Last July, the Valley Journal reported on a story about a small team of locals who were building a hospital in Haiti. As that project nears completion, we sat down with the team again to discuss their progress, experience and what still needs to be done.
“The more I go, the less I want to come back,” says Lynzi Blacker, reminiscing about her trip to Haiti in January. She speaks about her love for the people there who face not only problems caused by a devastating 7.0 earthquake at the outset of 2010, but also crippling poverty and recent disease outbreaks.
Blacker had been traveling to Haiti with the charity organization Compassion International before the 2010 disaster. After the quake, the needs of Haiti grew and so did the response from organizations, governments and people all over the world. Blacker is now involved with several projects in Haiti – including rebuilding the only hospital on the island of La Gonâve.
Building the hospital required raising more than $1.1 million. About $20,000 is still needed for the finishing touches. That is why a fundraiser is being held from 1 to 4 p.m. June 18 at the Kalyra Winery in Santa Ynez. The event will feature music, food, wine and Haitian art up for auction, in hopes of raising the final support needed for the hospital.
When the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince crumbled under intense shaking, foreign media flocked there to report on the disaster. La Gonâve is only 30 miles across the ocean from the capital but unknown to most westerners. The miles between the island and mainland did little to insulate it from the power of the massive quake. When it struck, it made the only hospital on the island dangerously unstable.
Even before the quake, the hospital was badly in need of support. Basic services like food for patients and garbage service were non-existent. Blacker said that families had to cook for relatives staying in the hospital, and a trash heap behind the hospital was filled with medical waste.
The island has roughly 100,000 residents, but this solitary hospital often had little more than 10 medical staff employed. There was only one X-ray machine and a small operating theater. People with more serious injuries are transported to Port-au-Prince, but their already severe conditions makes surviving the boat ride less likely.
Basic Needs Unmet
Blacker told the story of meeting a child brought into the damaged hospital with a broken leg. The boy’s father asked if he would ever walk again, something that seemed obvious to her. But a local told her that without proper treatment, the boy could face life-long problems. “When we take our children to the hospital, you expect to leave with them. They don’t expect that because they’ve gotten so use to not having medical care,” she said. “Kids die from these ridiculous things like fever and infections.”
When the quake struck, it rendered the hospital almost useless. “It’s a concrete building, and there is a massive crack in the ceiling; it could go at any time,” said Blacker. “The whole building has to be torn down and rebuilt.” Because of the fatal tropical heat on the island, some patients have been moved back into the unstable building from tents. The sooner the new hospital goes up, the sooner people can be moved from the dangerous quarters. This week, the first wall of the new hospital went up on a patch of cleared ground near the original hospital. Along with the new building, the team is also aiding the construction of housing for staff and a nursing school.
Justin Dowds, the founder of Lemon Aid – a Scotland-based relief organization heading up the construction – said the new hospital would include 82 beds and be built in three phases. Now that the fundraising is almost complete, the first of three wings along with delivery rooms, operating theaters, triage center and emergency rooms are under construction.
The team behind the project hopes to power both the hospital and guest house largely on solar. Part of the remaining $20,000 left to raise for the hospital is to install energy-efficient LED lights. Jez Blacker, Lynzi’s husband and a professional lighting designer, said the LED lights will last for up to 20 years without need for replacement.
“If you want to rebuild Haiti, you might as well do it as a model, do it properly – not just slap something on there,” said Lynzi. “People do these things, and you go visit three years later and it’s falling apart; that’s not what we want.”
Even as the hospital walls go up, Blacker is thinking about what can be done outside them. She said the goal of the nursing school is to place health teams in villages around the small island of La Gonâve. She is also hoping to take medical teams from the United States to Haiti to train locals.
Blacker said at the current rate, the first phase of the hospital should be completed in June or July. They are looking to ship a container with lighting supplies sometime in May and are asking for the public to support their efforts. She said donations of time, money, skills and support were all equally welcome: “Anyone can help.”
The team working on the hospital from California is small and most members are bi-vocational – something Blacker says allows them to put 100% of donations toward construction. “It’s this tiny little group of friends doing this stuff, and look at what a huge difference they’re making.”
Piece by Piece
She tells the story of a crippled 15-year-old boy named Steven she met on her trip. He used a bicycle as a walker to allow him movement, but one of the tires was flat. Blacker said replacing the tire cost about a dollar, and she left more money in the care of a friend to repair the tire should it ever break again.
But fixing the tire isn’t a long-term solution in Blacker’s mind. She wants to bring a bicycle repair kit over and teach Steven to run a small business repairing bikes, or maybe even find him a position as a mechanic in a local shop. Once he learns the trade, he could pass it along to others as a teacher and create jobs for people in need.
It’s all part of an almost head-spinning list of projects that Blacker is passionate about in La Gonâve, covering almost every facet of development – including schools, orphanages, micro-enterprise, farming, water and health.
She plans to travel back to Haiti this year but she’s looking for help while she is still here. Blacker says she wants to encourage people from healthcare professionals to students to get involved and lend a hand in Haiti. She hopes people will contact her and tell her what they can do and what they are interested in.
Working together, Blacker is optimistic that positive change can be brought to an island desperately in need of it.
— photos of Haiti courtesy Lynzi Blacker.