreign volunteers, is high in Haiti. The Christianville compound is surrounded by 8-foot-high wire fencing with razor wire coils on top. The complex is surrounded 24 hours a day by guards armed with shotguns. Each morning and evening, the bus caravan was escorted to and from the build site by armed law enforcement on motorcycles and in SUVs.
“We were a spectacle coming through town each day, as you might imagine,” Aubrey remembered.
The fenced compound was for only one purpose — a secure site for volunteers to sleep and to eat when not on the build site.
Little more than a tent city, Christianville offered an array of tents whose sizes ranged from two persons to 20. Each had cots and a gravel base. The camp had plywood cubicles that served as modest bathrooms, but they did have flushing toilets. Showers were available, but not hot water.
Volunteers had no radio nor TV, but were given access to other electronics like laptops, the Internet, Wi-Fi and several telephones where international calls could be made at no charge. A community tent served as the mess hall. It would serve breakfast and dinner in three staggered shifts until all volunteers had been fed. Workers ate sandwiches for lunch on the construction site.
An Irish nonprofit organization called Haven, which has worked in Haiti for years even before the earthquake, provided the meals as well as construction volunteers.
“Haven is an amazing organization, just amazing,” Aubrey said. The group worked closely with native Haitians to run the feeding program for volunteers as well as to provide half the construction workers during the Carter Work Project.
Volunteers were not spoiled, but they were cared for well, and their safety was a priority among the locals. For most American workers, the conditions would have been considered primitive; for native Haitians, they were the norm.
At the construction site, each building team was tasked to construct two small houses — whose dimensions were about 700 to 800 square feet — within a week’s time. Aubrey’s team was comprised of the four Whirlpool employees, four Haven volunteers, one team leader (from the U.S.) and a 10th “extra,” who also was American.
All floor designs were the same. Each house was comprised of a front porch, a common living room and a family bedroom, but no kitchen. The bathroom and shower facilities were outside behind each house. The roofs were metal. The walls were plywood on the interior with a type of masonite siding on the exterior. The houses had no running water. Groups of about 12 families each shared a single well and pump. The houses sat on a concrete pad and a four-foot foundation made of cinder blocks.
Because the 2011 Carter Work Project fell short of completing all of its homes, Aubrey said this year’s group was given an extra half day. The team began construction at about midday on Sunday, Nov. 25, instead of Monday.
In Haiti, the homes are small — more like “tiny” by U.S. standards — but the Habitat for Humanity structures are built using quality materials, professional processes and all adhere to construction standards for hurricane proofing, and this now includes being earthquake resistant; at least, as well as homes can be prepared for such natural disasters in a tropical climate.
Aubrey was impressed with how each team of volunteers worked together, and how the Haitian homeowners worked hard to help build the structures.
“Anything that you asked them (Haitians) to do, they would get out there and give it their all,” he said. “At times, you could see they were kind of awestruck that this was coming together so quickly. They would sometimes just stand there and look at the house with a big smile on their faces.”
Like anything else, housing is a matter of perspective, Aubrey said. In most American cities, the houses would be called miniature, and would be considered little more than half a duplex. In Haiti, they are castles, he stressed. They are homes for a native people who have never known luxury and whose struggle for life is leveraged on a “wealth” of about $2 per day.
Building houses for a week in a third-world land whose amenities in some cases are fewer than some of Africa’s poorest countries is a life-changing opportunity for American volunteers, Aubrey believes.
“This is such an enriching experience personally because you come together with a group of people that you don’t know, a group of people you’ve never met, people from a foreign country ... and you come together with a common goal, and you work together to see that goal come to fruition,” he offered. “To be able to stand back at the end of the week, or at the end of the build, and say, ‘We’ve done this. We’ve accomplished something.’ You realize then you’ve given something of yourself, of your time and of your talents. But the reward is so much more than what you’ve invested.”
It’s all about helping another human being to grasp for a better life, Aubrey added.
The Cleveland worker saluted his Whirlpool teammates and his company for their commitment to Habitat for Humanity, to the beleaguered people of Haiti and to a conviction to be a part of the international community by contributing to its betterment.
“These other team members that Whirlpool pulled together were some of the best people that you could find anywhere,” Aubrey said. “They were open. They were caring. They were sharing. Several times one of them would look at me during the work day and say, ‘You look like you need to take a break’ or ‘You look overheated’ or ‘Here, let me get you a drink of water.’ It was a team. We were working together and watching out for one another.”
He added, “But at the same time, we [Whirlpool volunteers] were working to make sure the other members of our group were involved and that other members of our group got to do things they wanted to do.”
For instance, some had never roofed. On this build, they roofed.
Some had never operated a jigsaw or a reciprocating saw. On this build, they did.
For the volunteers, the trip was all about the work. No sightseeing. No play. No one left the compound at night. No one veered from the construction site by day. Their lone distraction came in the early evenings between dinner and bedtime. One form of group entertainment came on Wednesday evening with Talent Night when workers were allowed to shine with microphone instead of a hammer.
Aubrey remembers it came at a good time. Temperatures neared 90 daily and the heat index sometimes hovered around 100.
“On Wednesday afternoon, I think everyone hit a wall,” he said. “You could just feel it across the whole build site. Volunteers were beginning to wonder whether we were going to make it. The humidity from that morning’s rain just really took it out of you later in the day.”
But with a cold shower, some Irish stew, a couple of bottled waters and a chance to relax with co-workers, the group was reinvigorated.
“I guess on that Wednesday night we got to laugh, carry on a little bit, and we knew Thursday was the last full day of work so we knew we had to get it done,” Aubrey said with a smile.
With a pensive stare into space and a thoughtful tone, the Whirlpool employee admitted the week’s work put a roof over the heads of “only” 100 more families. But he returned to “perspective.” Although the Carter Work Project was just one week, Habitat for Humanity — and other recovery organizations — are on ground in Haiti year-round.
While the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter workforce was erecting 100 new homes, some other group was building 100 more. And another team was adding to that. And yet another project was tacking on even more.
With this kind of gradual progress, can a devastated people like the Haitians — in spite of their already impoverished conditions — see a light at the end of the tunnel?
Aubrey paused. And then he answered.
“I would say ‘yes,’ because the few people we could help in one week now have seen what teamwork can do. The community that we built alongside the existing community [from the 2011 build] has already started to function as a group.”
And that’s what the 2011 homeowners did.
In the year’s time since the Santo community’s first Carter Work Project, many families have expanded their modest homes. Some have enclosed their open front porches to create another room. Others have started up businesses from their yards. Many are now raising crops in community gardens.
“[The 2011 group] has started to have common goals,” Aubrey said. “They’re growing their gardens. They’ve gone through a lot of training [by Habitat for Humanity and other international organizations]. They have been empowered to decide their own destiny.”
He drew a comparison to American history.
“It’s like our own Founding Fathers,” Aubrey said. “When they came over here, they wanted to be free to plot the course of their lives, to raise their children without restraint. That’s what our Santo community of houses will be doing.”
He pointed out, “Although there are multitudes and multitudes we did not touch or impact, we planted a seed in the lives of a few hundred in that community. They now know there’s a better way ... a safer way to live, a better way to raise their children. They now have opportunities that they can share with others.”
Still, the people of Haiti face an uphill struggle without the continued aid of their global neighbors — not in the form of handouts, as Habitat for Humanity phrases it, but in a repeated series of handups aimed at education, life skills training, jobs creation, economic development and personal ambition, Aubrey analyzed.
“It’s like that movie, ‘Pay It Forward,’” he said. “The Haitians are paying it forward ... through the sweat equity that goes into building their homes, and the fact that you have to work to help not only yourself but other homeowners and other people who want to have a better life. Through that, you pay it forward to the next generation.”
Emerging from its third-world status won’t come overnight for Haiti, nor will it come in a few years time, Aubrey believes.
“What they really have to have is a government that can plan a future and that can develop a network of agencies that help one another ... whether to provide education, training, skills development, import/export or anything else,” he said.
“Difference making” will have to come within the heart of the Haitian government in partnership with the world, but its focus must aim for the youngest generation, Aubrey added.
One of Haiti’s glaring problems currently is that 30 to 40 percent of its population is undocumented, Aubrey said.
“[For many] there is no birth certificate, no certificate of baptism ... there’s no school record for many of them; there are no driver’s licenses for the vast majority ... they are not registered voters,” he stressed. “This points to the ‘third worldness’ of the country.”
Change must start early in life because this is the generation that will build the Haitian future, Aubrey offered.
“A child without hope, a child without a dream, a child without any prospect to have a better life is too much the norm in Haiti right now,” he noted. “That’s what’s got to change.”
Working in Haiti for a week and seeing the people’s plight without coming away with a full resolution is sometimes frustrating for volunteers, and is even worse for the Haitians.
“Your heart, as a volunteer, goes out to these people,” Aubrey said. “Even in America, we have hundreds of thousands of people in need of a helping hand. But here, we’ve got churches with soup kitchens. We’ve got community shelters. We’ve got the American Red Cross. We’ve got some semblance of support. But in Haiti, all of that is nonexistent, except for the outside agencies that are coming in, and the missions and missionaries who are providing what support they can.”
Once the houses were built, the cleanup completed and the traditional dedications made to the proud new owners, the final act by the volunteers was perhaps the most gracious. They gave the Haitians the shirts off their backs.
Most CWP volunteers left their work clothing, their boots, their personally owned tools and a few gifts at Christianville as they departed for the airport in Port-au-Prince. The clothes would be laundered, the boots cleaned and the tools assembled, and all would be distributed to Haitian families who were rebuilding their lives and molding new dreams in the doing.
“The need there is so great,” Aubrey offered behind reddening eyes. “There is always ... always someone there who will be able to use them.”