Towson student one of many putting lives on hold to help Haiti

Collegian was helping sister run orphanage when quake struck

  • Alec Bersch was on a short trip helping his sister Kathryn, right, run an orphanage in Haiti when the quake struck. A third-year student at Towson University, he has put off his studies to stay.
Alec Bersch was on a short trip helping his sister Kathryn, right,… (Photo by Alec Bersch )
February 01, 2010|By Joe Burris | joseph.burris@baltsun.com

For Towson University student Alec Bersch, what began as a short trip to help his sister run a Haitian orphanage has become an open-ended mission to aid some of the island's neediest children.

"This whole thing has personally given me a clearer view of my own purpose down here," the 21-year-old Bersch said from Wings of Hope, an orphanage for disabled children about 30 miles outside Port-au-Prince. "Before the quake, I loved Haiti and I enjoyed the environment, but that first night, when we were all frantic trying to move kids, that was the first time I had been in a position where I truly feared for the lives of other people."

The third-year student, who is studying occupational therapy and photography, arrived in Haiti in late December and planned to stay until today. But after the devastating earthquake that left about 200,000 dead, he has joined scores of Americans serving in Haiti who have put their lives back home on hold.

"Normally, we have a staff of about 40 people here," Bersch said. "But 24 hours after the earthquake we had about six people; the rest had gone to homes that had collapsed or had relatives who had died. Those of us who remained said, 'We've all been thrown into this together, and no one is higher than the other.' "

Miriam Sauls, spokeswoman for Hearts With Haiti, a nonprofit organization that supports Wings of Hope, lauded Bersch for his efforts.

"Volunteers like Alec make all the difference in being able to run a home like Wings of Hope, where care is so intensive," she said. "To have a heart like his and a willingness to give his time means the world to these children who are the most forgotten children in Haiti."

Located in Fermathe, the Wings of Hope orphanage houses 39 children. It is run by a St. Louis-based organization that provides programs and services to impoverished regions throughout the world.

In addition to its Haiti Wings of Hope branch, the organization assists two other facilities there. St. Joseph's Home For Boys in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville brings in children from the city streets and provides them with a home and family; Trinity House is a home for boys located in the coastal town of Jacmel.

Bersch's sister, Kathryn "KC" Bersch, is director of education at Wings of Hope. An Institute of Notre Dame graduate, she has worked in Haiti for about six years, and her alma mater took part in a fundraising effort for Wings of Hope during its 44th basketball game with Mercy on Friday. Funds will go toward providing services for disabled and abandoned Haitian children.

Alec Bersch said he first visited his sister in Haiti more than three years ago. "I loved my trip so much that I have been spending several months each year in Haiti since," he said, adding that he assists therapists at a Wings of Hope program.

"I will probably be back in Baltimore before this summer," he said, "and I'm not sure when I [will] return to Towson" University.

Before the earthquake, Bersch's typical day began about 8:30 a.m., helping to feed 19 children who use wheelchairs and cannot feed themselves. Then he assisted in recreational therapy, employing techniques to keep the handicapped children physically active, such as helping them work out with exercise balls.

Then he would keep them active with music therapy. "I've been a drummer for about 10 years, and I love the fact that I can pass that gift to kids here," said Bersch.

Bersch said that moments before the earthquake struck, he was dressing wounds of one of the Wings of Hope children who had a minor head injury.

"As I was cleaning the blood off of his head, the quake struck and the home began shaking violently," he said. "After a few seconds, I realized what was going on and threw myself over the boy, as a shield. Pieces of wall and ceiling were falling everywhere and I figured that maybe I could protect him from being hurt."

Bersch said no one perished at Wings of Hope and the other two facilities it supports. But the top three floors of the seven-story St. Joseph's building were destroyed, an older section of the Wings of Hope building suffered interior damage and Trinity House sustained minor damage.

St. Joseph's residents were moved into Trinity House, but at night the children sleep on the soccer field as a precaution against aftershocks. The field has also become a tent city for families who lost their homes in the earthquake.

Wings of Hope residents are now in a rental home.

Since the earthquake, recreational activities have been put on hold, Bersch said, and workers are busy getting things back to normal. "We're now at a point where survival isn't an issue; we have enough food and water now."

Doug Clements, executive director of the international Wings of Hope organization, said that he visited Haiti before and after the earthquake. He believes that all three buildings can be repaired.

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