VISTA Volunteer Revisits Haiti

After three months, our AmeriCorps* VISTA member shares his experiences volunteering with DCF to help Haitian repatriates.

It was 5 a.m., and my mother was already asking me questions that I wasn’t sure how to answer.

“When they get here, who is going to take care of them? How are they going to support themselves? What exactly are you going to do for them?” We were driving to the Sanford-Orlando International Airport and the “they” that she was referring to were the Haitian repatriates who were arriving on military carriers after a 7.0 earthquake devastated the island’s capital of Port-au-Prince.

 It had been two weeks since the earthquake hit and hundreds of repatriates were arriving through the airport daily. The entire process was spearheaded by Florida’s Department of Children and Families. I was able to volunteer there for a day through Family Services of Metro Orlando, the organization I work with as an AmeriCorps VISTA.

When I arrived, gate six had been transformed into a makeshift command center.  Rows of computers divided the terminal and a large section of chairs had been removed to the make room for the triage and three cots. Privacy walls were constructed out of stacked boxes and racks of donated clothes. Some of the windows had been covered in brown butcher paper, but you could still see out to the runway and into the book store.

In the early morning hours, it felt like any other day at an airport. Everyone in the terminal was waiting for a flight to arrive. People were hunched over their laptops and talking on their cell phones. Most of all, everyone looked tired. They looked really, really tired. DCF employees from all over Central Florida volunteered for 12 hour shifts to help out in any capacity they could. Some stood behind the phones, others computers and a few were stationed near the food and coffee.

One of the DCF higher ups worked a dry erase board covered in flight numbers and arrival times. Occasionally, he would answer his phone and wipe a flight off of the board. Within an hour, the day’s itinerary was reduced to just two flights with the first landing at noon. There were five hours separating me from the first arrival. A long talk with two nurses let my mind run wild with what might happen.

They were both retired and volunteering full time at the airport since the operation started. I couldn’t understand some of the things they had seen. I imagined floods of repatriates coming off the planes, some on stretchers and others hobbling. One nurse assured me that those days were over. The majority of people with intense medical needs had already been evacuated. She said that on a recent flight, the C-17, which hauled thousands of pounds of supplies, returned with only two evacuees.

 After hours of waiting, noon rolled around. Volunteers crowded the big windows to see the C-17 land. Eyes and camera phones were pointed at the tarmac to catch a glimpse of the iron behemoth. Gracefully, it touched down with a small bump before slowing. It crept out of view and volunteers returned to their stations. Nearly a hundred planes had touched down just like this over the past two weeks, but I had no idea what to expect.

Repatriates slowly filtered into the terminal through a long corridor. I worked with only a handful of the 39 repatriates who arrived on the first flight of the day. They were moving between the service stations, and only a few approached mine. It was hard assessing it all. No one looked alike or like they had experienced the same thing. A man was wearing swimming trunks and a gray shirt, a family was dressed in their Sunday’s best and there was a woman who had red streaks on her dress that I told myself weren’t blood. No one had luggage.

Greeters carrying clipboards escorted the new arrivals to the services they needed most. The eight Creole translators, distinguished by orange reflective vests, were the most sought after. Repatriates were led through food lines to receive Gatorade, chips, apples and bananas. Right next to it, a mountain of teddy bears and coloring books waited to ease the trip for a distraught child.

Any emergency medical needs were addressed by the Red Cross’ triage center. Nurses were equipped to deal with almost anything. When a plane landed earlier in the week with children who had lice, one nurse left and returned with several bottles of Nix. Today, there wasn’t a rush for their services. Nurses only supplied one change of clothes and a bag full of diapers.

The repatriates arrived with little more than the clothes they wore and a handful of possessions. DCF staff waited to greet them and help navigate repatriates through the programs that would help them rebuild their lives in the United States.  As U.S. citizens and foreign nationals, they were eligible for food stamps, Medicaid and Repatriation Assistance, a loan that covers meals, temporary lodging, medical care and other incidental expenses.

The final step was to help everyone get home. This is where I came in. On the far end of the terminal, two folding tables were covered in a tangle of wires. Fifteen cell phones, two laptops and a long list of phone numbers cluttered the tables with one purpose: help the repatriates catch connecting flights, buses or trains. A line formed while the three volunteers including myself played travel agent.

The first gentleman I helped was on vacation from Detroit. My first reaction was to tell him that I was from Toledo to lighten the tension I was feeling. Before I could ask him how he was, he shared with me some of his story. He had heard about the flight out of Haiti earlier that morning and was able to board it with no problems. It seemed like such a stark contrast from the recent news reports of looting and rioting. None of the negative things seemed to affect him. There was still a smile on his face from when the pilots had allowed him to enter the C-17’s cockpit during landing. I handed him one of the cell phones and helped him book his return flight home.

As the first man left, the next man sat in front of me and his translator handed me his ticket and passport. I wanted to know more about him and how he was, but all I learned was his name and next destination. Using one of the government issued cell phones, I dialed the 800 number for the airline.

“Reservations,” I said speaking into the phone. “Res-er-vaaa-tions.”  Inside my ear, the phone crackled its automated response. “I’m sorry. I didn’t understand that. Did you mean flight arrivals?”

I rolled my eyes and smiled to the man sitting in front of me. Mouthing the words one minute, I looked up at the translator to see if he understood. “Operator. Operator, operator, operator.” Enough persistence put me through to a human on the other end, but that was only half of the difficulty.

“I’m with the Department of Children and Families in Florida, and I am with gentleman who was evacuated from Port-au-Prince. We need to get his flight changed to get him home.” It had been nearly two weeks since the operation began, which should have been enough time for the memos to circulate. “We need to get him out of Orlando this afternoon to JFK. Is there a flight we can switch him to?”

“I’m sorry we won’t be flying out of Port-au-Prince until next week.” The operator and I danced around the conversation, while I tried to explain how this man was in Florida when there no flights out of Haiti. To my left, one of DCF’s human resources employees was becoming visibly frustrated with the person on the other end of the line. Realizing the difficulty we were having, it became clear that we were doing our part to prevent suffering.

The afternoon continued on in a less than hurried pace. Another flight arrived two hours later with 60 repatriates. A trend emerged in their travel plans. There were only a few flight options for travelers heading north, most of which were on their way to New York. As the afternoon progressed, the options were limited to a late flight through Chicago or wait till morning. I became comfortable speaking over the phone and processed two or three reroutings at a time, but I still had no idea how to respond to the people in front of me.

One man walked up to the line, weeping as he spoke to the translator. He held up two fingers as he talked. Based off the cracks in his voice and the long pauses between breaths, I understood his loss. He sat down in the hard plastic chair and his face stiffened. There was no emotion in his voice. He placed his ticket and passport on the table and asked me to help him get home. At one point, he smiled. He was on the phone with his wife while I was speaking with an airline representative. Our dialog was brief and revolved around him finding overnight arrangements. The thought of home brought a rush of emotions back to him, but his body slackened at the thought of delaying his return. There was nothing I could to get him home faster, and I wondered what his hotel stay would be like. Would he pace all night or sleep till morning? After I wrote down all his information, he thanked me and left for the bus that would take him to the hotel.

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