Haiti

Durham ministry in Haiti focuses on relationships amid need

Posted July 27, 2011 6:26 p.m. EDT

— The first images of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti were unimaginable. Up to 250,000 people died, and more than 1.5 million were left homeless.

Eighteen months later, progress has been slow and jagged. Even at the collapsed presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, there's debris and destruction. Residents say that it is as if time stood still.

Haiti is still in pain, but there are also signs that the country is healing, and Family Health Ministries of Durham has been a part of that.

Kath Walmer is the executive director of the ministry, which operates several projects all over Haiti and has worked in the country for nearly two decades.

"It's really about relationships," Walmer said. "Over the 17 years, we've built significant relationships in the community. It's great to build buildings, but it's really the people that we're here for. It's really the relationships that we've built that we're here for."

Dr. Nicole Larrier from Duke University is one of a number of volunteers at a clinic in Blanchard, near Port-au-Prince.

"The reason I stick with this group is because … they don't come in with a preconceived idea of what to do," Larrier said. "They come in and work with the people here and say, 'What do you want? What is your vision for the community?' and then decide how we can help."

Among those with her on a recent medical mission were a dermatologist, college students, a public health department consultant and a retired bank executive from BB&T.

"The most interesting thing is that we see a wide range of all ages," said Dr. Russell Hall. "We've seen people from their 70s (and) 80s to 2-month-old children to grandmothers to grandchildren – all together in large families. The things they've had have ranged from the things people would have anywhere – gastroesophageal reflux disease … arthritis and high blood pressure."

The tragedy, Russell said, is not what the people have but what they don't have to be able to treat common health problems.

Elsewhere in Haiti, in the town of Leogane, FHM runs a clinic for cervical cancer prevention. The disease is the leading cause of female deaths.

Dr. Delson Merisier, who runs the clinic, says that, in the 10 years that FHM has been in Leogane, women's attitudes about cancer have changed.

"A lot of women – before – came here when they got cancer," Merisier said. "Now, it's really different. They come before they get cancer, and now, we can treat them."

Beyond public health and women's issues, FMH also supports children and education. It's rebuilding a three-story school destroyed in the earthquake.

"We have our architecture plans drawn up. We have an engineer," Walmer said. "They were out here surveying two weeks ago, and the hope is to break ground in the next four weeks."

Fifty orphans who live in the small mountain community of Fondwa wait for that day. Living conditions have not been good since the earthquake, but they are much improved.

Walmer said it is the friends they've made in Haiti that allow them to deliver all of the much-needed services.

"The Haitians are smart. They know what the priorities are. They know what the problems are. They know what the solutions are, but it's the resourcing," she said. "Family Health Ministries comes in, and we're the resourcing, and we work in partnership with the community leaders to do whatever the need might be."