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A Spring Break in Haiti

A spring break of service in Haiti

By John Drescher -

Published in: News

Linda B. Vanhook, Associate Clinical Professor AT N.C. Central, was the group leader on the Haiti trip.

Ah, college spring break. Maybe travel to a warm place and lounge poolside. Or go home for a week, kick back in the den with the remote and sleep late.

Eight senior nursing students from N.C. Central University got the warm place but not the lounging or the sleeping in. They went to Grand Goave, Haiti, for a week in March to help people each day from 7 a.m. until at least 5 p.m.

They did health histories, physical exams and vision screens. They gave nonprescription medications. They served about 50 people a day.

Their leader was Linda Vanhook, associate clinical professor of nursing at Central who has volunteered in Haiti since 2005. When Vanhook told her students about the needs in Haiti, they wanted to go – even though each student had to pay $1,300 to cover travel and expenses.

They were the first Central nursing students to work in Haiti. They were determined to go. They were determined to serve.

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Courtesy of Linda Vanhook

N.C. Central University nursing students, from left, Farrah Latortue, Nykiya Lee and Cassie Johns sort through medical supplies in Haiti.

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Courtesy of Linda Vanhook

N.C. Central University student Farrah Latortue assists a patient in the waiting area on Monday March 12, 2012. The group saw 44 patients that day.

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Courtesy of Linda Vanhook

The N.C. Central University nursing team, from left, Farrah Latortue, Jerome Pasaporte, Kartrina Wright, Cassie Johns, Nykiya Lee, Shandolyn Brown, Natalie Turkaly, Raya Wilson and Catreina Cherry in Grand Goave, Haiti.

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Courtesy of Linda Vanhook

“I’ve always wanted to help people that really needed us,” said Kartrina Wright, who is from Oxford. “I didn’t have a choice but to go.”

Shandolyn Brown, from Garner, also felt compelled. “It’s an experience I’ve always wanted – a mission in a different area,” she said. “It was something I had to do.”

Vanhook, Wright, Brown and four other students sat down with me this week to talk about their experiences. Joining us was Jerome Pasaporte of Carrboro, a registered nurse who accompanied them on the trip. Catreina Cherry and Natalie Turkaly, both from Durham, were unable to join us but also went to Haiti.

Haiti, often known as the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, was desperately poor before the 2010 earthquake that devastated parts of the Carribean country. Among the hard-hit areas was Grand Goave in southwestern Haiti.

The Central students started each day early and were greeted by long lines of friendly, grateful Haitians. The students worked with the African American Baptist Mission Collaboration, which took care of them in Haiti and arranged sites for their work.

Each day, the NCCU students set up a temporary clinic in a church or small building. Their patients waited outside, sometimes under the shade of a tarp or tree. Temperatures in Haiti in March typically reach the low 90s.

The nursing students had none of the medical technology typically available to them back home in Durham. They knew that would be part of the challenge.

“I wanted my limits tested,” said Nykiya Lee, who is from Inkster, Mich. “I wanted to see if my skill set from Central would help those people.”

There were many other challenges, as there always are in Haiti. The students had to haul their equipment up a mountain by foot. Only one of the students, Farrah Latortue of Boston, spoke Creole, the native language. Her family is from Haiti but she had never been there.

The students were there to provide health care but they also connected with their patients emotionally. Latortue bonded with a girl, about 10 or 11, who had lost both parents. Latortue gave the girl her cell number – and was joyful when the girl called her recently for what Latortue called “an informal follow-up.”

“They needed to know that we cared,” said student Cassie Johns of Butner. “They are people just like us, people striving to do the best they can.”

At NCCU, service is part of the campus culture and spirit. The Corporation for National and Public Service recently named Central a national finalist for its President’s Award. Of 642 colleges, NCCU was one of 14 finalists. Five received the President’s Award (one of them was N.C. State University, as described in a recent story in The News & Observer).

Just as service is important to Central, Haiti is important to many North Carolinians. In the Triangle alone, dozens of churches and aid groups support orphanages, schools and medical clinics there. In Gonaives, Haiti, earlier this year, I spotted boxes of food from Stop Hunger Now, a Raleigh-based group that relies on volunteers to pack meals that are sent to Haiti and all over the world.

Those who go to Haiti, including the NCCU nursing students, talk when they return about how their visit increased their understanding of American affluence. Of not taking food and shelter for granted. Of the gratitude of their Haitian friends. Of their obligation to reach out.

Raya Wilson, a nursing student from Wilmington, had never been outside the U.S. before her trip to Haiti. “I didn’t want to come back,” she said. “I was crying inside.”

Drescher:             919-829-4515      . On Twitter @john_drescher



Ayana D. Hernandez

Director of Public Relations

North Carolina Central University

            919-530-7266       (office)