Amherst Magazine

After the Earthquake

By Emily Gold Boutilier and Peter Rooney

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"I always thank my parents for raising me in Haiti," says Tahina Vatel '12. The plastic bracelet she's wearing was among those sold at Amherst to raise money for Haiti.

Tahina Vatel ’12 lived in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, from age 6 until she started high school. “Everything I remember from my childhood is in Haiti,” says the French major from Brooklyn, N.Y., whose parents are Haitian. When the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Vatel, who was on winter break in New York, “didn’t want to come back to Amherst.” But deciding she could do more good at school than at home, she returned to campus, where she set about interviewing Haitian and Haitian-American students for a fundraising video.

Vatel is among several Amherst students and alumni who, after the earthquake, found ways to help. The alumni include Abbey Gardner ’89, senior adviser in the United Nations Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti. Based in New York City, she has been coordinating efforts to rebuild Haiti, working closely with governments, foundations, nongovernmental organizations and groups such as the European Commission and the World Bank. “Recovery efforts in Haiti have never seen as much attention or public compassion,” she said in the days after the earthquake. “The challenge is to harness that and work with the Haitian government to build Haiti back—and build it back better.”

Jim Ansara ’82 and his wife, Karen, were featured in a Boston Globe article about the couple’s $1 million pledge to help Haitians recover and Jim’s visit to a hospital in Port-au-Prince to do emergency electrical work. In response to an e-mail query from Amherst, Capt. Stephen P. McInerney ’82 was one of many to send a dispatch. “I am in the airport in Haiti, coordinating the distribution of supplies out in town via Navy helicopter,” he wrote on Jan. 16.

Meanwhile, Amherst students challenged their fellows at Williams to see who could raise the most money for earthquake relief. Through the sale of $5 plastic wristbands, the Amherst students raised more than $7,500—not enough to beat Williams, which tallied $10,203 in donations, but still among the most successful Amherst fundraisers that Peter Tang ’10, one of the organizers, has ever seen. On Amherst’s end, dollars collected went to five nonprofits: Grassroots International, the Lambi Fund of Haiti, Seeds for Haiti, Fonkoze and the Global Fund for Women’s “Crisis Fund.”

On Feb. 11 about 250 people gathered at the War Memorial to light candles and offer prayers before processing to Keefe Campus Center, where the vigil concluded with a candle-lighting ceremony by students of Haitian descent. At the vigil, Paul Sorrentino, Amherst’s director of religious life, read a letter from Rev. Jean-Luc Charles ’94, a Haitian-American. The letter offered “a personal thanks on behalf of Haitians and Haitian-Americans the world over.”

After the vigil, students watched Vatel’s video, in which she interviews Haitian and Haitian-American students. While her career plans are in flux—she is considering law school—Vatel plans to eventually settle in that country. “I always thank my parents for raising me in Haiti,” she says. “I’m dedicating my career to Haiti.”

Photo by Samuel Masinter '04