Volunteer in Haiti: Byen-venu!

Map of Haiti

Recently, Haiti has undergone some extreme challenges. The 2010 earthquake devastated all walks of Haitian life, but the country would not currently be as stable as it is were it not for the legions of volunteers and aid-workers who committed themselves to Haiti's recovery. That said, there is still much to do to improve the lot of Haitian lives.

street in Haiti

All sectors of the society are in need of major improvements; Haiti generally ranks towards the bottom of development indicators. Literacy rates are low as is access to electricity, clean water, and hospitals. Infectious disease rates are high as a result. Few countries have both the dire need and the ease of access from North America that Haiti offers for volunteers.

Haiti is currently in process of rebuilding its tourism infrastructure, but due to on-going instability, it is only the most intrepid travelers and volunteers who get to explore the beautiful beaches, mountains, and rich cultural heritage. Most foreigners only see the country through the lens of their respective volunteer organizations, but even that glimpse can provide one all the raw material necessary to catalyze great personal growth and development.

  • Population: 9.8 million
  • Capital: Port-au-Prince
  • Currency: Haitian gourde
  • Poverty Level: 80%
  • Visa: Foreigners from almost all countries are allowed to stay for up to 90 days without a visa.
  • Fun Fact: Haiti is the first and only country in the history of mankind whose independence is the result of a successful slave rebellion.
  • Construction: The need in Haiti for secure homes and construction skills cannot be overstated. As the 2010 earthquake demonstrated, and hurricanes remind us, Haiti is vulnerable to natural disaster. Compounding the threat is the fact that many buildings are not structurally durable enough to withstand intense seismic and climatic events.

    Without sound building techniques and sturdy structures, any such events in the future will again have dramatic humanitarian consequences on a scale much larger were that infrastructure not in place. Many structures currently need repair and still many families are in need of better housing solutions. Additionally, workforce training in construction skills would go a long way towards equipping Haitians to be self-sufficient.

    Health Care: Haiti suffers from a lack of treatment centers and qualified medical practitioners. In both rural and urban communities, medical volunteers and support staff are integral to providing a wide range of healthcare services that would not exist otherwise. Many organizations accept volunteers with medical competency ranging from none to fully-licensed professionals. Volunteers have the opportunity to learn about medicine in the developing world as well as to teach Haitian healthcare workers.

    Orphanage: Volunteering in orphanages is a popular option due to the sheer number of available organizations and broad scope of work. Haiti has a large number of orphans many of whom have medical issues and malnutrition to contend with. They need routine medical and emotional support, education, and facilities within which to receive those services.

    students in Haiti

    To meet these needs, large numbers of volunteer caregivers are needed to serve in capacities ranging from teaching and mentoring to administration and construction. Many organizations also work as missions with religious education being a featured component. It's important to note that anyone considering working in an orphanage or as a caregiver for children must be committed for a year, must have proper training to work with kids, and must research their organization to ensure it's authenticity.

    Community Development: In addition to healthcare and construction, there are many more arenas of service in which a volunteer in Haiti can share expertise. Lack of education is another of Haiti's many problems and results in one of the lowest literacy rates in the world.

    Also, public sanitation and access to clean drinking water have enormous consequences on Haiti's ability to avoid outbreaks such as the ongoing cholera epidemic that places huge strains on an already taxed medical infrastructure. And like many regions of the world, Haiti suffers from deforestation and depletion of natural resources, all of which have direct influence on the land's ability to literally weather the storms that ravage the country.

    The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for Haiti due to concern for lack of adequate emergency medical facilities and the security environment. While kidnappings have decreased over the years, crime is a very real concern particularly around the airport and banks in Port-au-Prince. It is advised to organize a trip to Haiti with an aid-organization who will arrange all in-country logistics and has emergency and evacuation protocols in place.

    Also advised is speaking to a travel health specialist. All travelers should be current on routine vaccinations and most should have their hepatitis A and typhoid shots. Depending on what activities a volunteer will be involved with, hepatitis B, rabies, and yellow fever vaccines may also be recommended. Insect-borne diseases should be prevented with any available prophylaxis.

    The malaria strain in Haiti can be fatal so plan on taking anti-malarial medication. There is also risks of dengue and chikungunya, neither of which can be vaccinated against, so effective use of insect-repellent would be prudent. Pack a small medical kit so you can have basic supplies at hand; consider donating it before you return home.

    Volunteer Support: Embassies are located in Port-au-Prince; consider registering your trip before you depart. Facilities are extremely limited as is access to them so pack with self-sufficiency in mind so as not to deplete the resources of your volunteer organization. Keep copies of important documents, itineraries, and contact numbers with you. Consider travel and evacuation insurance if the host organization does not already have them in place for volunteers.

    NGO/Non-Profits: Haiti's turbulent history, politically and environmentally, has made foreign aid crucial to its livelihood. Unfortunately, that has also fueled corruption and mismanagement of funds whereby Haiti's elite prosper behind guarded compounds while the rest of the country suffers.

    Despite that fact and in response to the 2010 earthquake outside Port-au-Prince, an influx of NGOs established programs to help Haiti recover, rebuild and rehabilitate. Haiti receives roughly 40% of its GDP from foreign aid, and is thus extremely dependent on the goodwill, both in money and services, provided from abroad. While the media coverage of the Haitians' plight has waned, need for international support has not.

    Know Before You Go: Contact the volunteer organization and ask questions related to health, safety, airport pick-up/drop-off, in-country travel, access to ATMs, communications, medical facilities, food, and clean water. Also see if there are any supplies needed that would be easy for you to transport. Check current safety advisories and speak to a travel health specialist to get required and suggested medications and vaccines.

    beach in Haiti

    French and Creole are the primary languages, though any English-based NGO should have a satisfactory number of English speakers. Learning phrases in French or Creole will go a long way towards establishing rapport with the people you are serving. Furthermore, a volunteer to Haiti should be mentally prepared to see extreme poverty, illness and disease up close. But that is why volunteers are so desperately needed and why so many come away with rewarding and life-changing experiences.

    Being a volunteer in Haiti will provide you with unique insight in to a country struggling with a multitude of problems. It will give you the opportunity to help alleviate some of these issues while learning about the Creole culture. In addition, you'll have the chance to explore the most mountainous country in the Caribbean, and the only country in the world with Vodou as an official religion. If that's not culturally diverse enough for you, I don't know what is!

    Contributed by Christoph Pearson

    Christoph works in education taking high school students on international service-learning trips and tutoring math on a Native American reservation outside Tacoma, WA. He took a break from education last summer to volunteer in a trauma center in Haiti as he explored the potential for a career in medicine. However, he opted against returning to school in favor of writing a book about traveling in India, stories of which can be read on his travel blog.

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