Tropical breezes. Deep blue skies. Friendly natives.
No electricity or running water. No jobs. No police.
These were some of the contrasts several Vienna residents observed early October during their biannual trip to Pignon, Haiti — population 35,000. Yet despite the poverty, members of two local churches and one local hospital said they encountered a community full of hope.
“You can’t help but be struck by the spirituality of the people, of the hope of the people,” said Rose Miles Robinson, associate pastor for the First Baptist Church in Vienna.
Robinson was part of a 17-member group that went to Pignon to assist in pharmacy inventory and CPR and midwife classes at the local mission hospital. They also aided in establishing water treatment for the hospital’s dormitories, interacted with local churches, and gave expertise to several local cottage industries.
The trip, which has occurred every spring and fall since 1999, was a partnership project between the predominantly white Vienna Presbyterian Church and the predominantly black First Baptist Church of Vienna. Several doctors and nurses also came from Fairfax Inova Hospital on Gallows Road.
“It helps me put things into perspective. It makes me realize that people can be happy without the material wealth we think we need as Americans,” said team leader and First Baptist member Carl Biggs, on why he went on the trip.
LOCATED 64 MILES from Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, the village of Pignon rests in a valley next to Mount Pignon. The main industry for the village is the hospital, which was founded in 1989 by Haitian-born and U.S. trained physician Guy Theodore.
Every year, medical professionals from all over the U.S. volunteer at Theodore’s hospital, the only hospital for miles in rural Haiti. Some of these professionals included members of the Vienna team. Vienna Presbyterian member Barbara Denom went to Haiti with her daughter, a nurse at Vanderbilt University. Her daughter was frustrated because she watched babies die from a complication that’s easily remedied in the U.S. Her daughter insisted that if she had the resources she had at Vanderbilt, she could’ve healed some children.
“There are things in our life that we take for granted, like brushing teeth,” Denom said.
Others team members contributed differently to the hospital. Biggs helped create a water and sewer system for the hospital’s dormitories, where most foreign volunteers live. Purifying the water encourages volunteers to stay longer at the hospital, Biggs said. Another team member, Amy MacNeil, helped teach the refresher CPR classes for pediatric nurses and the midwives course for the locals who handle the birthing deliveries.
The classes provide a visual aid to the locals, many of whom cannot read.
“A lot of the social messages have to be communicated through song, because people don’t know how to read,” said Robinson. “There’s a song about oral rehydration therapy.”
ALTHOUGH THE HOSPITAL creates some economic stability for Pignon by providing locals with jobs, the hospital itself isn’t enough to sustain the region. Other team members helped with education and cottage industry projects.
Denom aided Haitian physician Jean Pierre Acene with his project independent of the hospital. The project, a mission school in the country just outside Pignon, provides elementary education to 300 students in the morning, and trade education such as sewing and carpentry in the afternoon. She also helped with the Mothers Clubs, which encourage microenterprise among locals by providing loans for produce and crafts that could be sold at the market.
Denom was shocked when she saw the women in the trade school sitting in a dark room and sharing two or three scissors between them all. She hopes she can send fabric donated by her quilting friends in the area.
“They were just running out of fabric. And I knew people who have fabric stashed in their homes,” Denom said.
Team member Thomas McCullough organizes scholarship programs for local schoolchildren. Unlike the U.S., children have to pay to go to school. He coordinates the Haiti Advanced Scholarship Program, which receives donations from both Vienna churches and provides college tuition or career training. Another scholarship program from a different organization pays for elementary education.
“Most of the time, when they ask me for something, it’s to send me to school,” McCullough said, adding that they don’t ask for food.
These other projects such as the Mothers Clubs provide some economic infrastructure to a place that has none, said team and Vienna Presbyterian member Brian Hays. Hays, who has been on the Haiti trip twice, said volunteers are trying to develop projects that would improve the airport and local roads, set up an electrical system and improve the water system for the hospital.
“If you get an area where there’s no economy, people are trapped in poverty,” Hays said.
IN ADDITION to the economic depravity of the region, 97 percent of Haiti has been heavily deforested, according to Hays. Trees have been cut down to make charcoal to cook food. Hays has been trying to get a solar energy expert to explore a solar cooking project.
“These people need help,” Hays said.
Yet despite the economic despair of the region, many team members said they were inspired by the locals’ content in their day-to-day life. Biggs’ son and his son’s friend went to Haiti last March, and met some Haiti teenagers their age.
“They were amazed that the kids were happy, despite having no TV, CDs, or radio,” Biggs said.
Robinson said her Haitian pastoral peer has conducted for the last nine years a worship service at 3 a.m., for laborers who have to travel two hours by foot every morning to go to work.
“I was tremendously impressed by the commitment of those who stayed there and worked with the community,” Robinson said.
Like many of his teammates, McCullough said he’d return to Haiti to finish the work he started.
“When I look back, I can see improvements,” McCullough said. “To me, it’s humbling, and makes you appreciate all that you have.”