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Love and Haiti - Swimming through the thickness of life's waters
Kruger Rant
Love and Haiti
Silver Lining
Yesterday, most of the staff of my employer (MMT) worked as volunteers for Medical Teams International. Our work went to assist with the Haitian relief efforts.

There was an element of serendipity to all this. Every few months we have what we call Mission Days, days where our organization closes and we spend the day working as volunteers for worthy nonprofits. These are days where we live up to our mission, reach out to nonprofits and experience first hand what we normally aid from afar (we fund a wide range of nonprofits). It's just one of many reasons why I love my current job. I blogged about our first mission day.

Our mission day was planned well in advance and MTI were selected from a range of options for a variety of reasons. We had funded MTI in the past and indeed the building we worked in had been refurbished using our funding. As fate would have it, the Haitian earthquake happened just before our scheduled volunteer work and all of efforts were immediately redirected towards MTI's relief effort. We felt fortunate that the timing gave us a way where 17 of us could make some small difference. All of our Mission Days have been rewarding, but this one took on an entirely different sense of purpose and urgency.

Calls For Help
I was one of four who worked the phone banks, while the rest of the team sorted through piles of medical donations and prepared large containers of medical supplies to be sent to Haiti. These supplies were well thought out and intended for exactly the kinds of injuries likely to be most commonly found in Haiti right now. I hope one of them blogs about the experience. It was important work and the need very great.

For the four of us working the phones it was a pretty exhausting day, one we spent right in the thick of an emotional hurricane. The phones rang off the hook. People wanted to help. We were backing up the receptionist and took all calls, so sometimes we were just doing the banal, transferring calls to staff and departments. One call I had was from a team leaving for Rwanda who needed logistical support and I fielded several calls from people needing dental care. Bad timing or not, other efforts also had to continue. Of course, the vast majority of the calls concerned Haiti and were from people who wanted to help... no, who needed to help.

Armed with a staff list, a press release and a cheat sheet, as well as a quick training session, we determined how callers wanted to help (time, money, supplies) and either took a donation over the phone, or forwarded them to other departments. MTI were well prepared and already had procedures in place, which made it much simpler for us.

Easier Said Than Done
Most of the callers wanted to volunteer. There were a wide range of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals calling in. Many of them were Haitian or had already worked in Haiti and knew the language, or had other useful skills. Sadly, most of them likely would not be used by MTI, and quite possibly not by anyone.

What most people don't realize is that organizations that specialize in disaster relief have to be ready to go when a disaster happens. This means finding, screening, training and sometimes even testing out potential volunteers (they need a strong team able to hit the ground running), not to mention an immense amount of paperwork (putting people into danger is not done lightly). When a disaster happens the people who would normally do all this admin are usually multitaskers who have been redirected to more urgent tasks. Further, for a variety of reasons, like logistics and limited funding, they generally need volunteers who can stay on the ground from 3 weeks to 3 months. In most cases, to help in times of disaster you have to already be on a response team and already be ready to take a lot of time off work at very short notice.

MTI were prepared and existing volunteers were sufficient for their initial needs, as is likely applicable to most other disaster-response organizations. This meant that very few of these callers were going to be able to help. I discovered this myself after Katrina. I was just 2 hours away from the neediest areas, but I was unable to help any of the larger organizations, like the Red Cross, because I could not afford to be off work for 6 weeks, and because I lacked training.

Don't get me wrong; the outpouring of willingness was heartwarming. There was the guy with his own heavy equipment and shipping containers that he was willing to ship to Haiti and others like him. Some had airplanes willing to fly people and supplies to Haiti. We forwarded them all to the relevant people/departments and I'm sure some will be used.

It was worth trying and they were going about it the right way, by contacting organizations who were already positioned to help. We've all heard of gung-ho volunteers simply flying out to Haiti, and most of them are going to become part of the problem, not the solution. If you don't take all the supplies you need with you and if you don't have some place to go, then you are going to drain the few resources available, or you're going to need rescuing yourself. Get into a good organization's system and be in a position to help later, or with the next emergency. And there's always going to be another.

Cold Hard Cash
The overriding moral of the story was that donations of money are really what is most needed now. Volunteering at a local organization, doing what we did, that's a possibility, and I'm sure more too as things get more organized. But mostly, they need cash. I took close to $1,600 in phone donations and gave directions to many others on how to donate via mail, banks or the web page. Others received information they needed to have local organized efforts to raise funds and/or collect supplies. There were schools, hospitals, dentists, families and more. Every penny will count.

Some wisely asked hard questions, as we all should. How much of each dollar they donated would go to the relief effort. 97%, a very high ratio indeed. How good a charity were MTI? Going by Charity Navigator, outstanding, with 4 stars and a rating in the 60s. Were MTI already responding? Yes, a team was already on the way, one with contacts and experience in Haiti... and with a clinic waiting, plus another team leaving on the weekend.

Many just wanted to find out if someone they knew was okay, or if the orphanage they had helped create was still standing, or if this or that school or church was okay. We had few answers... nobody had. I wish I'd known what I only found out since then, that CIDI are now the go-to guys for the Haitian disaster, that Americans seeking info on family in Haiti can call toll free 1-888-407-4747, that Google has also made resources available. We told folks the best information we had and we put them through to better qualified people whenever possible.

The need is so great. Haiti starts off as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, one with 8 in 10 under the poverty line, a large number of orphans, widespread malnutrition and health issues, and more. This is a nation that was struggling to begin with, one that now is shattered. Their government is not coping. Many members of that government are still unaccounted for and their leader is himself homeless. The scale of this is just staggering.

And it's all so heart-wrenchingly painful. We've all seen the images and the video clips. Many who called in were filled with sorrow. A couple choked up as they spoke. One man cried. It was very hard not to cry with him. I reassured them, I thanked them for their donations, I told them they making a difference, I agreed that it was shattering, horrific and heartbreaking... I stayed compassionate, but professional. I blinked away those tears. I just kept talking, focusing on the mission, not the tragedy. And everything I said was true. They were helping. We were all helping. But I felt it too.

Cold-hearted opportunists like Pat Robertson said Haiti magically brought it on themselves, some inconceivable act of a brutal and ignorant god... but only a brainless ideologue can imagine such a thing. MTI is a Christian organization. Thank goodness they are a very different kind of Christian from evil bastards like Robertson.

Earlier in the day, during a Q&A session, one of our group asked about their faith-based mission. The woman who answered said, "I know some people have a problem with faith-based charities..." and several people turned and looked at me. Say what? Yes, I'm an outspoken atheist, but it is prejudice that pisses me off. Back in Africa it is not uncommon for faith-based groups to only help members of their own faith, or for them to help everyone, but in a way that greatly empowers their faith's members, usually through jobs. It often creates divisions and problems. MTI have no such policies that I'm aware of. They help everyone and have no discriminatory hiring practices. They're going to save lives.

Yes, I'd prefer a secular group, but we were there as a team and we were part of something that will help save people in Haiti. It's the work that matters. I've done charity work with churches before, even in Mississippi. Good work is good work, whatever the motivation. As long as there is no prejudice or unpleasantness, if I can help, I'm there.

Plus, everyone I met seemed like good people to me, and very capable. They were very well organized and really made very effective use of our group. This too is a very strong indicator of what they are capable of in Haiti.

I only have two speeds when doing this kind of work, full speed, or stop. I was among the last to stop working at the previous mission days and this time we all felt it. None of us working the phones wanted to take a lunch break. They had to force us, but even so, we were back at the phones as less than half an hour later. My full-speed mentality saw me answer the phone faster than most, something I was not really thinking about until folks started to tease me about it. As a result I was on the phone most of the time. At one point I phoned agrathea and asked her to look up MTI on Charity Navigator for me, and she had to wait through three calls before I could finish the short conversation. Being her, she didn't mind, saying it was a pleasure to have a small window into what we were doing.

Damn, I'm lucky to work at a place that put us all in this position. It got me off my ass, got me involved, woke me up. Even better, we have a matching funds initiative to encourage volunteers and they will get a check (tomorrow I believe) for $3,000 to $3,500 for our efforts (EDIT: Between the full day and some extra hours put in by myself and others, the final amount was $3440.)

When it was over I felt like my body was vibrating like a tuning fork. I didn't want to stop. I very much wanted to stop. Yesterday was a very compelling experience. We had our fingers on the pulse of a better side of humanity. It was a privilege really, a gift. I'm slated to be back on Sunday. (EDIT: I did!)

My coworker Marie also blogged about yesterday and it's a blog well worth reading. She is a person whose heart is always connected to the best in us all.

So do you want to help? Donate to an organization of some size, preferably one that already was working in Haiti and has some existing infrastructure in place. Don't forget to check them out on Charity Navigator or a similar resource and check out resources like Charity Navigator's Haiti page and Google's page, as well as some of the better major news outlets (many local news outlets are horribly ill informed). More advice on selecting the nonprofits to donate to can be found here and further thoughts on the matter can be found here. My coworker Phoebe has also blogged about this and how some artist are responding.

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