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Helping Haiti heal: Members work to rebuild after quake

Focus turns to finding jobs and getting children back in school

PORT AU PRINCE, HAITI

On the day of the earthquake, Bethony Theodor got to school early, parked his car in the shade, and got out a battered textbook to study.

A slender man with narrow shoulders and a small waist, Brother Theodor was a member of the stake presidency in Port Au Prince, Haiti, and an employee with LDS Humanitarian Services.

Sister Marie Christensen visits in French with people attending a Church-sponsored immunization clinic.  As part of the effort, the Church is partnering with other organizations to immunize 90 percent of children under the age of 10.
Sister Marie Christensen visits in French with people attending a Church-sponsored immunization clinic. As part of the effort, the Church is partnering with other organizations to immunize 90 percent of children under the age of 10. Photo: Photo by E.W. Ristau

He had grown up in the countryside of Haiti, in a town without running water or electricity, but had come to the capital to improve his life. He lived in a middle class section of the city with his wife and three small children and studied in the late afternoon to become an accountant.

Brother Theodor always arrived a few minutes early to study in silence, but on that day — Jan. 10, 2010 — something felt off. Sensing a premonition that he should move, he got out of his car and went inside his classroom.

About 10 minutes later, he felt a low rumble, and then a thudding boom that shook the walls. The roof above him was collapsing. The largest earthquake Haiti had seen in a generation began toppling buildings, entombing tens of thousands of children beneath the wreckage of concrete and rebar.

Brother Theodor tried to stay calm, but the walls had collapsed around him. He said a fervent prayer and then saw a path out of the wreckage.

Once outside, he looked at the spot where he had parked his car. The car was gone, a clump of steel and glass reduced to sheet metal by a jagged piece of concrete. If Brother Theodor hadn't gone inside, he would have died in an instant.

"I felt like God had saved me," he said. "I couldn't understand why He had saved me and not so many others, but I felt a responsibility to help, to do all I could to help my country."

In the months after a devastating earthquake, LDS Humanitarian Services is contributing to an effort in Haiti to immunize children.
In the months after a devastating earthquake, LDS Humanitarian Services is contributing to an effort in Haiti to immunize children. Photo: Photo by E.W. Ristau

In the two years since the earthquake, Brother Theodor has done exactly that. As the director of LDS Humanitarian Services in Haiti, he helped coordinate the immediate response after the earthquake, and he has overseen the long-term effort to get Haitian members who lost everything back to work and back into their homes.

Immediately after the earthquake, many of the roads of Port Au Prince were impassable, covered in huge piles of rock. Buildings lay in ruins and twisted street signs stuck out of the ground. Tens of thousands of Haitians lay buried under the rubble.

In the months since a major earthquake in Haiti, members are working  -- with help from the Church -- to rebuild homes.
In the months since a major earthquake in Haiti, members are working -- with help from the Church -- to rebuild homes. Photo: Photo by E.W. Ristau
Bethony Theodor, director of LDS Humanitarian Services in Haiti, left, works with a Latter-day Saint bishop in Haiti who is building a new home.
Bethony Theodor, director of LDS Humanitarian Services in Haiti, left, works with a Latter-day Saint bishop in Haiti who is building a new home. Photo: Photo by E.W. Ristau
Work goes forward on repairing homes destroyed in the earthquake.
Work goes forward on repairing homes destroyed in the earthquake. Photo: Photo by E.W. Ristau

Working with the bishops of Port Au Prince's seven wards, Brother Theodor and other Church leaders formed a network, visiting the homes of all their members to make sure everyone was safe. Those who lost everything were directed to one of Port Au Prince's three chapels, and many brought along their non-member friends, where they could receive medical treatment, food and shelter flown in from Church Headquarters in Salt Lake City.

"To me, it was a very powerful example of how the priesthood works. Everyone showed up to help. The bishops, the young men, everyone," Brother Theodor said. "It also made me feel very good to know that I belong to an international church, and that members in Salt Lake cared about what was happening to us and wanted to help."

At first the Church flew supplies into the airport at Port Au Prince, but because many of the streets had been destroyed, and were so clogged with rescue vehicles, they began trucking relief supplies in from the Dominican Republic instead. To prevent looting, they stored the supplies at a warehouse on the outskirts of town owned by a wealthy member, and then every night Brother Theodor and a few others from the Church drove a caravan of trucks full of relief boxes to the chapels.

Brother Theodor worked closely with Lynn Samsel, the emergency response coordinator for Church Welfare Services in Salt Lake City, who rotated in and out a team of LDS doctors and mental health officials in the first few weeks after the earthquake. Brother Samsel said he was impressed by how much the Haitian members had done before his team even got there.

Elder Van Christensen and Sister Marie Christensen are serving as humanitarian service missionaries in Haiti, where the Church is helping members rebuild, find jobs and get their children in school.
Elder Van Christensen and Sister Marie Christensen are serving as humanitarian service missionaries in Haiti, where the Church is helping members rebuild, find jobs and get their children in school. Photo: Photo by E.W. Ristau

"That's the way it's been whenever there has been a disaster like this," Brother Samsel said. "In Chile after the earthquake, the members opened up their food storage and shared it with their neighbors. It's our job to relieve suffering wherever we find it, and to help people whether they are members of our Church or not."

In the months after the earthquake, the focus moved beyond triage, and Brother Theodor turned his focus to finding jobs for members who lost theirs during the earthquake, getting children back in to schools, and rebuilding homes that were destroyed.

Elder Van Christensen and Sister Marie Christensen are serving as humanitarian service missionaries in Haiti, where the Church is helping members rebuild, find jobs and get their children in school.
Elder Van Christensen and Sister Marie Christensen are serving as humanitarian service missionaries in Haiti, where the Church is helping members rebuild, find jobs and get their children in school. Photo: Photo by E.W. Ristau

On a recent spring day, Brother Theodor drove out to Canaan, a settlement about nine miles outside of Port Au Prince that sprang up on a mountain slope after the earthquake. Tens of thousands of displaced Haitians now live here, many in temporary tents. A short distance away, in the open countryside, the Church is building 200 homes for members who need them. On the day Brother Theodor visited, one of the bishops of Port Au Prince was supervising the framing of a simple A frame house. As Brother Theodor approached, the sound of hammers nailing down a metal roof echoed across the valley.

"I would never say the earthquake was a blessing, because we lost so many people," Brother Theodor said. "It was a horrible thing and for those who lost people, they can't get them back. But we also learned our strength. This project will not only provide homes for members who don't have them, but it is also giving members jobs who lost work."

School children in Haiti drink Atmit, a Church-produced nutritional supplement used to fight famine in impoverished countries.
School children in Haiti drink Atmit, a Church-produced nutritional supplement used to fight famine in impoverished countries. Photo: Photo by E.W. Ristau

Later that afternoon, Brother Theodor visited the employment center at the Port Au Prince Haiti Stake Center, and met with a bishop who is now studying to get his degree, thanks to the Perpetual Education Fund. That same bishop is working with Brother Theodor to get more kids in to schools through an innovative program in which Brother Theodor trades things like used computers or food aid sent from Salt Lake for scholarships to good private schools.

School children in Haiti drink Atmit, a Church-produced nutritional supplement used to fight famine in impoverished countries.
School children in Haiti drink Atmit, a Church-produced nutritional supplement used to fight famine in impoverished countries. Photo: Photo by E.W. Ristau

"The people of Haiti, they will bring this country back," Brother Theodor said. "For me personally, this experience changed me. I spend my days thinking of others, more than I ever did before, and so I'm grateful for that. We still have a lot of work to do. But we'll get it done."

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