'Worst poverty in the Western world'

November 20, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

As Heidi Buttner drove through a Haitian slum last week, a small child banged on her car and begged for water.

"When I gave him bottled water, it was as if I had given him the best present he could ever have," said Ms. Buttner, 22.

Her voice cracked as she spoke of the more than 20 children who later swarmed around her with cries for water. She had no more for them.

"It changed the whole way I think, to know people have to live like that," she said. "I saw children with distended tummies who have never seen a glass of clean water. It is a memory I will carry for the rest of my life."

Like Ms. Buttner and her mother, Sheila, few visitors are prepared for the crushing poverty that is Haiti. Fewer still have experienced the devastation that a sudden, violent storm can wreak on an island where shelters -- no one calls them homes -- are made from discarded materials.

Sheila and Heidi Buttner traveled to Haiti last week to meet with artisans who supply SERRV (Sales Exchange for Refugee Rehabilitation Vocations) shops in New Windsor and Towson. Mother and daughter arrived in Port-au-Prince amid a torrent of rain and gusty winds, the full force of hurricane Gordon.

"Hundreds died, and whole houses fell down," said Heidi Buttner, who sells the crafts at the Towson store. "Everywhere we saw children carrying muddy containers and searching for water."

The destruction was nearly complete in Cite Soleil, one of the world's worst slums, she said.

"It was heart-wrenching," she said. "More than 250,000 people are crammed into a small area with virtually no housing and no sanitation."

Her mother said: "These are our neighbors, just to the south of us. They live in a hopeless situation that we all need to be concerned about."

When the women left Westminster last week, they were unaware of the storm whirling through the Caribbean. They had planned to meet with Haitian artisans who make many of the crafts sold in the SERRV stores and through its catalogs.

The craft work is the only income for hundreds of the Haitian poor. Throughout a three-year international embargo, the artisans continued to work and SERRV continued to pay them. The embargo prevented shipment of the Haitian products overseas.

Impassable roads and mud slides prevented the women from getting to several places on their four-day itinerary.

"There is no toll on the number of dead yet," said Sheila Buttner. "So many areas are still unreachable. Bridges are under water and mountain passes are completely cut off."

Deforestation, nearly total in Haiti, has caused the worst storm damage in the Caribbean area, she said.

"The storm arose so suddenly," she said. "Even though Haiti only got the edge of it, it was enough to immobilize the country."

American troops were everywhere helping the Haitians with cleanup efforts.

"There were rocks, mud, trees, walls from houses everywhere," she said. "The cities were already so dilapidated and the land so deforested. This is the worst poverty in the Western world."

Sheila Buttner, SERRV manager of promotions and publications, had wanted the visit to be a "show of solidarity" to artisans. She brought back a suitcase full of craft samples.

"Haitians are naturally creative, and we have been able to employ many [of their] original artists," she said. "We hope all the money they earn will be used to get them and their country back on their feet again."

The women also visited Holy Trinity School, where teachers are instructing 1,100 children and chipping away at the country's high rate of illiteracy. Many graduates of the school continue their education in American colleges. Some have returned to teach in the school.

"It is a lot like a nice, private school in Maryland," said Heidi Buttner, a recent college graduate who is planning a teaching career. "But these children go home to places with no electricity and no clean water. The children had much better manners than any I have been exposed to here."

A donation of $250 a year can sponsor a child through Holy Trinity, run by the Episcopal Church.

SERRV buys beads that the schoolchildren make.

"We can make a difference by supporting these people," she said. "We are going to support them and give them work."

The women returned home Thursday, with feelings of gratitude for what they have and with questions about what else they can do for Haiti.

They said they will remember the sense of optimism among the Haitian people.

"Despite what has happened to them, they have hope, and you can't help but care for them," said Sheila Buttner. "They are a people filled with spirituality and faithful to their beliefs."

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