We often take for granted just how lucky we are in beautiful Port Macquarie. Danielle Morante explains how a stint helping earthquake victims in Haiti to rebuild their homes and their lives changed her own perspective on life …
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a local. I was born in Hastings District Hospital, attended the Community Preschool, Port Macquarie Primary School and Port Macquarie High School. Since finishing Year 12, I have lived between Port Macquarie and Lismore, London and vtSydney.
I used to work at the Visitor Centre, Country Comfort and 5 Star Medical Centre, so you may have seen me around! When I am not volunteering, I work as an occupational therapist.
Give us some idea of the magnitude of the earthquake destruction you helped deal with in Haiti …
January 12 marks the 1 year anniversary of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti, where it was reported over 300,000 people lost their lives and over a million people were forced to live in tent camps.
My first impression on the drive from the airport was of widespread damage. The Presidential palace, roads, homes, schools, hospitals … everything was just broken.
I was based in a town called Leogane, on the coast, just outside the capital Port au Prince and near to the epicentre of the earthquake. Leogane has about 120,000 residents, who live in the town and rural areas.
Approximately 30,000 lives were lost here, and 90 percent of the town was destroyed. The locals live in tent camps or outside their damaged homes, for fear of further collapse during aftershocks.
The main focus after providing access to food and water and sanitation is to carry out demolition and rubble removal, to enable people to return to the location of their homes.
How did you become involved with providing earthquake assistance?
I have always been interested in overseas travel and had also been thinking about volunteering overseas for some time. I was really affected by what I saw in the media following January 12 last year, so when the opportunity to volunteer with All Hands Volunteers came up. I just went for it!
All Hands Volunteers is an international non profit organisation, who provide assistance in response to natural disasters. I found the organisation online. They had really great feedback from previous volunteers, they were extremely organised, and it was clear they were doing good work.
By the time I had arrived, they had cleared many home sites, cleaned up at the local hospital and commenced the building of 6 new schools. Their work is impressive, and they are a great bunch of people.
How long did you remain in Haiti?
I was in Haiti for 5 weeks in September / October 2010. Some people go for 5 days, others for 5 months … it’s up to you. I have finished my volunteer post, but I would love to return one day soon.
What are some of the tasks you performed while you were volunteering? Are there any you’re particularly proud of?
I had the opportunity to work on all of the different projects. Each day various work teams would go out to different sites to do rubble removal, school building, baby orphanage, school aged children’s groups, or make biosand filters for providing clean, safe water.
Almost everything was done by hand. Rubble involved using pickaxes, sledgehammers, shovels and wire cutters to break up and remove piles and remains of fallen homes, then the rubble was run offsite using wheelbarrows.
The idea was to clear the site down to the original slab, so a new home or a temporary shelter could be erected. School building required carpentry to assemble framing, rendering on walls, or shovelling gravel, sifting sand and running buckets of cement to fill the foundation.
The baby orphanage and the children’s groups gave the staff some relief and the children the opportunity to play, sing and dance and just be kids in a safe space away from the reality of their situation.
The work was hard, but the team spirit was amazing. I am proud to have worked alongside my Haitian friends to help make positive change to the situation.
The great thing about volunteering is that you can learn new skills in areas that you are interested in. In Haiti there were nurses driving bobcats, investment bankers leading children’s programs and a chef managing the tool shed.
What are some of the things / people that touched your heart the most?
Each day the local children would turn up to sites wanting to help, lifting and carrying whatever they could manage. I saw elderly ladies determined to carry smaller pieces of concrete and rubbish by hand, as their way of pitching in.
At one of the school sites, the local ladies carried all the water in large buckets on their heads and in their hands at the same time, to help with making the cement. Other people prepared hot lunches for the work teams as a token of appreciation. All the locals wanted to assist in any way they could.
What other volunteer works / programs have you been involved with?
I have previously volunteered with the elderly in the community in Australia, which I found very rewarding. This is my first experience volunteering abroad. The great thing about volunteering is that you don’t need any special skills or qualifications – and there is no age limit. Everyone can do it.
I would encourage anyone who is interested to make enquiries; it’s a wonderful way to give back to your community, while learning new things.
What’s the attitude / feeling among the people of Haiti since they’ve been rocked by the earthquake?
I felt very welcome and safe in the community. The Haitian people are resilient in the face of ongoing trauma and loss. There is a really good feeling of community spirit, where people look out for one another and support those who have lost everything.
I have a lot of respect for the Haitian people and their positive determination to heal and rebuild.
What’s life usually like in Haiti for its residents, and how much has it changed since the quake?
Previously life was already difficult, as Haiti is one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries, with a history of political turmoil. But after the earthquake, this worsened, and most people were made homeless, hospitals were closed and the children had no schools to go to.
On top of that there was a cholera epidemic, as well as hurricane Tomas and the resulting floods, which also required a huge clean up. Many more lives were lost.
How has the process of helping out in Haiti affected you personally?
I feel really grateful for the experience. I have learned a lot about the hardships people face in emergency and disaster situations and I have realised that I would like to do more in this area in the future. I have made lifelong friendships with other international volunteers and locals.
I consider myself very fortunate having grown up here in Port Macquarie and having the freedoms and opportunity that some people just don’t get access to.
The Haitians have shown me that no matter what happens next, you always have hope. I like that.
What are your future plans?
First of all, I want to hit the Port Macquarie beaches! Then yes, I definitely want to be involved in similar projects in the future.
I intend to continue volunteering both at home and overseas. It’s a great way to broaden your perspective of the world, while making new friends.
If you would like to make a donation or offer your time for the people in Haiti, please visit www.hands.org
Thank you Danielle. (Danielle is on the far right in the group photograph above.)
Interview by Jo Atkins.