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This is not your average therapy session...


During this challenging time of coping with the Corona virus pandemic, I have been recalling my experiences during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. It was a terrible time for the women we partnered with, but there are powerful lessons for all of us in their courage and resilience. 
Late afternoon on January 12, I was sitting in a bar at Boston's Logan Airport with Jeanne Staples, PeaceQuilts Founder and Director. We were enjoying our last taste of American food (and a glass of wine!) before flying to Port-au-Prince. As a volunteer and in my role as PeaceQuilts' Quilting Coordinator, we had traveled to Haiti together several times over the previous three years, and it was starting to feel pretty routine. But thirty minutes before boarding, that all changed.
Our cellphones started ringing.  Simultaneously, the television overhead began showing images and headlines announcing a devastating earthquake had struck Haiti. Our flight had not yet been cancelled, but the television showed Port-au-Prince was pummeled. 
We had seen Haiti battered before. In 2008, hurricanes Gustav, Hanna and Ike tore through the country, but we were not prepared for the scale of devastation left by the earthquake. Amidst the din and chaos typical for the airport, my mind seemed very quiet as I saw the pictures of Haiti on the television, and my thoughts were focused on our friends and partners who were in the middle of that catastrophe. Although our flights were soon cancelled, our trip was not.

We spent the next few days watching the news and trying to get through to our friends in Lilavois. For a while it was almost impossible. Was everyone safe? What could we do to meet their needs? How soon could we get back to Haiti? 

We started to put a plan together to get immediate aid to our partners, and later, to travel there to deliver whatever help we could put together. We knew our goals had to be broader than simply getting the cooperatives up and running again. 

photo credit: David Barreda

Three days after the earthquake 

We were finally able to communicate with Nadége Florian in Cité Soleil. Nadège is one of the original members of the first sewing cooperative PeaceQuilts helped establish, Artisanat Patchwork du Paix. Nadège set out on a motorcycle taxi to check on all of the women. She gave us a preliminary assessment of how they and their families were doing, and what they needed. I suggested to Nadège that the women would benefit from meeting and sewing together as soon as they were able. Working as a group would give them a way to support each other and provide a sense of normalcy and hope.
In short order, donations from generous friends and supporters started pouring in to PeaceQuilts, which eventually totaled nearly $30,000. Before the first week was over, we were able to get money to our Haitian partners to help meet their immediate financial needs. We wanted to use the rest of those funds in a way that provided the women and their families with the greatest relief and assistance. We also began gathering supplies to take with us on our trip to Haiti. Shipping goods and materials to Haiti is never easy, nor certain. Whatever infrastructure Haiti had prior to the earthquake was now completely destroyed. 

photo credit: David Barreda
photo credit: Reuters

Like a bomb had gone off....

On March 24, 2010, our bags bursting with essential supplies, we flew to Port-au-Prince. As our plane descended low on the approach, we could see tent cities, rubble and flattened buildings everywhere. Upon landing, we discovered the airport terminal had been destroyed. All the luggage was heaped on a hangar floor where everyone was scrambling to pull the pile apart as they searched for their bags.

Once we arrived at our home base in Lilavois, we learned that parents were not sending their children to school for fear the building would collapse. Everyone was traumatized. An earthquake is not a one-time event. The aftershocks had continued for days, causing more destruction, fear, pain and loss. Unlike a hurricane, earthquakes traumatize and re-traumatize victims over and over again until the Earth’s convulsions subside.

It was encouraging to discover that the women had taken my advice and were working together. However, at that point, they only wanted to work outside. Everyone was anxious about being inside a building. And though all of the members of the cooperatives had survived, there wasn't anyone who didn't have friends, family, or loved ones who had been injured or killed during the earthquake.

photo credit: David Barreda

In-the-trenches therapy

Working with a translator, I immediately went about assessing all of the women and the Haitian Catholic Sisters who ran the school. Though PeaceQuilts is not a faith-based organization, these Haitian Sisters have been a wonderful strategic partner and huge supporters of our economic development mission.


photo credit: David Barreda

Maureen and Jeanne Staples by the ruin's of Fabiola Marcel's house
Through a series of meetings, I helped the women understand normal reactions to stress and trauma, and if they were experiencing PTSD symptoms, this was a natural reaction to the extraordinary events that had happened. I introduced them to ways for coping with symptoms of trauma.  I tried to help them understand that the sooner that they got back to living their lives, restoring their daily routines, the less likely it would be for them to develop long term symptoms due to trauma.  They needed to work to continue earning a living.  More importantly, they needed to work so they could be together, support each other emotionally, and reduce the symptoms of trauma by restoring the normal routines of their daily lives.
We had an engineer assess the school building, and it was determined to be structurally sound. This was a big relief! The day arrived when I led the women inside the workspace. Being together, seeing the familiar surroundings of the workspace they all loved - the shelves of colorful fabrics, the treadle sewing machines, tools and equipment - was reassuring. I was there to talk with them about any anxiety they were feeling and help them understand this would diminish over time. It wasn't long before they began sweeping the floor and wiping the thick layer of dust that had settled everywhere so they could get back to work. 
The school buildings were ready, but the students and parents were not. Sister Cadet, Director of the school, and I discussed the importance of having the children return to their classes. Victims of trauma routinely avoid places and situations that remind them of their traumatic experience. Avoiding triggers can make trauma symptoms more engrained and even more crippling. To lessen these symptoms, victims should be exposed to normal safe situations even if they trigger anxiety. By going inside the classroom, and being in the classroom, the parents and students can remind themselves that the school is a safe place to be. 

Sister Cadet leads children into the school building.


The Day of Joy

To get the school open and operating, Sister Cadet organized The Day of Joy, a celebratory event for the school's students and parents. The Sisters welcomed everyone to the school grounds and led them in games and songs. Then in a very moving speech, Sr. Cadet assured the parents that the building had been certified safe, and she felt comfortable returning to the classroom. She offered to lead the parents and children through the classroom building so they could see for themselves the structure was safe. It was a testament to the parents' trust in Sr. Cadet that they followed her into the school. The Day of Joy had set the stage, and her words had prepared the parents to cross the threshold behind her. Once inside, the parents' fears seemed to subside, and they were ready to have their children return to school. 

The Earthquake Quilts

Over the coming months the women followed another suggestion I made. Tell your own story of the earthquake in a quilt. Here again was an opportunity to use quilting as a therapeutic tool. Art can be a powerful means to process traumatic events in a different way, when words are not enough. When we returned to Haiti in June, we were amazed and deeply moved to see what they had created.

Photo credit: Harvey Beth
Tremblemen de tè en Ayiti - Earthquake in Haiti by Solidarity Cooperative
In this quilt, buildings have collapsed, people are injured and bleeding, some cry out for help or pray to God. The border on top has cars that are untouched, while on the bottom they are turned upside down, showing the randomness of the destruction. 
Tremblemen de tè en Ayiti - Earthquake in Haiti (Detail)
l'Union Fait La Force - In Unity There Is Strength by Nadège Florian
This quilt depicts a particularly horrific tragedy of the St. Gerad School which collapsed, killing all the children inside. Overhead, the sun is crying.
The Tree of Life Has Lost Its Leaves
by Fabian Marcel, Noémie Estimé and Nadège Florian

A melancholy but hopeful depiction of a bare tree of life, struggling to survive, yet tiny birds are perched on its limbs and the sun shines overhead.
La Rivyè de Sann - River of Ashes by Fabiola Marcel
Life struggles to carry on as women go to the river to wash their clothes, though it's so filled with ashes, the water has turned white.
Out of the ashes

So much has happened during the 10 years following the earthquake. The donations to PeaceQuilts helped the women repair and rebuild their homes, and their lives. The women continue to work. They gather each day in a safe supportive environment, creating their truly amazing original folk art quilts, as well as beautiful handmade bags, home decorating items, and unique fabric bead jewelry.

Through political turbulence, protests, and even Corona virus, they continue working and caring for their families with the same courage, strength and hope they used to recover from the earthquake. Living and working in Haiti is still challenging, but these women know how to meet a challenge.

To see more of their incredible quilts and other beautiful hand-stitched products, click on:

PeaceQuilts: Building better lives through art.

Solar Project Near Completion!

solar panels in Haiti for PeaceQuilts

Thanks to generous donations by the Solar Electric Light Fund, the Dunn Family Charitable Foundation, Cronig's Market of Martha's Vineyard, and other private donors, the solar project at PeaceQuilts' home base in Lilavois, Haiti is nearing completion! This brings a more comprehensive system of reliable electric power to the women in the cooperatives as well as the school and residents on the campus. 


Thank you to all the donors for this incredible gift!