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Western Pa. humanitarians say Haiti's needs outlive disaster

| Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, 9:02 p.m.

Four years have passed since an earthquake devastated the Haitian landscape, and humanitarians say communities are improving but survivors still need support.

“Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” said Ian Rawson of Squirrel Hill, a board member for Hospital Albert Schweitzer in Deschapelles, Haiti. “That didn't start with an earthquake, and it can't be fixed overnight.”

At the peak of displacement, about 2.3 million people, including 302,000 children, were out of their homes and at least 200,000 died, according to the United Nations.

Pittsburghers long-invested in Haiti reached out, securing adoptions, delivering supplies and revamping medical systems to help the people of Haiti off their knees.

“Tent cities in Port-au-Prince have almost disappeared,” said Ali McMutrie, 25, co-founder of Haitian Families First. “Education is the next big step. The youngest generation of Haitians are the ones who have the chance to really turn their country around.”

McMutrie and her sister, Jamie, founded the nonprofit to help families overwhelmed by poverty keep and care for their children at home. The women estimate 30,000 children are institutionalized out of poverty and family circumstances, though 80 percent still have a living parent.

Some families have five or more children, McMutrie said. Some new parents can't find work and believe the orphanage is their only option. Many young mothers lack prenatal care and die in childbirth, leaving young fathers ill-equipped to feed their newborn children.

“We step in wherever we see a need,” she said. “That could mean nutritional help, like beans for extra protein or powdered milk for babies. It takes $210 to pay for a year of schooling for an older child, so we cover that when parents can't afford it on their own.”

The Haitian Ministry of Education estimated nearly 5,000 schools were affected, about a quarter of the country's education system. Of those, almost 4,000 remained closed.

At Hospital Albert Schweitzer, Rawson said a team of 500 — staffed almost entirely with Haitian natives — maintain prosthetics labs, surgical wards and offices for internal medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics all focused on making inroads in particularly vulnerable mountainous regions.

“We're working on a lot of fronts,” Rawson said.

The Friends of Hospital Albert Schweitzer Haiti, based in Pittsburgh and helmed by Rawson's wife, Lucy, designs and implements projects in Haiti's Artibonite Valley, sponsoring rehabilitation, art and forestry programs that encourage self-sufficiency through agriculture.

The Brother's Brother Foundation, a North Side charity that specializes in gathering and delivering humanitarian supplies and other items to people in need around the world, sent 42 ocean containers packed with $60 million worth of medical supplies and equipment to Haiti between 2012 and 2013.

“That isn't part of the disaster response; it's comparable to pre-earthquake amounts,” foundation president Luke Hingson said. “Needing that much is just their norm.”

As natives continue to rebuild and return home, McMutrie said American response will continue to be key.

“Poverty like that — it's not like here,” she said. “There will always be more we can do.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or mharris@tribweb.com.

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