Granby teen helps shelter Haitians
June 9, 2010
When 19-year-old Bradley Hilton of Granby decided that he would travel to Haiti in the wake of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that ravaged the country earlier this year, he didn’t know what to expect.
All he knew for certain was that somewhere inside him was a burning desire to go and help. He found the nonprofit, volunteer-driven organization Hands On Disaster Response, which started “Project Leogane” on Feb. 15 in the coastal town of Leogane, Haiti, about 25 miles outside Port-au-Prince.
The organization chose the Port-au-Prince area because of its close proximity to the epicenter of the earthquake and the vast devastation there – 80-90 percent of buildings in Leogane were destroyed or unsafe.
Hilton embarked on his 40-day trip on April 2, with two heavy suitcases and a working spirit, ready to put the sledgehammers in his bag to use.
Hilton’s first task was to build temporary shelters designed by a grassroots group out of New York called Shelterquest. The homes were constructed with PVC pipe and thick plastic shrink-wrap. A team of about 20 people could prefabricate about 60 in a day. While the structures functioned well, Hilton noticed that they weren’t helping to get people out of the Internal Displacement camps, and he felt that “more effort should be put toward transitional housing.”
With the Dutch organization Cordaid, Hilton focused on just that, traveling into the hills west of Leogane. The small group hiked through the jungle, finding and assessing homes, deeming them either livable or unsafe. From there, the families with unsafe homes were put on a list to receive a partially fabricated wooden transitional shelter, which was delivered and constructed by Haitian students in a cash-for-work program.
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Cordaid oversaw the operation, making sure the homes were properly built to withstand both hurricanes and earthquakes. While the homes were called transitional shelters, Hilton suspects that they will become permanent.
Hilton spent the most time working on or leading one of Hands On’s rubble teams. A group of 10 to 20 volunteers would arrive at a concrete homesite, already destroyed or otherwise brought down by a demolition team or the homeowners themselves. The goal was to clear all the rubble from the site, leaving a clean foundation for the family to build a new home or shelter.
As for the rubble, it was usually piled on the side of the road or used for flood control in low-lying areas. Occasionally, it was used to build or repair roads, one on which Hilton specifically worked with the help of the South Korean and Sri Lankan armies under the United Nations.
The U.N.’s machines helped significantly on that project, which would have been impossible with only Hands On’s shovels, wheelbarrows and sledgehammers. All work was done with these hand tools, and the volunteers worked in the scorching heat all day, six days a week. The Haitians would often approach them just to be able to use their rudimentary tools, which were more than they had.
Hands On started a local volunteer program providing two meals in exchange for a day’s work.
“The Haitians I worked with worked harder than any of us did,” Hilton said, “and they were happy to get a meal and have something to do.”
Hilton emphasized that Haiti does not have enough food to feed its people. It didn’t take long for him to learn the Haitian Creole phrase for “I’m hungry,” as he was approached by both children and adults asking for food.
Though many people did not even have enough food for themselves, they would offer meals, however simple, to the Hands On crews as they helped clear away the rubble from destroyed homes. Hilton fed off the optimism of the Haitians and found a new favorite phrase: “Bondye a bon,” meaning “God is Good.”
When asked about his impressions of Haiti, Hilton said, “At first, it felt chaotic. Then part way through the trip, it felt like controlled chaos. By the last Sunday afternoon, it was one of the most serene and accepting environments I have ever been in. I could let my guard down.”
He described Leogane as “no more dangerous than any American city,” and the optimism in the wake of tragedy was inspiring, he said. (What people rarely mentioned, he added, was that the majority of Leogane residents lost many friends and family to the earthquake).
Hilton looks forward to going back sometime before January 2011, when Hands On set its tentative date to finish the project. He said he would recommend the organization to anybody willing and able to volunteer “one hundred percent.”