GUEST COLUMN By MAGGIE ARDIENTE
Jan. 20, 2010
Last Tuesday, we were all shocked when we heard that a devastating earthquake had struck the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince. The 7.0-magnitude quake has killed as many as 200,000 people, according to officials' estimates, and has caused the destruction of thousands of buildings. Over one million people are now homeless and in dire need of food, water and medical attention-this in a city that was already overcrowded and impoverished.
The day after the disaster, the American Humanist Association received a number of phone calls and e-mails from members asking, "How can we help?" Many wanted to send support, but didn't want their donations sent to religious organizations that proselytize. But thanks to Humanist Charities, we were quick to respond. (Humanist Charities, a program of the American Humanist Association, was created in 2005 in order to support humanist and secular relief efforts across the globe.)
I recalled that in the past Humanist Charities worked with Sebastian Velez, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University, to help raise money for Children of the Border, a relief and development project he created to serve people living on the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. When Children of the Border needed funds to expand emergency medical service and health care for expectant mothers, AHA members donated over $2,500 to purchase an ambulance and build a medical facility.
I phoned Sebastian to seek his advice on how we could send donations directly to a secular organization in Haiti. Luckily, I caught him just as he was about to board a plane full of reporters and leaders of relief aid organizations traveling to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic (DR). Sebastian said he would help us find such an organization and send us updates on the situation in Haiti via e-mail in the coming days.
In the meantime, Humanist Charities quickly created the Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund to collect donations from people who wanted to help. In the first 24 hours, over $15,000 was raised. We were thrilled at the response.
Sebastian continued to send us updates via e-mail. On January 15, several Dominican NGOs began organizing a trip to Jacmel, a city close to Port-au-Prince that was also destroyed but had received neither supplies nor media attention. We knew we could make our biggest impact there.
With the help of Humanist Charities donations-now over $23,000-Sebastian purchased food, water, medical supplies and relief tools such as wheelbarrows and shovels from the Civil Defense warehouse in Pedernales, DR. With the help of volunteers, he spent the weekend packing the supplies onto trucks. (Sebastian even spray-painted the word "Humanists" on the supply bags and "AHA" on the wheelbarrows!) Out of all the NGOs taking part in the shipment, Humanist Charities purchased the largest number of supplies.
On January 18 at 3:00 a.m., the Dominican Navy ship left the DR, bound for the Jacmel port. It was the first supply ship to arrive in Jacmel by land or sea since the earthquake. Sebastian and his team of volunteers spent hours delivering food and supplies to the large crowd waiting at the dock. He even set aside food for a nearby orphanage that had not received food in four days. And thus, thanks to the brave efforts of the UN, Haitian volunteers and Sebastian, the delivery was a success. (You can read Sebastian's full story here, and view amazing photos of the supply distribution-and how your donations made a direct impact-on the AHA's Flickr page.)
Unfortunately, however, this morning, Haiti experienced another aftershock centered on Gressier, a village near Port-au-Prince. In an e-mail sent this morning, Sebastian reported that what people need the most right now is medicine, cooking gas and gas stoves. He's currently organizing more trucks, supplies and another boat from Pedernales to Jacmel that will arrive on Thursday morning.
In a letter to the American Humanist Association, Sebastian wrote, "I want to stress the importance of the AHA's membership response. Our shipment justified the first trip from the Dominican Navy. Now that logistics are solved, many more shipments are coming from Santo Domingo. Our tools and medical supplies were the first to arrive and put to use immediately. International organizations are using our list of medicines."
Sebastian has seen first-hand how religious extremists with a proselytizing agenda are often the only people who help the people of the Haiti-Dominican Republic border. And though Humanist Charities is not a large relief organization with hundreds of thousands of dollars, we wanted to do our part. The American Humanist Association was proud to provide a secular opportunity for our members to see their dollars make a direct and immediate impact.
All of this would not have been possible without the extreme generosity and quick response of our membership. Humanist Charities has raised $43,000 toward Haiti relief efforts so far, and we want to keep it growing. If you haven't already, I encourage everyone to donate what they can to the Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund and support more desperately-needed supply shipments to Haiti. You can donate online at www.humanistcharities.org or call 1-800-837-3792 to donate by phone.
Together, as humanists, we are making a difference.
(Maggie Ardiente is the director of development for the American Humanist Association and editor of Free Mind, the AHA's quarterly newsletter. Special thanks to Sebastian Velez and his team of volunteers for coordinating humanist relief efforts in Haiti.)