By Peter Rooney

One year after a massive earthquake struck Haiti, an Amherst College alumna with a key role in monitoring the progress of recovery says there’s reason to be optimistic, even if challenges remain extremely daunting. Meanwhile, students at Amherst continue to contribute their time and resources to help in Haiti, as do many alumni.

“As absolutely devastating and heartbreaking as the Haiti earthquake was, I believe that the amount of resources coming into the country [does] offer optimism and hope,” said Abbey Gardner ’89, who is working at the United Nations as a senior advisor in the Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti.

Tahina Vatel ’12 spent the anniversary of the
earthquake in Port-au-Prince, filming a self-produced
documentary tentatively titled Haiti, Rising from the

It’s estimated that the earthquake, with an epicenter about 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, killed about 230,000, injured about 300,000, and left more than 1 million people homeless, while destroying or severely damaging 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings. 

In the days following the earthquake, Gardner was one of three staff members appointed by Paul Farmer, the physician and anthropologist who founded Partners in Health (and who also received an honorary degree from Amherst in 2005), and was named the U.N.’s deputy special envoy for Haiti. Her office is coordinating efforts to rebuild the country, working closely with governments, foundations, nongovernmental organizations and groups such as the European Commission and the World Bank.

“We’re also trying to encourage foundations and private companies to make long-term investments in the country,” she says, “and to find creative solutions to the many challenges there.”

Gardner concedes that her positive perspective is tempered somewhat by two pressing short-term challenges: a cholera outbreak that continues to vex health authorities and a tangled political situation following a disputed election late last November that led to civil unrest in December and remains unresolved.

“There are donors who have committed a great deal of funding that hasn’t gone into Haiti yet, because they have been waiting for the new administration,” Gardner said. “Once that’s in place, you’re going to see a lot of movement quickly. Donors are poised to make decisions and work with the new administration and get programs going.”

On the Amherst College campus, in the weeks that followed the earthquake, students held vigils and fundraisers as they searched for organizations that met their criteria for support. In all, students raised more than $7,500 to support relief efforts in Haiti.

Following a panel discussion about Haiti that was sponsored by the Center for Community Engagement in November, CCE Director Molly Mead said she was struck by students’ desire to help out in Haiti, even if determining exactly how to help can be difficult.

“All the panelists said it’s clear that Haiti will need to repair itself, and that the strongest efforts will be those that build local capacity,” Mead said. “I think students heard that and will continue to be interested in Haiti. What they need is a clear sense of ‘If you did this, it would make a difference.’”

Despite the lack of those clear signals, some students, such as Kathryn Libby ’11, remain committed to helping out. Libby, working through Reader to Reader, a nonprofit organization based on the Amherst campus that distributes books to schools and libraries in need, has been collaborating with a student from Mount Holyoke to raise money and supplies for a new school in Meyotte, a small village in the town of Pétionville, in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince.

Libby said the earthquake has fallen off the radar screen a bit among her fellow students, but she believes enthusiasm can easily be rekindled—if a clearer sense develops of how to help out effectively.

“People have not forgotten, and they wish they could do more,” she said. (To read about Thomas T. Bennett '95, another alumnus who is doing more, click here.)

For her part, Tahina Vatel ’12 spent the anniversary of the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, filming a self-produced documentary tentatively titled Haiti, Rising from the Rubble.

Reached via e-mail earlier this week, Vatel, who lived in Port-au-Prince from age 6 until she started high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., wrote that while signs of visible progress seem few, that doesn’t mean hope is absent.

“Is there hope? Yes. How do I know? Because I can see it in the eyes and in the spirit of the Haitian people. They are making do with what they have but are still ‘enjoying’ life. I went to a wake the other day and I saw kids running around, adults playing dominos/cards, drinking, eating, conversing; they seemed to be enjoying themselves even if it’s temporarily. Things will only get better, I think, after the elections are complete and we have a new president.”

Gardner, who is editing a book about the Haiti earthquake and working to organize a donor conference in March, is hopeful as well about Haiti’s future prospects, and confident that a more coordinated approach to providing relief will soon take root.

“If we talk again in six months, we’ll know about all kinds of Haitian-based organizations that will be perfect for students to support and volunteer for,” she said. “That’s what students are looking for and should be looking for, and they’re not always easy to identify.”