BHS grads combine learning, voluntourism
By CONNIE MEARS
Bainbridge Island Review Staff Writer
December 28, 2011 · Updated 11:11 AM
When BHS grad Rachel Harmon stepped out of the shower, she was startled by a gecko slithering across her left foot. Since it wasn’t the charming insurance-selling kind, she spent the next 15 minutes trying to trap it under her tea mug while keeping her towel on. She gingerly took it out to the patio – which is where she found the tarantula.
“Welcome to Haiti,” she wrote in her blog that served to document her three-month stay in Leogane, a seaside town 18 miles west of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
Haiti is the “polar opposite of Bainbridge Island,” Harmon said Monday, still struggling with a bout of giardia.
“It’s dirty, busy, loud, abrasive,” said the 21-year-old who is home for the holidays on the “calm, collected” island.
Taking a break from her formal studies as a biology major, the 2009 Bainbridge High graduate crafted a custom internship. She researched nutrition programs in French-speaking countries, zeroing in on the NGO Children’s Nutrition Program of Haiti.
“I harassed the executive director Carrie Kellie,” Harmon said of the woman who became a “huge inspiration.” “She’s a vegan, laid back, and a feminist.”
Filling the gap
Harmon joins a growing number of college students who are taking a gap year from studies to explore their intended field before committing several more years and tens of thousands of dollars to schooling.
For Harmon, the experience confirmed her desire to bring naturopathic medicine to global health care.
The trip, she said, was an education in itself.
“The first day I was totally speechless. It looked like the earthquake had hit a week ago. There were kids, pigs, goats everywhere, garbage in the streets. Rubble.
She fought back tears so her new boss would not think her to be “a wimp,” and it took almost a month to get used to the conditions.
Acute malnutrition is a national epidemic along with fatal diseases such as cholera, hepatitis and typhoid fever.
Connecting with people
Since the 2010 earthquake, Haiti has become known as a “republic of NGOs,” Harmon said. Aid groups such as the Red Cross, Cortaid, Habitat for Humanity and UNICEF all have an active presence there.
One of the highlights for Harmon was meeting “really smart and inspiring people who were enthusiastic to talk about their projects.”
“These were people, some with Ph.Ds in mosquito biology or agriculture,” she said.
“I was the youngest volunteer but they didn’t seem to notice,” Harmon said. “They gave me projects I wasn’t qualified for.”
Harmon worked in the mountainous area on the outskirts of town to create a “baseline data survey” of the population.
“I was never really afraid. I was nervous to get good data, all in a language I didn’t know.”
The Haitian people, particularly in the rural areas, speak only Creole.
“The people are sassy,” Harmon said. “You had to be super strong. You have to be tough. They realize they’ve been oppressed. You really have to work hard for it (their acceptance and respect), but it feels so good when you get it.”
Everywhere she went she was greeted with “Hey you, Blan!” a reference to her light skin and strawberry blonde hair.
After a while, she began retorting back that she was rouge (red) not blan. Dishing back with attitude made her “appear as more than just a white person with a backpack as a tourist.”
Being accepted by the locals went a long way to help her be more effective in the work there.
“I left right when I was at my stride,” she said.
A bigger picture
Though short, the trip gave her a realistic picture of the work she might be doing. Her mentor at the CNP asked Harmon if she’d consider working in the U.S. office to learn the administration aspect of aid work. Harmon is clear that, at least for now, she’d like to get more experience in the field. Her plan is to “finish up some cheap credits,” then transfer to Bastyr University, a Seattle institution recognized as a pioneer in natural medicine.
“People and food – it seems so simple, but there are so many issues that go along with it,” she said.
Aid distribution doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
“Everyone needs help. There were riots. People would set tires on fire.”
For safety, volunteers stayed in a house with a razor-wire fence and guards.
On the way home in mid-December, she buckled into her seat on the plane next to a young man coming back from vacation in the Bahamas.
“He said ‘Oh Haiti must have been fun’ and I said, ‘Well, I had fun, but it was hard.’ I met people who have faced the most amazing odds. It was a little different than his trip to Jamaica, drinking,” Harmon said.
“I don’t mean to come back and be self righteous,” she said thoughtfully. “But if everyone can travel, the world would be a better place. I didn’t get a sense of accomplishment as much as understanding.”
To read more about Harmon’s experiences, visit www.aloayiti.tumblr.com.
In Nepal, Bainbridge grad Isabelle Hoonan finds Internet access spotty, so she answered a few questions via email about her volunteer work.
She arrived in Nepal Oct. 19 and worked at an orphanage in Pokhara.
“Nepal evokes quite a juxtaposing image, which I suppose drew me to the prospect of visiting.
I chose orphanage work as my path, choosing to work with AAN Orphanage, which is a home that houses and sends 23 children (mainly girls) to private school.”
She found the experience to be profound.
“Working in the orphanage taught me that it’s about being present; taking the time to sit down and draw with one of the kids, or hold their hand and sing “Yellow Submarine” as we’re walking to the bus stop. Anything that puts a smile on their face. The result that I could have been after was ‘changing their lives’ and ‘taking them out of poverty,’ but I choose the small moments - the ‘kicking stones, skipping to the bus’ moments - that gave me the most perspective and hopefully brightened these kids’ lives even for just a day.”
From here, Hoonan, who is traveling with her boyfriend Sawyer Auer, will be using World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) to line up volunteer opportunities in Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Burma. She will be working on an organic farm with a women’s empowerment organization “Navdanya” in Dehra Dhun, India.
To read Hoonan’s blog, visit www.2oms.tumblr.com.Contact Bainbridge Island Review Staff Writer Connie Mears at firstname.lastname@example.org or (206) 842-6613.