Canadians brave disease, unrest to help rebuild orphanage in Haiti

Sue Bailey
Published on January 7, 2011
Karen Huxter, director of Hands Across The Sea-Haiti, sits with Alex, a resident of the orphanage she runs north of Port au Prince. Submitted photo

Newfoundlander Karen Huxter has given her heart to Haiti with an unconditional love that not even the last horrific 12 months could diminish.

“It has been a very, very, very rough year,” she said from the orphanage she founded in Deschapelles, about 150 kilometres from the capital, Port-au-Prince.

“I wouldn’t put it any other way.”

Her Christian ministry, Hands Across the Sea-Haiti, houses 14 children aged one to 16 and has a school attended by about 290 students.

Huxter, 65, established the orphanage 15 years ago after she visited Haiti to meet the little girl her daughter had adopted.

Her horrendous year started with the massive earthquake last Jan. 12 that left much of Port-au-Prince in ruins, killing an estimated 250,000 people.

The orphanage buildings shook and swayed, but did not come down. Still, a new water tower had to be built and there was major damage to the structures and razor-wired security wall. It was unsafe to sleep indoors for months.

Huxter, originally from Springdale was just regrouping when one of her beloved children, an 18-year-old diabetic girl named Serlande, fell sick in mid-January. It was days before she could be treated in the only nearby hospital as her blood sugar levels spiked and dipped.

Rooms and corridors overflowing with earthquake victims were scenes of abject human suffering. Labs were hopelessly backed up for test results.

Serlande died on Jan. 29.

“We were trying to get back on our feet, living outside, sleeping in a little mosquito net for five months, dealing with (Serlande’s) death ... then the cholera hits,” Huxter said. “And that has been really devastating.

“We’ve had many of our school children in the hospital. Several of them, their parents have died of cholera.”

Haiti’s first outbreak of the intestinal disease in a century had killed more than 3,300 people by late December, according to official estimates.

Infections are spreading amid dangerous political tensions over contested results in Haiti’s presidential elections.

Huxter could hardly be blamed if she packed it in and returned to the other country she loves, Canada.

“It has just gone on and on,” she said of Haiti’s painful list of recent calamities. “If I didn’t have the support of the Canadians that I have behind me, then I wouldn’t be able to do what I do.”

That support includes a $50,000 donation from the St. John’s city council to help with reconstruction.

Mayor Dennis O’Keefe said Huxter has personally visited the city council to account for how the cash was used and offers regular updates on progress.

“We really didn’t want to toss money in a pot and not know how it would be spent,” he said in an interview.

Critics have slammed the slow pace of rubble clearing and rebuilding in Port-au-Prince, as officials debate how to roll out billions of dollars in international aid.

Work continues at the orphanage where construction teams and other volunteers from across Canada donate their time.

Brian Bowers, co-owner of a lumber and supplies store in Yarmouth, N.S., was working on a project at the orphanage when the earthquake struck. It was almost 5 p.m. local time. He and a crew of volunteers from his hometown had just finished for the day.

No one was hurt at the orphanage. But Bowers still struggles to describe the overwhelming scale of death and destruction he saw in Port-au-Prince en route to the airport seven days later.

He returned to Haiti in March to help rebuild and is planning another trip in February.

“The Haitian people are a beautiful, beautiful people and they’ll do anything for you,” he said.

“Once you’ve been there, you just can’t help but want to go back and help them.”

Gerry Rhyno, also of Yarmouth, was volunteering in Haiti during the earthquake and returned in October — his 15th visit. He is planning another trip to Huxter’s orphanage.

“We were just down there, and when you see the tent cities, when you see that people ... have no real outlook for the future, of it being any different than it is now, it’s pretty sad.”

Huxter said she could not go on without the support of volunteers and the donations that keep the orphanage and school running. Money is now being raised to help vaccinate the children against cholera, she said.