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Bringing the hope for a better tomorrow

The children in Haiti Todd Stettner and Tricia Uhlmann visited recently love to be in photos. Here Uhlmann shows the children who attend the mountain school photos on her mobile phone. The school receives help from JDC and Heart to Heart International. Both organizations are partners with the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City.

Repairing the world is something we think a lot about at the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City. So when Patricia Uhlmann, immediate past board chair of the Jewish Federation, and I were asked to visit medical clinics in Haiti with Heart to Heart International (HHI), it was an opportunity we couldn’t refuse.

 

We visited Haiti in early October. Our local Jewish Federation has worked with HHI — a medical relief organization based in Olathe — since 2002. Steve Israelite, who at the time was the director of the Jewish Heritage Foundation, initially connected the organizations. HHI was instrumental in helping us acquire much needed medical supplies for the Jewish communities in Romania and Bulgaria.

We reciprocated by assisting HHI when disasters like hurricanes and tsunamis struck in the Far East and here in the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina and following the devastating tornadoes in Greensburg, Kansas, and Joplin, Missouri. We connected them with our overseas partner, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). The two have worked together through JDC’s International Development Program (IDP), the arm of JDC that works on international disasters and other projects on Jewish Federations’ behalf. IDP is supported with funds outside of the annual community campaigns of Jewish Federations, usually acquired through grants and emergency mailboxes set up for specific causes.

Since the 2010 earthquake, Haiti has been a country in progress. Everywhere you look you see buildings that are partially built. That is because they build as they have money. When the money runs out, they stop and wait until the next time they have cash. 

Garbage is everywhere. Goats and pigs roam the streets and feast on the buffet of whatever is in these piles. In sharp contrast to the garbage you see on the streets, you see boys and girls walking to school in clean, crisp school uniforms. Most attend church schools of their choice.

We moved about the country in caravans of SUVs, sometimes for three hours at a time. It took us that long to drive 30 miles to a medical clinic in a rural area outside of Port-au-Prince to see Heart to Heart’s work firsthand. The trek was not so long because the roads were bad, but because there are no traffic lights, stop signs or police to direct traffic. It was bumper to bumper until we were well into the rural areas. The clinics, where HHI does life-saving work, are no more than large metal containers converted into buildings, the kind you see in shipyards. 

Traveling teams of doctors and nurses visit for a couple of days at a time and see upwards of 250 patients during a visit. They do basic physical exams, lab work and more. The doctor we met with was named Dr. Love! The name is very appropriate for the care and concern he showed his patients. 

There are no appointments at these clinics. Sometimes patients wait all day before they get to see a nurse or medical assistant, let alone a doctor. Haitians greatly appreciate any and all medical help they receive and very much need in a country that is still very, very poor.

The Church of the Resurrection (COR) in Overland Park also does work in Haiti. Sheree Reece, the director of these COR projects, was with us on our journey. We visited with local community organized councils called “Federations.” These “Federations” are supported with dollars from COR and are working to revitalize local towns in Haiti. 

These groups reminded me very much of the Project Renewal programs in Israel we have worked with for years and the Shalom Bulgaria and Romanian Federation organization in Romania that we work with in Eastern Europe. Like we found with our programs in Romania, Bulgaria and Israel, COR is finding that the programs they are funding are not simply one-year programs. COR has learned they need to be prepared to sustain and engaged with these program for many years if they want to make real impact. The people of Haiti, just as in our partnerships, are very grateful.

Lastly, and the biggest surprise for me, was visiting a wonderful elementary and middle school in the mountains founded by Father Joseph. It is run by Catholic nuns who received a great deal of support from JDC right after the earthquake to help the school rebuild. As soon as we pulled into the school’s courtyard, we were mobbed by the children who were very excited to see us. The older ones spoke some English and didn’t mind conversing. The younger ones just wanted to hold our hands and have us take their pictures with our phones. Then they grabbed our phones to slide through the photos. I had a camera and they were a little befuddled as to why they could not slide through the photos I had just taken, but rather had to click through them instead!

Hope is very important to the Haitian people and education is their way out of poverty. According to the HHI staff, it may take generations before real change can ever take effect. Some may even need to leave the country to make their fortunes and then return to reinvest in their homeland.

HHI normally does not stay in a place once the initial disaster relief has been provided and the area has been stabilized. But this time the humanitarian organization felt that Haiti needed long term help and they have hired Haitians to run the operations. COR staff also provides some part-time assistance and HHI staff move back and forth between the U.S. and Haiti, but the Haitians basically run the operation. 

Tricia and I felt very proud that in some small way we, the Jewish Federation in Kansas City and our overseas partner JDC, had partnered with HHI to begin to move this small island country down a path toward self-sufficiency. The Hebrew phrase for this is tikkun olam, repair of the world.

While Hanukkah may not be exactly about repairing the world, it is about shining a light in a dark place and bringing the hope of a better tomorrow. Whether that better tomorrow is about freedom of religion or freedom from hunger and disease, Heart to Heart International is doing that wherever it goes and we were proud to witness that and to be working alongside them. It is a true mitzvah, a blessing, being able to assist each other and make use of each other’s strengths whenever and wherever they are needed as we say here: everywhere …everyday!

Todd Stettner is president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City. This article originally appeared as Stettner’s blog dissimenated by the Jewish Federation.