Bertrhude Albert had good intentions, but things didn’t go as she planned.
A year after the devastating 2010 earthquake in her native Haiti, Albert, who, at the time was a sophomore at the University of Florida, went down to her homeland to offer help during a spring break trip.
Along with roommate Priscilla Zelaya, she helped bring 400 pounds of clothes and other supplies to help people in a nation still suffering from the effects of the earthquake, and at the end of the week, they met with community leaders to chat about the work they had done.
Shockingly, the feedback provided was not what Albert was expecting to hear.
“Deep down, I know there was an element of trying to get a pat on the back,” Albert said. “That’s when they completely blew me away with their response.”
What the community leaders essentially told Albert and Zelaya was this: Thanks for your efforts and compassion, but you actually did more harm than good.
All the clothes and supplies handed out was detrimental to the local merchants, who couldn’t compete. Their businesses and sources of income were essentially ruined for a short period of time.
Albert came to find out that one woman who had five kids relied on the sale of her clothes to feed her family, and other merchants experienced similar strife.
“It turns into this heaviness and a pit in your stomach,” Albert said.
The experience was such an eye-opener that it led Albert and Zelaya to a greater purpose and mission.
Not forgotten, 10 years later
Sunday marks the 10th anniversary of an earthquake that crippled an already poor nation.
The earthquake measured 7.0 on the Richter scale, resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, and collapsed thousands of buildings, both residential and commercial.
A Haitian who migrated to the United States when she was 8 years old, Albert said the effects of the earthquake are still visible.
Rubble is still scattered throughout, people are still living in tent cities, and since cemeteries didn’t have enough space to hold bodies, clothes worn by the deceased who once laid across the grounds still cover a good portion of land.
“It’s easy for the rest of the world to take Haiti out of the limelight, but the Haitian people still remember that day,” Albert said. “Those 35 seconds it lasted will be a mark on the Haitian people for the rest of their lives.”
Immediately after the disaster, church groups and charitable organizations around the world poured into the country to help. Albert said the presence of missionaries wanting to offer assistance is still large in Haiti to this day, but it is creating the same type of problem she and Zelaya discovered.
“That goes back to the negative aid that is undermining the natural development of the Haitian people,” Albert said. “Instead of giving people T-shirts, they are begging for us to train them how to make their own T-shirts. Instead of giving them American rice, they want us to revitalize their rice industry. There are a lot of missionaries still going to Haiti, but we are giving the inappropriate type of aid.”
Trying to come up with better aid
After the spring break trip brought about that revelation that handing out free supplies was doing more harm than good, Albert and Zelaya flew back to Florida to resume their studies, but they were moved to return to Haiti and make amends by providing more appropriate help for the Haitian people.
The two discovered that nearly 80% of Haitian teachers haven’t been properly trained, and 60% of kids dropped out of classes during elementary school. At that point, an idea was born.
In 2011, Albert and Zelaya, who both eventually got bachelor’s, masters and doctorate degrees from the University of Florida, founded P4H Global, a nonprofit company that focuses on better training and properly equipping teachers in Haiti.
The organization is based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but Albert said for roughly half of the year, 14 staff members travel across Haiti to help train teachers, return for evaluations and send developmental resources they need.
A specific strategy on how the organization trains teachers and for how long can be found on its website.
The purpose is to provide a domino effect of proper aid, where better-trained teachers mean kids stay in school and become more knowledgable, which leads to a more educated society, and thus, a country that can better support itself through entrepreneurship and innovation.
“We see that improving the quality of education in Haiti is the surest way to ensure that they have stability if future earthquakes come,” Albert said.
The 10-year anniversary of the earthquake will be a painful reminder for the Haitian people of what’s been lost, but Albert hopes it can also be used to educate missionaries and organizations about the valuable lesson she learned on that spring break trip in college: Compassion is noble, but ultimately, it is not the best way to fix what has been broken.
“Looking forward, in order for us to help in the healing process and really stand with our neighboring nation, the best way to do that is to invest in their capacity so they are able to have preventative measures in the future,” Albert said.