Devastation in Haiti hits close to ISU

By: ISU Communications and Marketing Staff, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
January 13, 2010

An Indiana State University student, who spent a week of his winter break in Haiti, flew out of Port-Au-Prince only three days before a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the country Tuesday.

Jesse Coomer, an English graduate student from Vincennes, was in Port-au-Prince on a seven-day mission trip to construct an orphanage.
While in Haiti, Coomer, and the 15 others with whom he traveled, stayed in the Ebenezer Christian Orphanage, located approximately five miles outside of Port-Au-Prince.

Coomer said he was driving to ISU this week when he first heard the news that the city he had just left had been severely impacted by the earthquake. But his first reaction wasn't one of relief.

"We had gotten pretty close to a lot of the Haitian children," he said. "We would come home dirty and tired, but we'd play with them. They were ready for us."

"I just hope they're OK."

That was the concern Wednesday shared by a world that watched as reports of the death toll in Haiti continued to rise. According to an Associated Press report, International Red Cross spokesman Paul Conneally said a third of Haiti's 9 million people may need emergency aid and that it would take a day or two for a clear picture of the damage to emerge.

Coomer exchanged phone calls Wednesday with those who traveled with him as part of the mission group Bosko, Inc. Two of the members of his mission team had remained behind in Haiti to make plans to adopt a child. Coomer learned late in the day that his friends were safe and that the orphanage where he had stayed during his visit had been only slightly damaged.

Coomer mixed concrete and assembled the cinderblock frame of the building intended to house more orphans during his seven days in Haiti. He said the construction work was tedious, primarily because it had to be completed with only three shovels, a few spades for leveling the mortar and a limited number of buckets to hold the hand-mixed cement.

"There were just no materials there to work with. Electricity, water, all of the things we take for granted, weren't available or were very limited," he said.

It's that primitive work environment that concerns Coomer and leaves him wondering how a country that's been so devastated by disaster can ever recover.

"Knowing how fragile the system was already, the rebuilding will be tough," he said.

Paul Asay's expectation for the now ravaged country is equally grim.

Asay, a systems programmer who has worked nearly 20 years for ISU, has visited Haiti on mission trips four times - most recently in September, 2007.

He returned to Terre Haute with images of impoverished people he will never forget.

"During my last trip there, I went with several people who were adopting children. They went to visit the families of some of these children, and they were selling dirt biscuits covered with butter to try to raise money to feed their families," Asay said.

"The poverty strikes you in the face," he said. "It is a total shock that you can't imagine."

Because both Coomer and Asay have a passion for mission work, they said they're likely to look for opportunities to return and lend assistance with the rebuilding.

Coomer said if it were possible, he'd return to Haiti today.

"Now is when I need to be there more than ever," he said.

ISU's Center for Public Service and Community Engagement is exploring ways the ISU community can provide assistance to the people of Haiti, ISU President Dan Bradley said Wednesday.

"In the meantime, everyone is encouraged to donate to one of the many charitable organizations providing relief," he said. "Our hearts go out to the people of Haiti, and I express our deepest condolences for this tragic loss of lives."

How to help: Information on how you can help victims of the Haitian earthquake can be found on the Center for Public Service and Community Engagement Web site at http://www.indstate.edu/publicservice/ISU-Friends-of-Haiti.htm

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/764061562_TZEuj-L.jpg

Cutline: ISU student Jesse Coomer, center, stands last week on one of Haiti's unpaved streets near the orphanage he helped construct in Port-Au-Prince.

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/764061565_vLVFp-L.jpg

Cutline: Haitians and volunteer mission workers mix concrete and lay cinder block to complete construction last week on what was expected to be an orphanage. There is no report about how the Jan. 12 earthquake may have affected the construction.

Writer: Rachel Wedding McClelland, assistant director of media relations, Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University at 812-237-3790 or rachel.mcclelland@indstate.edu