SUNY Broome’s Health for Haiti global service learning class undeniably changes lives in both urban and rural Haitian communities. The lives that are perhaps the most changed, however, are those of the students themselves.
“I changed my entire lifestyle and career path based on that experience,” said Stamatia Dimitriou, an AA1 student known as Tia who attended this year’s Health for Haiti course during winter term.
Launched in January 2014, Health for Haiti is a four-credit, interdisciplinary course with a mission: provide humanitarian assistance to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, while preparing college students to contribute to global security and prosperity. Students in the course explore the dynamics between poverty, education and healthcare not through textbooks, but through engaging in service projects that address pressing needs.
Projects encompass a wide range of services, from providing solar power, clean water, bathroom facilities and community gardens in the rural community of Grande Saline, to hands-on education in the arts, computer literacy, science, nutrition and hygiene to both rural and urban Haitian children. Medical and dental clinics, food distribution, the creation and support of a sewing school and soap-making initiative, socializing orphans – Health for Haiti has done it all in the four years since it began.
“Having us come there is a huge deal for them. They don’t know when the next opportunity for medical care will be,” said Madison Wright, a second-year dental hygiene student from the Oneonta area.
This year’s trip
As in previous years, SUNY Broome students engaged with a wide range of initiatives during Health for Haiti.
“It was a packed 10 days,” Tia said.
On the education side, SUNY Broome CLT students created a science education class for the children at Organisation Assistante pour des Enfants d’Haiti (OAEH). Haitian children learned about the scientific method and observation with the aid of donated magnifying glasses, observation notebooks, a microscope and school supplies. The Health for Haiti team will return this summer for the second part of the science lesson, bringing foldable microscopes for Haitian teachers and students to use.
Grande Saline’s solar energy, water filtration systems and community gardens – previous Health for Haiti initiatives – continue to enhance the lives of residents. The class also distributed 500 personal care kits and served more than 500 lunches to children in urban and rural Haiti, as well as distributed food to 300 families, paid for mostly by student fundraising efforts.
Thanks to a donation of soap-making supplies from Minnesota-based Sweet Cakes Soap, Health for Haiti provided a new economic opportunity for women in Grande Saline. The women have since made and sold their soap at a recent church convention, and have received orders for more.
Children in Grande Saline learned to play the recorder, aided by instructional materials created by fellow youngsters at Tioga Hills Elementary School. Haitian children also learned about nutrition and the food groups, Tia said.
The medical team, led by a pair of Haitian doctors, saw more than 200 patients and dispensed prescription medications. Although not trained on the medical side, Dimitriou aided efforts by recording data, registering patients and fetching medicine as needed.
Health for Haiti distributed more than 1,200 toothbrushes and taught children the rudiments of dental hygiene. Assisted by a Haitian dentist, SUNY Broome’s dental hygiene students applied sealants in the mouths of more than 1,000 patients, helping them keep their teeth from decay. They also applied silver diamine fluoride on 43 teeth, stopping the progression of decay.
The fluoride treatment was new to Health for Haiti, and relied on a technology that allows the treatment to be cured without the application of light – an important consideration in a place where electricity isn’t always available, Wright said. The patient load was high, but understandably so, given the lack of dental care in the country.
“It makes me appreciate more the care we do have in the United States. I’d like to go back and do more,” Wright said.
The Haitian people were deeply appreciative of the aid they received, Tia and Madison said. Students also had the opportunity to witness the disparities between urban and rural poor, the latter of which had fewer available resources.
“It was really heartbreaking as well as equally inspiring. You can see directly how you’re helping people,” Tia said. “We got to see exactly how that money we raised is being used. It meant more. It was more real.”
When she was first contemplating college, Dimitriou didn’t know what she wanted to pursue as a major or as a career. Interested in healthcare, she’s also a dancer with a love of the arts and teaches dance as a side job.
“I knew SUNY Broome would give me the best opportunity to figure that out and I knew I wanted to go to Haiti,” said the Johnson City resident. “I knew this would be the best place for me to start.”
She enrolled in the challenging Associate in Arts in One Year (AA1) program for academically gifted students, and pursued her dream of going to Haiti. She couldn’t articulate why she wanted to go, but knew she would figure it out along the way.
The experience changed her dramatically, giving her focus and purpose. She decided on a career path as a physician assistant, perhaps for a nonprofit so she can continue to help those in need, and will transfer to Binghamton University.
“After going to Haiti, I decided that my ultimate thing is helping people,” she said. “Since we came back, we have a whole different appreciation for everything. I observe human behavior in a whole different way.”
Upon her return, she quit her retail job, losing her patience with people who seemed overly concerned with materialism. It’s a feeling that Wright understands well.
“When I came home, I didn’t want to hear people’s negative attitude,” she said.
Haiti marked the first time that Wright even left the country, something she viewed with trepidation initially. But it’s opened a new world and she’ll follow that up this spring with Global Health in Ireland, a course that will send her to a far different island to perform dental care.
After earning her dental hygiene license, she will also consider a more global avenue when it comes to career. It’s quite the change when you realize that she once became intensively homesick on a backpacking trip. Homesickness wasn’t a factor in Haiti at all.
“I felt so comfortable there, so welcome,” she said.
In fact, many of the Health for Haiti students remain good friends. From the first long day in the airport, the class formed bonds with one another, Madison and Tia said.
“The people I went to Haiti with are honestly my best friends now, and I’m already planning to go back to Haiti,” Tia said.
To contribute to the larger world, you need to push yourself – to get outside your comfort zone, Dimitriou mused. With that in mind, she has this bit of advice for fellow Hornets who may also be contemplating Health for Haiti: “Don’t be afraid to take chances. Do everything you can. You have the opportunities.”