Haiti and community service connected

By Ben Moriarty

The New York Times recently analyzed community service learning programs and even used the one operated by the University of Massachusetts as an example. They wanted to know if the system works and how to make it better.         

Even more recently, Haiti was rocked by a magnitude-7 earthquake, devastation the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince. An estimated 200,000 people died as a result of the natural disaster, while another 1.5 million have been left homeless, according to the Associated Press.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, hasn’t received any support throughout its history to get out of its desperate situation. The extent of what Americans know about it, besides the debilitating poverty that Haitians share, may extend merely to something about Toussaint L’Ouverture, sugar cane or Voodoo, a religion widely practiced in Haiti.

People may not know about Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but they do know that when a catastrophic earthquake levels a city and country which has barely anything to begin with, it is time to lend a helping hand.

Thank God for that!

But what is funny – or actually, dreadfully depressing – is that Haiti is in shambles now, but it was also in shambles a week ago. And a year ago. And two years ago. And pretty much always has been – but not many people were there to lend a helping hand before the earthquake disaster.

In the name of democracy, Haiti’s aid from the United States and other countries was suspended for nearly half a decade at the beginning of this millennium. The problem was Aristide, a former Roman Catholic priest and liberation theologian who received two-thirds of the vote in his first election and nearly nine-tenths in the next, was accused of corruption and human rights abuses.

The United States, being the God and democracy-loving nation it is (at least to people like Pat Robertson), decided to cut aid to the poorest country in our hemisphere, where infant mortality and child malnutrition runs as rampant as obesity does in our country.

The past for the Haitians was grim, the present is grim and the future doesn’t look like it holds anything but the grim reaper.

So we give a helping hand, rightfully, when a quake or a tsunami strikes, and then?

UMass’ Community Service Learning program has many ideals. According to their website, its purpose is to make “connections, affect change, meet needs and create opportunities.”

A class at nearby Amherst College called “Reading, Writing and Teaching,” where students go to Holyoke, Mass., and help with English classes, is mentioned in The New York Times’ article “Does Service Learning Really Help?,” published last month.

Karen Sánchez-Eppler, the class’ instructor, told The Times, “… it really has had little to no institutional impact. During the 20 years of this course, the school has continued to have high dropout rates, low test scores, high teen pregnancy rates.”

Not to say that all community service learning programs are useless – far from it. This year, the article notes that several UMass students set up a website database manager, which greatly helped Holyoke-based community organization, Enlace de Familias.

The real impact, while what good can come of it now, is that it plants seeds in people. These seeds, hopefully, will fall on to some good soil, and yield fruit that might grow to some 30 fold, some 60 some 100 times what it was.

Obviously, despite the Gospel reference and John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism shaping his ideas of social justice, his quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” stands true today. If we have seen anything during the past week in our country, and even here at our University, that also means doing for others, including the poorest country in our hemisphere.

The question of whether the programs work or not can’t be answered entirely. We can see some tangible and other results – whether it’s building something, increasing children’s test scores or other simple volunteer tasks. What we won’t see is whether or not, after having served the community, the people will continue to serve their share, and not just when an earthquake strikes.

Ben Moriarty is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]