Haiti Disaster Relief - A Counselor’s Experience

My incredible spiritual journey to Haiti began before I even stepped on Haitian soil. The Lord revealed His hand every step of the way and taught me that everything is His doing, that not a blade of grass moves without His Will. Every step we take is at the Grand Master’s bidding. Every step!


The search for the opportunity to serve in Haiti

After the earthquake rocked the impoverished nation of Haiti in January 2010, it became unbearable for me to watch the images of utter devastation and the incredible suffering of the Haitian people. I felt an urgent need to do something.  I surfed on the Internet, looking to join any volunteer group going to Haiti, but alas, every group required prior experience in disaster relief. I was disappointed at how many doors were closed to me. I had not heard back from the Sathya Sai International Haiti Relief committee and was feeling rather crushed.
However, the Lord did answer my prayers, but not before He tested my patience and taught me a very humbling lesson of accepting that everything happens in His Time. After weeks of waiting, I finally got the much-awaited call to join one of the Sai Haiti relief teams. I felt immense gratitude for this blessing.

And so the journey to Haiti began, with many beautiful miracles along the way that showed the Lord's Hand in every aspect of the trip – from the last-minute excess luggage fee waiver from Delta Airlines, to nearly missing our flight to Haiti! But that was just the start of what would turn out to be an incredible journey of experiencing Swami’s love in action and witnessing the intense faith and devotion of the Haitian Sai devotees, who taught us the true meaning of selfless service.

Gracious Haitian hosts

When we arrived in Haiti, we were taken to the home of Mr. Rony Joseph, in the Delmas neighborhood. Mr. Rony was the generous host in whose home was where the teams of Sai organization volunteers were housed and cared for daily since the earthquake in January three months earlier. In addition, a cadre of Haitian Sai volunteers took exemplary care of the volunteers – DeSource, who drove us every day to the church where the free medical clinic was held; Benita, a Haitian school teacher who had survived the earthquake and took care of our meals; the Haitian youngsters, who struggled up the steps with heavy buckets of water from the well for our personal bathing and for flushing the toilet.

At night, we never knew when electricity would be available, but DeSource was on hand to ensure the generator would work. We felt as if Sai Baba Himself was there, lovingly taking care of us. The team was constantly enveloped in a spiritual environment, starting and ending each day with a devotional singing session where other Haitian Sai devotees would join us and sing hymns in Creole.

Medical clinic at the “Big Church

Our daily routine started with devotional singing followed by a hearty breakfast. We packed our lunches and then dressed in our scrubs, donned our facemasks, and clambered into the white van for the long trek through dusty Port-Au-Prince to the “Big Church” (Franciscan Church, St. Alexandre Chapel), where we rendered our services. Each day, DeSource would take us via different routes so we could see the terrible devastation that the few minutes of the earthquake had caused. Each day, seeing the incredible poverty, we learned to be so grateful for the relative safety we had in our lives. At the same time, we were also very humbled by the faith and resilience of the Haitian people.

At the church we would be greeted by a crowd who had waited for a couple of hours to get into the church. The medical and counseling team worked long hours, seeing

100 to 150 patients a day, treating several earthquake-related issues such as insomnia and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), as well as chronic health issues such as hypertension and gastrointestinal problems that had been severely neglected because of the collapse of the entire healthcare system. It was inspiring for me to observe the love flowing through my fellow team members as they went the extra mile to attend to the patients, always dispensing that extra dose of Sai-inspired love and caring, which did more for the patients' spirits than any medication could have. Indeed, one of my favorite memories is that of one of the YA (young adult) doctors, Shobha, who could always be seen lovingly holding a child in her lap as she attended to the family.

Another vital part of the free clinic was the pharmacy, which dispensed free medicines to the patients. The volunteer pharmacy team, who had never dispensed medications in their life, had to learn very quickly the names of hundreds of medications and their proper uses in treating various ailments. Indeed, it was a huge challenge to keep all of it straight, as we could not afford to make any errors! The team was able to work swiftly to serve the patients, aided by interpreters, who helped to translate the instructions for the medications’ use. 

Indeed, the whole experience would not have been possible if not for the team of interpreters, many of whom were college-educated, unemployed young Haitian men. During the week, we sought to overcome the many challenges in working through the interpreters, upon whom we were wholly dependent to carry out our work. We learned to appreciate their services and grew to love their colorful personalities. They too had their own dreams crushed by poverty and the earthquake, and had suffered personal losses, yet they found a way to find meaning in working with us in the clinic, gratified in knowing they were making a difference in the lives of the patients. It was especially sweet to see how much joy and pride they took in learning to do such tasks as take blood pressure accurately.

Healing the invisible scars

Besides the physical wounds and ailments, we had to attend to the invisible yet deep-seated injuries to the psyche of the survivors. Emotional wounds may be the slowest to develop but among the toughest to heal. While people were no longer under the debris, they were now trapped in a quagmire of poor health-care systems and severe trauma, grief, and loss issues. Most people were sleeping outside out of fear that another major earthquake could occur. They also suffered from symptoms of severe PTSD, including the inability to sleep, heart palpitations, hyper-vigilance, and severe anxiety. Many patients had been trapped for hours-to-days under the rubble, and had helplessly and tragically witnessed loved ones die slowly and painfully before their eyes.

As the person with the counseling background on the team, I had been asked prior to the trip if I would continue the counseling efforts that had been started by the psychologists on previous teams. However, as the trip approached, I began to question my ability to be of help with the counseling, as I did not have any specialization or experience in trauma counseling; neither had I ever attempted to do counseling through a translator. I was rusty from lack of practice. My doubts mounted: what had I been thinking? How did I even think I could do this? Riddled with such doubts and plagued with great anxiety, I thought perhaps it would be wiser if I escaped to the safe confines of the pharmacy. 

But ah, the Lord had other plans for me and thrust me right into the middle of what I was most anxious to avoid. From the time I arrived, I realized that I was expected to help with the counseling, since that was my area of professional expertise. Seeing no way out, I surrendered the process to God. He had brought me here, and I had to have faith that He would show me a way. I prayed that He would guide me, and I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.

I spent our first hour in the church talking to Wandy, an interpreter who had worked with two other psychologists from previous teams. I had some general sense of the kind of counseling strategies that had been utilized. We saw the patients in groups and engaged them in some group sharing. We taught them techniques of deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and a guided light meditation, in which we encouraged them to feel themselves enveloped and protected by God's light.

It was amazing to see how the counseling process unfolded, as I truly had no clue how it was going to happen, given that I did not know French or Creole, the languages of the Haitian people. And yet the Lord worked His miracles through us; despite the language barriers, the language of love knew no bounds, and I was gratified to witness the healing power of a loving touch, a compassionate look, and soothing words (even in a foreign language). For the half hour that our clients met with us, I felt Sai work His Divine Love through us, by creating for the Haitians a safe space in which they were able to grieve, find some relief and comfort, and for a few minutes, feel peace and shelter from the chaos in their lives.

I was, in turn, deeply touched and humbled by the Haitians as they shared their strong faith in God, their resilience, and the courage to go on in the midst of such despair and suffering. There were moments of struggles – the challenges of reaching out to a mother with bloodshot eyes from many sleepless nights, who had lost her two-year-old in the earthquake, or someone who had lost his or her entire family and was now living out in the open streets. How could I, whose life was such a sheltered cocoon, even begin to understand the unspeakable horrors and suffering they had experienced? Yet, as always, Sai Baba spoke His love through us, even when all I could do was to hold a person’s hand in silence or give a hug . . . indeed, those were the moments of the deepest heart-felt connection between us.

One special memory that stands out is that of a young lady who had lost her entire family and who had come to us looking utterly grim and depressed. After we spent a long time counseling her, and promised her a tent and perhaps an opportunity to work with the feeding project, she came back the next day beaming and expressing such gratitude for the tent she had received. It brought tears to my eyes to see the change in her! How little it took to make her happy! And what a humbling lesson for all of us who took so much of what we had in life for granted.

By the end of each day, we would feel emotionally exhausted, having listened to so many stories of pain and suffering. At times I had to coax my young interpreter to go on, when he would shake his head and say he could not bear it any longer, listening to these painful stories. But despite these challenges, we experienced an incredible feeling at the end of each day as we traveled back to our home base, remembering the sweet looks of gratitude on the Haitians’ faces. Indeed, the sight of them feeling uplifted and renewed in spirit made me aware of how blessed we were to be Sai's emissaries of love and to be able to experience these moments of deep connectedness – the servers and the served, all bound by His love.

Serving food with love and music

Many other service activities were going on besides the medical clinic at the church, all of which were very inspiring to us. We met Carlos, a burly, gregarious chef from Argentina, who had been in Haiti ever since the earthquake, coordinating the many Haitian volunteers to carry out food service to those in need. Much of the food had been sent via truck from the Dominican Republic, and we had a huge storeroom, fully packed with sacks of staples – rice, potatoes, pasta, and maize. In a large tent outside Mr. Rony’s home, volunteers under Carlos’s direction prepared 600-1,000 meals (of pasta or rice) each day, all the while chanting “Om Nama Shivaya” melodically, packing boxes of food, and distributing them to the many people living in tents on the neighborhood streets. 

It was such an inspiring sight to behold the intense devotion with which the Haitians carried out this food service. Music was such a way of life, and we were surrounded by it from the moment we arrived. Besides devotional singing sessions every morning and evening in Rony’s home, where the Haitian devotees would join us, we would also hear the wonderful sounds of the tent people who lived opposite, practicing their hymns for their Sunday worship services. We also met a group of local youth who were trying to be of help to the Delmas neighborhood, and some of the team members even joined them in their street clean-up activity early in the morning.












The journey within

In the midst of all of the devastation, it was heartwarming and profound to see the myriad ways in which people came together to alleviate the Haitians’ suffering. No doubt each of us who made the volunteer journey to Haiti found ourselves making an inward journey as well and were deeply transformed by our experiences. Many a humbling lesson was learned from our Haitian brothers and sisters, the ones we had come there to serve – incredible love, unfailing faith in God, courage, and resilience, even as the entire fabric of their lives lay in complete ruins. They also taught us just how deeply blessed we were for every small thing that we took for granted.

Personally, I received a gift a thousand-fold greater than anything I could have given: rediscovering inner abilities and finding renewed self-confidence and faith in myself. I learned a most priceless lesson: that there is nothing to fear or to be anxious about when embarking on the Lord’s service – that we must have self-confidence and unshakeable faith that we can indeed take on the impossible and unfamiliar, as long as we surrender to our beloved Lord’s Will. For He never fails and will always provide, as long as we venture forth and, like a flute, empty ourselves and allow His Divine love to flow through us. I, for one, am forever grateful for this experience.

Anita Sankar

North Haven Sathya Sai Center, CT

Additional Info
While the author is affiliated with the Sathya Sai Center of North Haven, Connecticut, the article reports on her individual experience as a volunteer counselor during disaster relief efforts undertaken by the International Medical Committee of the Sri Sathya Sai World Foundation, to provide medical and mental health services after the massive earthquake on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in January 2010.