For a long time, Marian Allen, a nurse, wanted to travel to Haiti to volunteer to help those without access to basic health care.
Following that country’s devastating earthquake in 2010, she got serious about making it happen.
After inquiring with several nonprofit agencies, Allen finally connected with Functional Literacy Ministry of Haiti last January. Through that Pittsburgh-based Christian group, she traveled to the disaster-stricken nation to provide fluoride treatments, school physicals, and cholera education to the people of the mountain highlands, south of Port-au-Prince.
Following that experience, the inspired healthcare provider decided to broach the idea of a Jewish mission to Haiti with the rabbis of Rodef Shalom Congregation.
“It was a life-changing experience,” Allen said. “When I got back, I talked to Rabbi [Aaron] Bisno and Rabbi [Sharyn] Henry, and wondered if we could do something like that through the temple.”
Now, she and Henry are about to lead a group of 13 Pittsburghers to Thomassin, Haiti, next month through FLM-Haiti.
The Rodef Shalom group, which includes three teenagers, will embark for Haiti on Feb. 5 for a one-week mission. While there, its participants will provide whatever services they can offer — including grief counseling — to those still recovering from the trauma of losing loved ones in the 2010 earthquake.
“Their needs are so low-hanging,” Allen, a member of Rodef Shalom, said of the rural Haitians in Thomassin. “There is something everyone can do to help people in this community. We’re not trying to fix all of Haiti; we’re just trying to do something in this community.”
The people of Haiti are poor, and most are uneducated. The average annual per capita income there is $250, and unemployment is at 70 percent. Only half of the residents know how to read.
Founded in 1983 by Haitian-born Leon Pamphile, FLM-Haiti provides educational and medical services to the people of Laboule, Boutilliers, Kenscoff, and Thomassin The non-profit organization has established both a medical center and a school there, and is currently building a technical school to offer necessary job skills to the many people there who are unemployed.
“The mission of Functional Literacy Ministry is to help the Haitians make permanent changes so they can help themselves,” Henry said.
Allen recalled working in a school with 90 children on her last mission to Haiti. “Sixty of them had lost one or both parents in the earthquake,” she said.
Another focus of the upcoming mission will be improving the vision of the Haitians in the community. While on her mission last year, Allen took note that nobody there wore eyeglasses.
“It wasn’t because they didn’t need glasses,” Allen said, “but because access to eye care and glasses doesn’t really exist.”
So, on the upcoming trip, the Rodef Shalom group will be bringing hundreds of pairs of eyeglasses that it has been collecting through the congregation, the Lions Club, and Pittsburgh Allderdice High School. Members of the group will perform vision testing on the Haitians, and dispense the glasses, Allen said.
Although FLM-Haiti is a Christian group, Pamphile has agreed to allow Henry to take the reins on the spiritual side of this particular trip.
“We’re going to look at what we’re doing through a Jewish lens,” Henry said.
Because it is primarily a humanitarian group, Allen said that the Christian bent of FLM-Haiti is not an issue.
“It is a Christian group, but I knew that on the ground, it really wouldn’t matter in terms of what the work was, or tikun olam,” Allen said. “Whenever anyone suffers, a Jew suffers. And it is not a mission in terms of conversion.”
While people of many different religions have traveled with various FLM-Haiti missions, this is the first time a Jewish group has arranged a trip through the organization.
“The Jewish group that will be going will be a blessing to Haiti,” said Rozelle Pamphile, a director of FLM-Haiti, and the wife of its founder. “It is the first time a Jewish group is going. It will be very exciting, and the group that will be going will be very happy.”
While there, the group will celebrate Shabbat, and has tweaked the itinerary to avoid traveling on that day.
Henry also plans to visit Pittsburgh North Hills native Neil DiBiase, who is a member of the American Foreign Service there, to learn about American diplomacy in Haiti. DiaBiase’s family are members of Temple Ohav Shalom.
In addition to its mission work, the Rodef Shalom group also plans to do a bit of travel around the country in order to get a sense of the whole of Haiti, according to Allen.
“Our goal is to work and to do, but also for people to get an opportunity to see and learn and take it all in. Haiti is so close, but it is also so far, and so different. It’s beautiful and it’s heart breaking. It’s a lot.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)