Clean Water for Haiti Stories: How to Recruit Volunteers

I mentioned previously how Clean Water for Haiti was founded by Tal and Adele Woolsey, a nice Canadian couple from British Columbia. They left Haiti because of some unpleasant circumstances which I can go into some other time. When they left, I was largely running things on my own with short term volunteers who would come down from time to time. By mid-2005 I was already pretty tired of volunteers coming for a few months at a time.

Once, I had a volunteer come for the winter season but he only stayed three days. One of the first things he asked me after leaving the airport was “What are all these soldiers doing here?” After being struck dumb for several heartbeats I replied that Haiti had recently experienced a coup d’etat and the US marines and French foreign legion had come in to restore order before handing over control to a UN peacekeeping force. My new volunteer had not done very much research before signing up to come to Haiti. After three days of giving him jobs to do and being told exactly why it was impossible for him to do each of the jobs, he announced that he was flying home, because “You don’t have any work for me to do.” I realized that something was dreadfully wrong with my volunteer application process, and perhaps even the whole concept of volunteering here. Three months at a stretch gave me just enough time to train a volunteer to do a few basic things before they flew out again, and certainly not enough time for the volunteer to learn creole or help out in leadership.

Summer 2005 the youth group from the Vernon Alliance church came down for their second visit. I had met Leslie Lockhart, the youth pastor there on their first visit in 2003 just after I started working here. The second youth trip was two weeks long and turned out to be fraught with peril.

I believe we were in fact prepared to host the team if we had not had a series of crises. First off, almost right at the beginning of the visit, our truck crashed with 2 of the kids riding in it! There was a tropical storm brushing the island at the time, and the driver was not used to either slippery roads or a fully loaded 2 1/2 ton truck. The truck slid sideways into a tree. One of the kids whacked his head but he was fine. The truck… well, the bed was smashed and the rear axle had been knocked loose from the leaf springs. Just to add insult to injury, the locals stole the jack and drained the fuel tank before I was able to get the truck towed home.

My stress level immediately jumped, and I went into problem solving mode. I asked Leslie to keep the team busy while I fixed the truck – our only vehicle for transporting the group during their stay. Somehow I managed to reattach the rear axle before the next phase of our trip, although with a smashed bed it still wouldn’t transport passengers or cargo.

We had some very ambitious plans for this youth team. Part of their trip was to be spent on the far side of the island of La Gonave, installing a few filters, building latrines and getting to know the locals. The boat was a Haitian sailboat and it arrived a few days late. For safety, we had plans to borrow a 15 hp motor and mount it on the back of the boat as a backup in case of no wind. The boat arrived here late, and only at that point we realized the the motor we were borrowing was broken and couldn’t be repaired easily. We borrowed a 1.5 hp motor instead! The boat was big, 26 feet, and we had about 20 people and several tons of cargo all told. We left behind schedule in the hot sun with no wind. When the wind did blow, it was against us and the motor was so weak that with a slight head wind the boat moved backwards. I immediately became sea sick and disappeared below decks in my misery. In the mean time, several team members were getting sun stroke up above me. The 30 mile trip across the water ended up taking 13 hours.

Arriving on the island in the tiny community of Pont Sable was like a dream, we were so happy. The locals enthusiastically helped us unload the boat and take us to where we would be staying – a disused school building. We slept on the floor, bathed in the ocean and ate whatever we could think of to cook on the charcoal stove. Every evening of our stay we watched the most amazing lightning storms taking place 360 degrees around us. Sometimes the cool rain would fall too. For me it was a welcome relief from the heat.

We installed a few filters and built a few latrines for the local population. Eventually it came time to leave. I was dreading the trip because of my seasickness. We managed to borrow an actual 15 hp motor and left in the evening instead of in the heat of the day. We had favorable winds the entire way back and made the trip in a mere 5 hours, snoozing on the way. Nobody got seasick or sunstroke as we shot through the water, and everybody arrived back here in good cheer.

The next morning, I was ecstatic to find that my workers had rebuild the wooden bed of the truck and all that remained to do was bolt on and straighten the steel sides! Clean Water for Haiti had a truck again!

The night before the team left, I got a strange phone call. The caller was whispering, and it kind of freaked me out. It turned out it was my neighbor next door, Pastor Herve saying that their was a man outside their house threatening to shoot them and would I come and help them? I turned on our panic alarm and ran across the lane with a machete but the man had taken off running the second the alarm came on. The leaders rounded up all the teenagers and brought them upstairs to safety. The kids seemed to think it was a fun adventure.

The trip turned out to be too much. Several of the kids stated that the trip was the most amazing experience of their lives. However, there was a lot of complaining from Leslie’s assistant volunteer leaders who were there to help and it seems there was just too much adventure for them to feel comfortable. We now have a no kids policy with our team trips – not so much because we have a problem with the kids, but with the kids’ parents stressing out. It would seem that there is an instinct that parents have which makes them very very sensitive to any danger that might affect their offspring. I have experienced the feeling myself now with Olivia and Alex – it’s really quite intense.

So how did I learn to recruit volunteers? The title of this post implies that I figured it out, but I really hadn’t. Leslie the youth pastor approached me late in the team trip to tell me that God was speaking to her about coming to Haiti and she would be giving notice at her church as soon as she returned to Canada. I was very happy as I quickly realized that she was not only coming to work with Clean Water for Haiti, she was single and female. Leslie and I became romantically involved shortly after and we were married less than a year later. You can imagine how happy I was about this development. I had come to believe I would never find a woman brave, or crazy enough to sign up for a life in this country.

It turns out that Leslie not only makes a great wife and mother of my children, but she is clearly the best volunteer I ever recruited.

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