Troy missionaries safe in Haiti

| January 14, 2010

Among those in Haiti spared the worst of Tuesday’s devastating earthquake were several Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute students and parishioners of St. John Episcopal Church in Troy.

“I was scared beyond belief for their safety,” said Cindy Schmehl of Ballston Lake, whose husband, Tim, is among the mission’s seven members, of when she first heard news of the quake.

She was able to contact him just minutes later to learn their party of seven was safe.

Lascahobas, the city where they were installing solar panels and computers at a school and church, is some 50 miles from the heavily damaged capital of Port-au-Prince. The party, which was supposed to return home Wednesday, felt the quake and its many aftershocks, Schmehl said, but were otherwise spared the destruction that Port-au-Prince saw.

The mission team, which includes St. John’s parishioners, General Electric representatives and students from RPI’s Chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World, will be back in Troy Saturday night, she said.

Cindy Schmehl has been to the Caribbean nation four times, and works with a local non-profit that sponsors an orphanage in Port-au-Prince. She doesn’t know if it’s still standing.

“We’ve had no word as to whether the children made it or not,” she said.

The infrastructure in the city of more than one million was fragile to begin with, she said. But she expressed confidence in the ability of those affected to bounce back once the dust settles.

“The people of Haiti are so warm and loving. I think they will pull themselves together as a team, bring themselves out of this terrible disaster that’s occurred,” she said.

Her initial plans to travel to Haiti next week are now detoured, but she still plans to travel there as soon as possible with her non-profit.

Other local residents with ties to Haiti are trying to piece together information about friends and loved ones in the earthquake-ravaged nation.

Thousands died in Tuesday’s magnitude 7.0 quake that rocked the capital city of Port-au-Prince where about 2 million of the country’s nearly 10 million people live.

“We haven’t seen anything like this in 200 years,” said Haitian native Jean-Remy Monnay of Latham. “I’m just waiting, every time the phone rings I’m scared. My father’s OK. I’m waiting to hear from my brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. I have know idea where they are. We got our independence from France in 1804. Since then it’s been like a curse — government corruption, hurricane after hurricane, now this. What’s next?”

Monnay, a state worker, moved to the U.S. in 1982 and is well-known to area theater-goers at places such as Latham’s Curtain Call Theater and Hubbard Hall in Cambridge. He went to school in Port-au-Prince while growing up. Although he hasn’t been back since 1990, he was considering a trip this March or April.

“I’m not sure what’s going to happen now,” he said. “I’ll do whatever I have to do to help out.”

Tonya Yasenchak of Greenfield spent a week in Haiti last spring laying the groundwork for new children’s orphanage buildings. She’s a partner in her father’s Saratoga Springs firm, Engineering America, and has made several overseas trips with the group Engineering Ministries International.

In late May she led a team designing an orphanage complex near Jacmel, about 30 miles due south of Port-au-Prince, on Haiti’s south coast. Large mountains separate Port-au-Prince, on the north side of the peninsula, from Jacmel so the impact there wasn’t as great, although many buildings suffered extensive damage.

“Part of the hospital and the main part of the hotel collapsed,” Yasenchak said. “A four-story school has been reduced to one. The existing orphanage is fine, but it has some severe cracks. All the kids are fine. There have been a lot of aftershocks so they’ve been sleeping out in a field.”

Many utilities and services have been knocked out. However, she’s been able to communicate with friends on Facebook.

Haitian Children’s Home currently rents one building for 20 children, but has purchased property and wants to expand. Plans call for building eight new homes for 20 children each – housing 160 boys and girls in all. While more orphanage space is desperately needed, some funding might be diverted for more immediate relief efforts to help those suffering from the quake.

“The directors, Dan and Leann Pye, have a global vision for Haiti,” she said. “In the past, they’ve helped feed people when there were hurricanes. I have no doubt they’ll do anything they can.”

Since 2001, Rev. Tom Parsons and his wife, JoEllen, of Luzerne have made annual trips to Jeremie, a city of 50,000 people about 100 miles due west of Port-au-Prince. Three years ago they personally funded a new elementary school inland, up in the mountains. It started with kindergarten for students 4 to 14, because some kids never had formal education of any kind. Today there are 70 students in grades K-2.

“In Jeremie, there was some minor shaking, but little damage and no injury or loss of life,” said Tom Parsons, retired minister at Rockwell Falls Presbyterian Church in Luzerne. “We have heard nothing directly from the school, but considering its proximity to Jeremie, we are fairly confident things are well there.”

“Part of us is wishing we were in Haiti,” his wife said. “We have been in contact with the Red Cross to offer our services and stand in wait to hear from them. We have heard from a couple of our friends in Port-au-Prince. They are okay. There are others we have not heard from and remain concerned about them and their families. Please continue to keep the people of Haiti in your prayers. They are accustomed to living with very little food, water and money. They are a resilient people, but now they are seriously injured and our hearts and prayers go out to them.”

Helping Haiti

Donations for Haiti earthquake relief may be made locally. Checks can be made out to:

— The Salvation Army, with a memo line indicating “Haiti earthquake relief” and mailed to 410 River St., Troy, NY 12180.

— Catholic Charities, Haiti Eatrhquake, 40 North Main Ave. Albany NY, 12203

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Category: Mission Trip/Missionary Security