Amid catastrophic loss, two people find themselves as Haiti bounces back from 2010 earthquake

Published: Saturday, June 30 2012 1:02 p.m. MDT

It feels great, but for Kathleen it's not enough. She needs to be in Haiti. Finally, she stumbles on to something — a Denver-based company called Build Change is rebuilding homes in Port Au Prince to make them seismically safe and they're looking for a community outreach coordinator — a person who speaks Creole who can go in to neighborhoods and explain the program.

Kathleen immediately applies, and when she doesn't hear back she sends an email every couple days. "Hey, did you get my application?" she asks. Eventually she lands an interview, and the job, and she's on a plane to Port Au Prince.

When Kathleen arrives, frustration is mounting at the slow pace of recovery. There are stories of sanitation trucks stuck in customs; of shipping containers delayed at the harbor.

Instead of focusing on these frustrations, Kathleen turns her attention to what she can control. Build Change is part of a broader effort called Building Back Better. The idea isn't simply to rebuild homes and roads, but to restructure the underpinnings of the Haitian society itself, leveraging the $11 billion pledged by donor countries and financial institutions into roads, functioning hospitals, and a dependable power grid — in other words, the sort of infrastructure that would attract foreign corporations that would build factories and create jobs. Building Back Better means helping Haiti stand on its own.

The goals of Build Change are much less audacious but they are based on the same philosophy of self-reliance. The idea, in a nutshell, is to go into the neighborhoods most badly affected by the earthquake and partner with local homeowners to rebuild their homes to withstand future earthquakes. "Earthquakes don't kill people," Kathleen tells them, "badly built homes do."

They target three neighborhoods — Canape Vert, Carrefour, and Delmas 32 — blanketing them with posters, fliers and radio spots advertising the program.

As the months pass, the people begin to leave their tents in the LDS Church parking lots and go to temporary shelters the church is building for them. By November of 2011, the rubble slowly begins to disappear from the streets of Port Au Prince. A new government is installed (20 percent of civil servants were killed in the earthquake) and the aid bottled up in customs begins to flow through the city.

In a neighborhood called Villa Rosa, Catholic Relief Services begins an innovative program to recycle rubble in to cinder blocks. By May of 2012, the blocks have been used to build 1,500 homes. In other parts of the city, Sean Penn's JP/HRO charity helps nearly 40,000 people living in camps transition back to their neighborhoods. And in the foothills of the city, an American woman named Shelley Clay begins a business that turns trash in to jewelry, giving 220 artisans from the surrounding neighborhood jobs which enable them to build new homes and pay tuition to send their children to good schools.

Throughout Port Au Prince, there are dozens of similar programs in nearly every neighborhood, sponsored by private charities, churches and government organizations. To the aid workers who have been here from the beginning, it feels like things are finally starting to get better.

As the director of LDS Humanitarian Services in Haiti, Berthony's focus turns to finding jobs for those who lost them in the earthquake, and making sure the kids are in school. He works with LDS bishops to identify those who lost work because of the earthquake and makes sure they're going to the church's employment center, which offers classes on résumé building and interview techniques and tracks job openings throughout the city. They also offer small loans to entrepreneurs and send others back to school through a program called the Perpetual Education Fund.

He often thinks back to how he was saved. "I wasn't better than anyone else," he says. "But since I'm here, I have to do what I can to help others." He can't fix everything, but collectively small things make a difference, he believes.

It's spring in Haiti, more than two years after the earthquake. Kathleen is trudging up the muddy slope of a neighborhood in Villa Rosa, where Build Change is retrofitting a half a dozen homes.

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