Within 15 minutes of getting off the plane in the Haitian capital of Port au Prince, Barrhead’s Khiya Kooger, 15, knew she would never look at the world the same again.
After seeing the desperation, filth, poverty and destruction caused by last January’s devastating earthquake in Haiti, Kooger said she wanted to try and do her small part to make a difference.
The teenager joined her mother, Raine, and her mother’s friends, Betty White and Tracey Pandachuck, for a two-week volunteer mission to Haiti from Dec. 1-15.
The four Barrhead residents spent their time helping out at an orphanage and breaking down hundreds of pounds of rubble that still lay on the streets of the Haitian province of Leogane.
Due to military rule in the troubled nation, the four Barrhead residents spent seven days “in lockdown” and only got to contribute their services during five days of their trip.
The impact of the trip remains indelible several weeks later, said Raine Kooger.
“Within 15 minutes of getting off the plane, my daughter looked at me and said ‘mom, (Canadians and members of the western world) are just all so selfish, we’re just so selfish,’” said Kooger. “My biggest hope in bringing my daughter was that she would learn a valuable life lesson and she most certainly did.”
The Barrhead contingent was recruited for the Haiti mission by Don Cross of Calgary, a friend of Pandachuck’s and recruiter for the U.S.-based international relief agency called All Hands Volunteers.
“Don is a friend of mine and the one who set all of this up,” said Pandachuck. “I had always wanted to do a volunteer mission like this and Don did all the work, and he asked if I might be able to recruit a small team of four or five people from Barrhead to head over to Haiti.
“I put some feelers out. I’m in a walking club with Betty, and Betty works at the Barrhead Healthcare Centre with Raine, plus Raine and I go to the Bethel Pentecostal Church together.”
After volunteering during a mission to Romania back in 1998, Raine Kooger said it was a life-changing experience and believed her daughter Khiya was mature and strong enough to take part in the trip to Haiti.
“Khiya is the youngest volunteer ever accepted by All Hands Volunteers ... I’m pretty proud of her,” she said smiling.
The Barrhead contingent raised money for the trip, with all proceeds going to purchase bio-sand filters, which help provide clean drinking water for one family for up to 10 years.
Pandachuck also managed to raise an additional $1,000 from friends, family and church members to donate to Haitian relief.
Cross and the team from Barrhead were part of Project Leogane, which was formed soon after the earthquake hit to try and clean up one of the worst-hit areas of Haiti.
Getting to Leogane was the beginning of two very difficult, but life-affirming and rewarding weeks, said Pandachuck.
“It was a 23-mile journey, which would normally take two hours, but the roads are just so awful and there’s so much traffic,” she said. “You really have a hard time digesting just how bad things are over there until you’re in the country and experiencing it.”
Khiya Kooger agreed.
“It was so shocking to see,” she said. “We flew from Miami, which has so much, and you land in Haiti, which has nothing. All you see is destruction and poverty and rubble.”
Raine Kooger said one of the most difficult aspects of the entire mission was getting used to the horrific smells that emanate everywhere.
“There’s not a stench of death, but you can smell raw sewage and rotting garbage everywhere you go,” she said. “When we finally got to Leogane, we saw children digging through garbage with dogs trying to get food.
“It’s very difficult to deal with at first, but you realize these people are doing everything they can to survive.”
Once they got to Leogane, the Barrhead women were asked to volunteer their services by signing up at a daily job board.
The women ended up spending a couple of days clearing rubble.
“It was just miserable and hard work ... hammering a 10-pound sledgehammer into rubble over and over again,” said Pandachuck. “It was brutally hot at 32 C and not much fun, but we knew we were making a difference, so it was also very rewarding.”
White and Pandachuck then spent a couple of days helping out at an area orphanage.
White said it was heartbreaking to see so many sickly and malnourished children, most of whom survive on a daily diet of cornstarch, flour and water.
“Most of the babies simply don’t cry,” she said. “They just stare at you with a blank look on their face. It’s heartbreaking.
“The older children want to be held and loved, and they give you the most wonderful smile when you hug them. That was something I’ll never forget.”
Despite all the poverty, filth and despair, Haitians are remarkably friendly, welcoming and loving people, said Pandachuck.
Raine Kooger said she will never forget the smiles and thanks given to her and her Barrhead friends during the mission.
“These people realize that one act by a stranger who cares can help make a huge difference in their lives,” she said.
“It’s a fifth world nation, and they need so much help. I just don’t understand how countries in the western world have allowed this to happen when so much more could be done to help. It makes me angry.”
The most frustrating part of the trip was realizing despite all the good intentions of so many dedicated volunteers, so little progress has been made in the year since the earthquake hit, she said.
“It really bothers me that 80 per cent of the money raised by organizations like World Vision and the Red Cross are sitting in bank accounts,” she said. “It’s very frustrating. These people need help, and so much of the good work that could be done is being delayed because of administration, but you can’t worry about that when you’re on the ground and trying to help.”
Raine Kooger, a nurse, is planning to return to Haiti the last week of February and bring with her as many medical supplies as she can.
“They have one hospital in Leogane for 150,000 people and only have one thermometer, one blood pressure cuff ... I want to go back and try and bring as many medical supplies as I possibly can,” she said.
All Hands has helped build six schools in Leogane since the earthquake, so all the hard work being done by international volunteers is paying off, said White.
All Hands volunteers are also training Haitian volunteers to perform numerous functions which can improve the lives of their own people, she said.
Despite seeing so much tragedy and despair, all four Barrhead women said they are ecstatic they made the long journey to Haiti to try and improve the lives of people in the impoverished nation.
“Just seeing the smiles on their faces knowing we’re trying to help made it all worth it,” said Khiya.
Bethel Pentecostal Church will be hosting a meeting at 6 p.m. on Jan. 23 to raise more funds for Haiti relief. Everyone is welcome. Anyone wanting to donate cash can call the church office at 780-674-3529.