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Progress comes slowly in Haiti - Part 1

Dr. Pat Wolff at a clinic.
Provided by Washington University
/
Dr. Patricia Wolff, Executive Director of Meds & Food for Kids with patients in Haiti last year

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 22, 2010 - Six months after Haiti's devastating earthquake, some Haitian institutions are planning for a "new normal."

The tragedy in Haiti has steeled the determination of several seasoned St. Louis volunteers to educate, mentor and help more Haitians become self-sustaining. Haitians must serve their own people and run their own hospitals, schools and society, they said in interviews this week.

Expansions are planned in Haiti for two St. Louis-founded institutions.

Meds & Foods for Kids, a Haitian hyper-nutritious food factory in Cap Haitien, founded by St. Louisan Dr. Patricia Wolff in 2004, will build a new factory and close its existing one.

Hospital Sacre Coeur in Milot, Haiti, started 24 years ago by St. Louisans Dr. Ted Dubuque and Carlos Reese, will build a 50-bed addition and a supply depot.

Within weeks, the hospital and the nutrition factory each will launch its first major capital campaign.

Graduates of a teaching program, developed and supported by St. Louisans, for physical rehabilitation aides at Hospital Albert Schweitzer are in high demand because of the on-going needs of new amputees with artificial limbs.

While 1.5 million Port au Prince residents still sleep in tented camps and spend part of each day standing in line for purified water, serious planners are mapping long-term reconstruction.

"I think all of us working in Haiti are demanding more sophisticated thinking," said Wolff, a Washington University Medical School associate professor of pediatrics on Wednesday. She has been in Haiti about half of her time since mid-January. "The big actors in Haiti are thinking how we can make Haiti more sustainable."

The 38 seconds that shook southern Haiti Jan. 12 and devastated its densely populated capital Port au Prince changed the country forever. At least 230,000 Haitians and some foreign nationals died.

But even before the 7.8 magnitude quake, Haiti was the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere with average wages of $1 a day. Half the children were not enrolled in schools before the quake.

Now many Haitians remain in "open" land in tents despite the rainy season and predictions of hurricanes. Government records and land deeds were lost. What education there was has been slow to resume.

"We are all frustrated, disappointed and grieving about the condition of Port au Prince," Wolff said. "But maybe (slowness) is what a young democracy looks like -- when you want everyone to have a say, when you know that 17 percent of the government workers were killed; when other government workers have post-traumatic stress syndrome; when everyone is grieving the lost of people they know; when even before the earthquake the World Bank said 86 percent of educated (Haitians) left Haiti."

As the country continues to clear rubble and treat the injured it also is taking small steps to build transitional plywood houses, but cooperation among international helpers, especially newcomers, may be lagging.

"In the first two or three months after the earthquakes, most of the NGOs (non-governmental organizations or charities) were talking to each other in regular planning sessions so their work would not overlap and so resources could covers as many as possible," said Charles J. Gulas, dean of Maryville University's School of Health Professions. He spent three weeks in the last two Januarys teaching medical aides in Haiti. "However, some NGOs, particularly those who are new to Haiti, seem to have become indifferent to cooperative efforts. They just want to do what they want to do. That is disappointing."

Lifesaving Peanut Spread

In Cap Haitien, the nation's largest northern city, Wolff oversees the nonprofit Meds & Food for Kids' hyper-nutritional food factory. It produces a smooth sticky product that tastes like the filling in Reese's Peanut Butter cups, she said. It has more magic than anything in Willie Wonka's fictional factory. The nutritious spread, formulated for children between the age of 6 months and 5 years, can boost a young child with malnutrition back to health in six weeks.

Wolff's agency calls the spread Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF). Haitians nickname it Medika Mamba. It costs about $100 to make the 44 pounds a child would need over six weeks. The Haitian factory makes it from imported peanut butter, dried milk, vegetable oil, multi-vitamins, minerals and Haitian sugar. It requires no refrigeration.

From mid-January through April, Meds & Food for Kids' distributed 30,000 tons of Medika Mamba. The spread fed 1,500 Haitian children in that time of crisis, according to Steve Taviner, the nonprofit's St. Louis administrator.

During the emergency, Medika Mamba not only went to Meds & Food for Kids regular Haitian distributors: Haitian orphanages, hospitals and clinics. It served as emergency rations for some adult and older kids.

"Adults who hadn't eaten in a week would show up at a hospital with wounds," Wolff said. "Burn victims especially needed good nutrition to heal. Unaccompanied kids who had not eaten showed up at orphanages."

Fundraising is up this year, with Emerson giving $200,000 and Scottrade $100,000 to Meds & Food for Kids. Thanks to nudges from Nestle employees in St. Louis, Nestle Switzerland gave $280,000. Google gave $100,000.

In 2003 and 2007, Wolff unsuccessfully tried to get Nutriset of Malauney, France, to partner with her St. Louis-based group. The idealistic organization in Normandy works only with humanitarian groups that meet its goals and criteria.

 

"Now Nutriset wants to partner with us," Wolff said. "We are about to sign a contract to be a franchise. It will open a lot of doors for us. Partnering with Nutriset is like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."

Nutriset will refer Meds & Food for Kids to its manufacturing machine vendors and demand up-to-date, quality assurance for food safety.

Meds & Food for Kids has bought land in Cape Haitien for a new factory that will be "twice as large and, four, five, or, six time more productive than what we now have," Wolff said. "It will really bring us into the 21st century."

With increased production capacity, Wolff expects Meds & Food for Kids to produce other Nutriset products for a wider market including affordable food that market vendors can sell to individual customers.

The new factory, like her present one, will employ Haitians; and it should become self sustaining within five years.

"It will help demonstrate that you don't have to rescue Haiti forever," she said.

Patricia Rice is a freelance journalist.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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