Spring Break in a Disaster Zone

Despite warnings urging them to stay home, college students plan trips to earthquake-damaged Haiti.
March 1, 2010

David Adewumi’s plans for spring break don’t look like those of most other college juniors. He won’t be heading to a resort town for a week of beaches and bars, or home for a week of naps and TV-watching.

Instead, he and 10 other students from Pennsylvania State University will fly south to Haiti, on an earthquake relief trip. They expect to spend a week helping with minor medical care, food distribution and shelter building. “We know we’re a tiny Band-Aid on a huge wound,” he said. “But we’re still doing what we can to help.”

While the idea of a group of students taking short trips to impoverished and natural disaster-prone places is nothing new, travels to Haiti this spring are being discouraged by many colleges and aid groups. Less than a month and a half since a devastating earthquake hit the nation, its wounds are still fresh, food and water are still scarce, and, experts argue, the only volunteers needed are people with specific skills.

Even so, the Penn State group and hundreds if not thousands of other American college students are determined to lend a hand in the coming weeks. (And more may be interested in traveling to Chile to aid with relief and rebuilding in the aftermath of the major earthquake that hit early on the morning of Feb. 27.)

A large part of the students’ motivation is altruism, said Lou Manza, a psychology professor at Lebanon Valley College, in Pennsylvania. But he worries that “some students aren’t necessarily getting involved because they want to help -- they see this as something that will look good on a resume or be a great story to tell.”

The “cool factor” of an adventurous trip to an unsafe place could be a driving force for some students, he said. “They’re still at that age where they’re trying to create impressions of themselves.... I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s what’s motivating some folks.”

mtvU, the college-centric wing of the cable television empire, has homed in on the "cool" potential of a spring break spent helping Haiti. A page on its Web site asks students planning to do relief work to send an e-mail message with their plans (and some photographs of themselves) to a generic e-mail address. The March after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, MTV cosponsored spring break trips to Biloxi, Miss., and Foley, Ala. The network did not respond to requests for comment.

The Center for International Disaster Information (CIDI) is telling inexperienced volunteers to wait at least a few months before traveling to Haiti, said Suzanne Brooks, the center’s director. “I don’t think it’s impossible that a year from now for spring break there may be some programs up and running, but I really don’t think it makes sense for this year.”

Break Away, a national group that helps college students organize alternative break trips, has told its college chapters not to arrange trips there until conditions are better. “There is a lot of work that needs to be done by people who have skills to help with the immediate response to disaster before unskilled groups can start going there,” said Samantha Giacobozzi, the organization’s programs director. “The resources that would be utilized by alternative breakers would be better used by Haitians and people doing essential work. There isn’t enough food, housing, water for everyone there already, so unless you have something to add, it doesn’t make sense to go.”

A group of 20 to 25 students from the University of Maryland, College Park, and Howard University plan to arrive in Haiti on March 13 for a week of work training Haitians to build homes using earthbag building, a construction method that uses dirt-filled bags. Desta Anyiwo, a Maryland senior who's organizing the trip, said it's about "self-empowerment of Haitians" by teaching them a skill that they can use and teach to others. "It's assistance, not charity."

Though Anyiwo has researched earthbag building for a class, he's never actually done it. Before the trip, he and the other students will work with local experts to construct an earthbag structure on the College Park campus. Despite their lack of experience, the students will be helpful, people on the ground in Haiti have assured Anyiwo. "We have active contacts so we're not going in blind," he said. "That makes all the difference, working with other people so we're not going down there and dictating what to do."

Adewumi, the leader of the Penn State group, has also been assured that he and his classmates are wanted. “We didn’t invite ourselves to come. An organization on the ground decided they needed a certain number of nonskilled laborers. If they didn’t want us, we wouldn’t be there.” The trip is being coordinated by Adventures in Missions, a Christian group.

The University of Michigan, the University of Florida and many other colleges and universities won’t permit student groups to travel to Haiti for spring break. Without institutional support, students who do want to go have to find other ways of getting there. Major secular groups like Habitat for Humanity and Partners in Health aren’t taking unskilled volunteers, but some religious groups and institutions are sponsoring trips.

Students from Palm Beach Atlantic University, a nondenominational Christian university, plan to spend spring break working with a religious group called Mission of Hope Haiti, which runs a church, a school, an orphanage and a clinic.

Groups from the University of the South (better known as Sewanee) have traveled to Haiti since 2004 and already had a spring break trip planned when the earthquake struck. Rather than canceling the trip -- as many colleges have – the trip’s organizers decided still to go, but to adjust the itinerary to meet the needs of people on the ground there, said S. Dixon Myers, coordinator of outreach ministries. Students will be there between March 10 and 21.

Not everyone traveling to Haiti for spring break is inexperienced or unfamiliar with the island.

Jean Montes, an associate professor of music and director of orchestral studies at Loyola University New Orleans, will travel to Haiti during spring break in late March. He’ll bring with him about 10 students -- many of whom are of Haitian descent -- to deliver musical instruments to Haitian children and assess the damage to the school where he learned the cello, Port-Au-Prince’s Holy Trinity School of Music.

Though instruments aren’t the most immediate need that Haitians have, Montes said he considers it a way “to give direct relief to those kids who lost everything."

The first team of students and faculty from the international rescue and relief program at Union College in Lincoln, Neb., arrived in Haiti less than a week after the earthquake hit. Two other groups of fewer than a dozen people have been there in the last few weeks, and a larger group plans to go during the college’s spring break in mid-March.

Caitlin Robinett, a third year law student at Santa Clara University, spent a few weeks in Haiti this winter working on a research project with a classmate. They've returned this week for spring break with soap and clothing, among other items, requested by the people who hosted them during their visit. "Having had so much close contact, we just want to go there and hug our friends," she said. "We wanted to bring them what we could to help."

Other students asked to join the trip, but "we told them this wasn't the time to go there for the first time," Robinett said. "We're just going to bring in what they need and get out."

For those who want to help but don’t have any skills that make them desirable volunteers this spring, the obvious means of contribution is financial. Brooks, of CIDI, is urging volunteers to help from afar, whether by fund raising, counseling Haitians in the United States or providing legal aid.

After the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced that Haitian nationals would be eligible to apply for temporary protected status, the University of Miami School of Law’s Health and Elder Law Clinic quickly developed a system largely staffed by students to help refugees with the paperwork. “Miami has a large Haitian population and there was a tremendous outpouring of goodwill and desire to help, so it seemed like this would be a useful way for law students to use their abilities,” said JoNel Newman, an associate professor of clinical legal education who is the clinic’s director.

An unexpected call from someone at Stanford Law School expanded the scope of the clinic’s project. A group of students there had planned to spend spring break in Haiti but decided that it didn’t make sense in the aftermath of the earthquake, and instead wanted to help Haitians in the United States. They offered to help staff the clinic for a week in March.

Groups from other law schools got in touch, too, and now Miami will spend the whole month of March hosting visiting students. In addition to those from Miami and Stanford, visitors from the New England School of Law, the University of San Francisco and the University of Memphis will do weeklong rotations at the clinic.

But it won’t be a spring break without fun. “Our students are very excited for the visitors,” Newman said. “We’ll have dinners, take them to Little Haiti one afternoon to both circulate information about the clinics and have some Creole food."

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