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Haitian kids photographed by Diane Levin of Lake Park. Her church congregation sponsors a dozen or so children in the Port au Prince area, and church members don't know how they fared in the earthquake that took an estimated 150,000 lives.

Lake Park woman in Haiti when earthquake struck

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Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

The earthquake that devastated the Haitian capital city of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 9 has left many of us wondering what we can do to help.

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According to Diane Levin, a Lake Park resident who was in Haiti on a mission trip when the earthquake occurred, the answer to that question is simple: "Pray for the people (of Haiti), and send funds to a credible organization."

"I would strongly advise people to really check out where they give their money, and make sure the funds are actually going to Haiti," she added.

Levin first became interested in helping the people of Haiti through Miquette Denie, a former Rotary Exchange student at Detroit Lakes High School and founder of TeacHaiti (www.teachaiti.org).

"Our church (Eksjo Lutheran in rural Lake Park) sponsors TeacHaiti," Levin said, noting that the congregation became involved after Denie came and spoke to them about the fledgling organization (founded in 2008).

"I respect Miquette tremendously," Levin added. "She has a full-time job as a nurse, but works with these children tirelessly."

As a congregation, Eksjo Lutheran is "heavily invested in TeacHaiti" and its mission: To provide annual educational scholarships to some of Haiti's neediest children, who would otherwise not be able to attend school.

"We have five church groups that each sponsor a child (through TeacHaiti), and another 10 of us who sponsor children individually," Levin said.

"There are about 15 kids around the Port au Prince area who are sponsored by our congregation," said Levin, noting that she does not yet know the fate of those children, or how many of them survived the quake.

In 2009, Rev. Larry Vigen of Trinity Lutheran Church in Moorhead, along with his wife Mary Ann, went on a mission trip to Haiti. A Lake Park native who attended church at Eksjo during his youth, Vigen spoke to his former congregation last spring about the mission trip.

"He said there was room on their mission team for a return trip in January," said Levin.

When Mary Ann Vigen made a follow-up call to Levin in September, asking if she was interested in going, Levin said yes.

"There were 11 of us who went on this trip," said Levin. "Last year, they had 12."

She and her fellow missionaries set off from Fargo and landed in Port au Prince on Saturday, Jan. 9. After breakfast at a restaurant in Port au Prince -- a restaurant that is no longer standing, according to Levin -- the group headed north to the town of Pignon.

"It's a town of about 10,000 people, 90 miles north of the capital (Port au Prince)," Levin said.

In Pignon, they worked with Caleb Lucien, pastor and founder of the College de la Grace, which had students from preschool through college age (Haiti has a "13th grade," Levin explained).

The school had about 900 students; since the earthquake, the facility has been converted into a temporary shelter for earthquake refugees, Levin said.

The camp where she and her fellow missionaries stayed during their trip is now hosting earthquake victims as well, she noted. The camp and school can each provide temporary housing for about 1,000 people.

While they were staying at the camp, the mission team worked at the school, helping to build a fence around the playground and painting stripes on the basketball court. Their next project was supposed to be a swing set -- but after the quake, Lucien decided that the lumber might be put to better use elsewhere, for the time being.

The team was also scheduled for classroom visits on the 13th -- but all that changed when the earthquake hit, Levin said. Classes at the school have been suspended indefinitely.

Levin said that while they were able to feel the tremors from the earthquake at their camp in Pignon, they really didn't know what had happened in Port au Prince until Lucien broke the news later that evening, after dinner.

Fortunately, Lucien was equipped with a satellite phone, so the mission team members were able to phone their relatives back in the U.S. to let them know they were OK.

Originally scheduled to fly back to the U.S. on Saturday, Jan. 16, via the Port au Prince airport, the group ended up flying home out of the Dominican Republic on Friday, Jan. 15. (The Dominican Republic is located adjacent to Haiti, on the same island.)

"We had to take a school bus from Pignon to the airport," Levin said.

"Crossing the border was not easy," she added, noting that there was a slight language barrier: While Haitians speak Creole, their island neighbors speak Spanish.

Because there were so many people in need, the mission team ended up leaving most of their clothing, shoes and supplies at the camp, Levin noted.

"We left everything except what we had on," she said.

Since her return to Lake Park, Levin has been busy spreading the word about how local residents can best help the people of Haiti to rebuild their capital city.

"My plan is to speak to as many people as I can about the situation (in Haiti)," she said.

Both Lake Park-Audubon Elementary School in Audubon and LPA High School in Lake Park are planning "Help Haiti" projects, and Gloria Dei Lutheran parish -- which includes Eksjo as well as the Strandvik and Houglum churches -- is planning a relief project as well.

Some of the credible organizations that are helping with the relief effort include Lutheran World Relief (www.lwr.org), Unicef (www.supportunicef.org), Oxfam International (www.oxfam.org), Catholic Relief Services (www.crs.org) and ELCA Disaster Response (www.elca.org).

Levin also noted that Lucien's own organization, Hosean International Ministries (www.hosean.org), is also working diligently to bring relief to the people of Haiti.

Monies donated to Lucien's organization will go directly to the relief effort -- "there is no overhead," she added.

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