February 26, 2010

Disaster draws attention to Mainers' ties with Haiti


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John Patriquin /Staff Photographer; Friday. 01/15/2010 Matt Wickenheiser studio photo.

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Matt Wickenheiser

Jack Milton

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Staff Writer

SANTIAGO DE LOS CABALLEROS, Dominican Republic — The four women stood at the Caribe Tours bus stop, their luggage packed with school supplies and medical kits .

They waited for the bus to Cap-Haitien, Haiti, with plans to travel to the village of Terrier Rouge, about 15 miles outside Haiti's second-largest city. One of them had been visiting Terrier Rouge once a year since 2002. For the others, it was their first trip to Haiti.

All of them are from Maine.

For the next four-plus hours, they shared a bus with Nate Nickerson, executive director of Kombit Sante, a Portland-based nonprofit organization that works to improve the health care system in Cap-Haitien, and with a reporter and photographer from MaineToday Media.

What are the odds?

Nickerson wasn't surprised.

''There are amazing Maine-Haiti connections,'' he said.

The connections span Maine, far beyond Portland's sister-cityhood with Cap-Haitien, the country's second-largest community. Throughout the state, church groups have forged connections with communities in the world's poorest nation, doing what they can to help. Maine charities have long helped Haiti, and the latest natural disaster has highlighted those efforts even more.

Terry Johnston of Jefferson, Hannah Koski of Newcastle, Helen Barnes of Palermo and Elizabeth Libby of Montville left Saturday for the Dominican Republic, with plans to travel overland to Haiti. The trip had been planned for some time, and the earthquake that leveled Port-au-Prince last week didn't deter them.

The roads and planes to the region are packed with volunteers heading down to Port-au-Prince hoping to help. Others with experience, contacts and demands in other parts of the country, such as Nickerson and Johnston, are focusing their efforts where they know they'll be able to help and won't accidentally become a liability.

''I don't know anyone down there (in Port-au-Prince). I'd just be in the way,'' said Johnston, the Haiti veteran of her group, who has set up a network through her church to help the villagers in Terrier Rouge by sponsoring schoolchildren and families and providing food, medical care and other assistance to the elderly.

She plans on helping her friends in the village, many of whom lost relatives in Port-au-Prince. She knows, too, that many in the northern village will be sending food and supplies down to the epicenter.

''As poor as they are, they're going to ship what they can to Port-au-Prince,'' Johnston said. ''They're going to pull together, and they will be stronger.

''I've never seen such a tough people. They just have such substance. And they've always had heart. If anyone can get through this earthquake, it's the Haitians.''

Koski cried for three days after the earthquake hit, struggling with the fact that there would be so much dire need in Port-au-Prince while she was in northern Haiti.

She came to terms with not going down to the capital when her sister asked her, bluntly, what would happen if she were to run into a burning building trying to save someone. There would just be another body for firefighters to pull from the wreckage, Koski acknowledged.

Johnston owns Broken Acres Farm, an organic operation in Jefferson. Koski is her farmhand. For years, the Rev. Apollon Noel, the minister in Terrier Rouge, came to her church, South Somerville Baptist, to talk about his village's needs.

He tried to persuade Johnston to come to Haiti and use her skills as a farmer to help Terrier Rouge. Take my money, Johnston would tell him, unwilling to head down.

''Finally I went down, and I was hooked,'' she said.

Johnston started working to find Maine sponsors to help children attend a Baptist school in Terrier Rouge.

The first year, she had 35 kids. Today, there are 170 kids sponsored through the program. For $70 a year, the students are able to attend school, and they are sponsored from age 3 until they finish a college prep course -- essentially Grade 13.

''It isn't much -- 9 million people in Haiti, it's a ripple in a pond,'' she said. ''But it's something.''

Barnes knows that firsthand. She's sponsored two children, now ages 7 and 12, for four years and is looking forward to meeting them. She wants to ''be a blessing to them and do whatever I can to help.''

Koski said she spent some months in Cameroon working with children and helping to build a school. But she felt she wasn't necessarily giving the people what they wanted or needed. She's going to Haiti without preconceptions and plans to help out however she's needed.

''I hope to go into it with more of an open heart,'' she said.

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:


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Additional Photos

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Gordon Chibroski

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Terry Johnston of Jefferson hands a lunch to a boy in the border town of Dajabon in the Dominican Republic on Sunday, January 17, 2010. She had received the lunch on her bus trip to Cap Haitien. Jefferson came to Haiti with three other women from Maine to deliver supplies to the town of Terrier Rouge, about 15 miles east of Cap Haitien.

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Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer: Hannah Koski of Newcastle, left, Helen Barnes of Palermo, center and Terry Johnston gather up their luggage upon arriving in Cap Haitien, Haiti on Sunday, January 17, 2010. The women were bringing supplies to a nearby town called Terrier Rouge where Johnston has been working since 2002. The women had planned the trip before the earthquake happened.

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