In the early part of January, a woman in her mid-sixties travelled from her hometown of Port-au-Prince in Haiti to Leogane, a town just about 20 miles west. She had gone to visit her daughter and her three grandchildren, aged nine months, three and seven years old.
Shortly after arriving at her daughter’s home, Leogane was the epicenter of the largest earthquake to hit Haiti since the 18th century. The woman’s daughter was beneath the toppled home, and her youngest granddaughter lay trapped under the rubble, only her feet showing. The woman rescued her three grandchildren but was unable to save her daughter. The group then trekked 75 miles to the community of Hinche, where they met Marilyn McIlroy, a volunteer from Elmira.
“The woman said to me, ‘How can I look after these children?’ and handed the youngest girl to me saying, ‘she is yours now, I want you to have her.’”
This was just one of the stories that McIlroy heard this month as she revisited several communities in Haiti, the place where the massive earthquake took her friend Yvonne Martin’s life just three months prior.
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McIlroy, the relief and development coordinator for the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada (EMCC), was in Haiti on Jan. 12 when the quake struck. The group of volunteers from the Elmira area were on a medical mission and had just arrived when the earth shook. Yvonne Martin was the first Canadian to be confirmed dead in the devastated region. Her body was found the day after the guesthouse she was staying in collapsed under the pressure of the tremor. The rest of the group evacuated the country within the next few days.
McIlroy’s return to the stricken country marked the start of a new mission, accompanied by new fears, new emotions and new passion.
“For me, the trip had a few purposes,” she explained. “Firstly, I needed to have some closure with relation to Yvonne’s death, and also, now we need to figure out what we can do to help.”
While spending the week in a number of different villages, McIlroy talked with community leaders, as well as leaders of relief agencies that are already helping rebuild the country. She got involved with the construction of affordable, easy-to-build, lightweight homes that can withstand both hurricanes and earthquakes, to be built and provided to Haitians currently living in tent cities.
“There are hardly any trees in the city, and by 7 a.m. it was already extremely hot in the tent cities. If you had a baby or a toddler who you wanted to lay down for an afternoon nap, they would just cook. Where do you go?”
EMCC’s plan for redevelopment is one of many plans to be implemented in the country, but at this point, said McIlroy, the place looks basically as it did when she left.
“People have asked me, ‘With all the money going in, why are buildings still like this? Haven’t they done anything?’ but they are still recovering. There was so much loss. They are probably still recovering bodies. They are only now beginning to think about rebuilding.”
While there, McIlroy and her team identified a few areas of need, including education for internally displaced students and the continuation of building projects – housing, churches and schools specifically, and all of these needs require continued funding.
“There is a need for continued aid and continued assistance by our governments and by organizations,” she noted. “It is very important that countries fulfill the funding promises that they’ve given. We cannot forget Haiti even though it’s not on the radar as much. I have a lot of hope that this focus on Haiti will make a huge difference.”
In addition to support from the governments, McIlroy said she is especially impressed and proud of the outpouring of support that came from Woolwich Township. More than $80,000 was donated to the Yvonne Martin memorial fund, to be given to Haitian youth interested in pursuing medical studies.
“The support that Haiti saw from our community was incredible, and I think it is so important. We have been blessed with so much. It is not necessarily a bad thing to be blessed with so much, but it is certainly our responsibility to care for our neighbours. And our neighbours are not just in Elmira, or Waterloo Region, or even Canada, but they are global.”
McIlroy plans to return to Haiti in July to continue the mission her group had originally planned to do, and she is looking for some volunteers to join her. Although she may have gone to be of help, she always learns an incredible amount from the communities in Haiti in return, every visit.
“Even in the midst of a disaster, the people over there are so resilient,” she explained. “They didn’t have anything much to begin with and even now, they are still thankful and grateful. They continue to live in a way which is not dependant on the things that they have, but are much more connected to family and their community; what is important is people as opposed to things. Relationships as opposed to stuff. There is something that every one of us could take from that.”