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UWRF students experience Haiti earthquake

February 26, 2010

Alicia Bartel and Paige Paulson, two UW-River Falls students, were volunteering at an orphanage in Haiti when the January 12 earthquake struck.

“When the earthquake hit, Alicia and I were in our hotel room about to lay down for a nap,” Paulson, a junior, said. “It felt like your body was moving in one direction and everything else was moving the opposite direction.”

Bartel, also a junior at UWRF, and Paulson ran out of their hotel room. They had never experienced an earthquake before, so they were not sure what was happening.

“The pool had ocean-like waves,” Bartel said. They realized that something serious was happening because there were other Haitians that had come out of the hotel.

They were volunteering at an orphanage in Fedja [FAY’-dja], 35 miles from Port-au-Prince, when the earthquake struck. Fedja did not experience much destruction because of the distance from Port-au-Prince. The two women traveled with Five Oaks Community Church in Woodbury to Haiti on a mission trip to work in the All of God’s Children orphanage.

The main point of their trip to Haiti was to work with the children in the orphanage. Other members of the group that traveled with them also worked on painting the orphanage, but were not able to finish due to the earthquake.

The group was supposed to leave January 17, but due to the increase in gas prices, which had tripled, and not wanting to use up the Haitians resources, the group left Fedja to head to Port-au- Prince on January 14. The group met up with the Air Force at the embassy in Portau- Prince and rode a military plane back to the United States.

“The night we decided to leave, we all stayed up late to get things at the orphanage back to order,” Paulson said. They had to close up electrical lines, make sure everything was working and put away all of the other tools they had been using.

“Clean up is usually an entire day of work, but somehow we completed it that night; everyone realized the urgency of our situation,” Paulson said.

Since it was unclear what the situation in Port-au- Prince would be, they were given specific instructions as to what they could take home. They were forced to leave luggage behind in Fedja at the orphanage.

“I was only told to bring what I could carry,” Bartel said. She had to leave behind one of her suitcases that was mostly filled with educational supplies for the orphanage.

Twelve members of the group had to ride in one van on the way to Port-au- Prince. Bartel hadn’t eaten all day and was developing a headache after the two hour car ride to the embassy.

“As we got closer, my stomach started feeling sick with the anticipation of what I would be encountering,” Bartel said.

As the group was coming down the mountain that Fedja is located on, Bartel saw someone carrying a coffin on their bike.

“I assume they were bringing a loved one home to bury,” Bartel said.

Many people in Port-au- Prince were walking around with handkerchiefs around their mouths.

“I am not sure if this was to prevent inhaling dust or to keep the stench of dead bodies away,” Bartel said.

“Every once in a while you would see a Haitian carrying a little kid with a blanket over them; I prayed that child was sleeping and hadn’t passed away.”

While driving through Port-au-Prince there were many traffic jams so the van they were in took alleyways and had to stop and ask directions on how to get to the embassy.

“Getting into the embassy was a relief of a sense of safety, but one couldn’t help but feel sad to have to leave the Haitian people behind,” Bartel said.

Once they got to the embassy, they were told that they could only bring home one backpack, which forced them to leave even more luggage behind.

They had to spend some time in the embassy before they left for home. While there they helped clean bathrooms, pass out paperwork, move luggage and serve meals.

“There was also a lot of praying involved in our time spent in the embassy,” Paulson said. “[We were] praying for all the people in Haiti and especially our friends from the orphanage and the hard tasks they had in front of them.”

This was not Paulson’s first trip to Haiti; she had been there last January as well.

“The first time being there affected me more than I could imagine,” Paulson said. “The love I feel for the kids and the people who run the orphanage is overwhelming. [They] are my brothers and sisters.” Paulson intends to return to Haiti.

“If they would have let me stay, I would have,” Paulson said. “If I was called today and asked to go, I would be on the plane.”

Both Paulson and Bartel created a lifetime goal from this experience. They want to become trained in disaster relief.

“I want to be able to work internationally, especially with disaster relief,” Paulson said.

Shortly after arriving home, the women received good news that 12 children from the orphanage they worked at had been adopted. The 12 children were already in the adoption process and were granted visas so they could come to the US and finish the paperwork.

“It makes me so happy, but in a selfish way very sad,” Paulson said about the adopted children. “I am so happy for these kids and their new families, but it makes me sad that I will never be able to go back and see them.”

Both Paulson and Bartel explained how much help the Haitian people still need. They are both working with the Five Oaks Church at their Feed My Starving Children on March 6.

“The food we prepare is going to go to Haiti,” Bartel said. “Right now the orphanage is down to two meals a day, and soon will be one meal a day.”

Paulson explained that it was very difficult for her to leave Haiti, especially in the state that the country was in.

“Especially after this last trip,” Paulson said, “I feel like my heart was left in Haiti.”