Category Archives: On Assignment

Here for the kids

By Laura Reinhardt at the Youth Empowerment Program Summit in Washington, D.C.

World Vision YEP

The YEP team from Albany, Ga. (Laura Reinhardt/WV)

I’m a heat wimp. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The Pacific Northwest has spoiled me with its relatively cool and humidity-free summers. But for the past four summers, I’ve found myself in our nation’s capital, dealing with heat and humidity that can knock you over. And honestly, there’s no place I’d rather be. I’m here for World Vision’s Youth Empowerment Program Summit. It’s like a family reunion of young people from across the country.

[Ed. note: Here are some of Laura’s photos from the summit]

They been through some of the toughest things I’ve ever heard about—certainly things beyond my high school experience. When I was in high school, it was shocking when a classmate got pregnant. I never worried that I might not make it home from school like young people do in some urban areas these days. Smoking cigarettes in the bathroom was about as rough as it got in my rural high school. Now, youth in rural areas face rampant prescription-drug abuse and alcoholism among their peers.

But these teens want to make a difference. They’re dedicated to it. They spent two evenings a week or a Saturday morning for the past 20 weeks meeting with their teammates. They focused on their community’s assets and problems, then picked one problem on which to focus. Now they’re here to meet with their members of Congress. They’ll attend workshops by nationally renowned speakers.

But they’re also here to connect with each other. Some of them have attended for the past three or four years—that’s where the family reunion aspect comes in. Many are eager to see friends they made last year or the year before.

Fundisha (Heidi Lenssen/WV)

I’ve gotten to watch some of these teens grow up, find their voices, and become ready to step up and make a change. In my job, my interviews and stories often capture a moment in time. But with this assignment, I see what happens to these kids year after year. I’ve watched Shelby from Albany, Ga. (pictured above, kneeling, white shirt)—with her quirky, high-pitched voice—blossom into a young woman on her way to college in the fall. I’ve seen Fundisha come back home to Seattle after her first summit and launch a community program to raise awareness about youth violence. This year, she did her senior project on the same topic. She plans to go to Howard University.

After their first Youth Empowerment experiences last year, Giovannie and Kevin from northern Virginia were asked to lead an advocacy workshop for adults. They said they never would’ve had this experience if it hadn’t been for their involvement in this program. They’re back at the summit this year.

So as long as the Youth Empowerment Program Summit continues to convene, I will be here, even if temperatures push 100 degrees (like now). I want these teenagers—who are so committed to positive change—to know that there is an entire network of people around the country committed to helping them.

Laura Reinhardt

Laura Reinhardt

Read Laura Reinhardt’s magazine feature about the Youth Empowerment Program.

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The “Real Africa”

By Tom Costanza, on assignment in Zambia.

A hotel courtyard in Lusaka. Real crocodile, unreal experience of Zambia. (Tom Costanza/WV)

The Southern Sun was cold when we got to Zambia. People were walking its hallways in hats, scarves, and down parkas. To a guy from the Northwest, it was just a little chilly.

The Southern Sun is a fairly upscale hotel in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital city. Its restaurant courtyard surrounds a pond filled with crocodiles (really!) and these beautiful yellow birds called weavers that spend all day building elaborate hanging nests. It’s a wonderful place to sit with a cup a coffee and just watch.

Tom films volunteer AIDS caregivers. (WV)

Zambians call their country “the Real Africa.” But if you only saw the Southern Sun, you’d never come close to seeing the real Africa. To see that, you need to head out to where the pavement gives way to red dirt and dust devils and the sky is deep blue and filled with billowing white clouds. It’s the Africa of laughing children and hardworking adults. That’s where you meet people like Richard, a home-based caregiver who walks seven kilometers several days a week to tend to his ailing friend, Nickson (I couldn’t help but chuckle at the name coincidence—Richard and “Nixon”). Or you meet Pastor Crispin Varruth, who, before becoming a pastor, lost three brothers, two sisters, his wife, and four of his five children to AIDS.

Now Pastor Varruth runs a support group in his congregation to help lift up those living with HIV. They call it “living positive.” I love the dual meaning of that phrase. Thanks to anti-retroviral drugs, these days people who are HIV-positive are no longer condemned to a slow but sure death. They see people like Pastor Varruth, who’s HIV-positive himself and living a happy and productive life. He is the embodiment of the term “living positive.” If he can do it, they reason, so can they. Here, community members, churches, and even whole villages reach out and support each other.

That’s the “real Africa” I know.

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Lest we forget

By James Addis, Senior Editor

Haiti Earthquake

Gina Jean and her family. (James Addis/WV)

Today, I am working from a comfortable office. Exactly six months ago, I was on a plane to Haiti to report on one of the worst earthquakes in human history—one that killed more than 220,000 people. My work environment there included overcrowded hospitals and hastily set-up displaced people’s camps that lacked water and sanitation.

One question I was sometimes asked after returning home was: “How did if affect you personally?” That’s not easy to say. There was a range of emotions. Some experiences were heartbreaking. I’ll never forget the corpses of children lying in the streets and the people trying to dig relatives out of the rubble using small crowbars and flimsy hacksaws.

One woman I met, Gina Jean, was cradling her 4-month-old daughter and living in a tent made of bed sheets. Losing her home was not so bad. Her real concern was that she had not seen her husband since the quake. Was he alive or dead? “How can I continue living like this?” she asked me. “How am I supposed to take care of my children?”

Haiti earthquake

Nicole Muse cares for a child after surgery. (Jon Warren/WV)

But in the midst of tragedy, I was also inspired. World Vision’s relief manager, who lost her daughter in the quake, carried on working so that the lives of others might be saved. Chicago nurse Nicole Muse hopped on a plane without hesitation as soon as she heard the news of the quake. Within hours she found a field hospital in Haiti and began caring for dozens of horrifically injured children.

Coming home after seeing these kinds of things, it can be a little hard to adapt. Everything seems slightly banal. There’s a discussion with my wife about where we will find the money to fence the yard. At the supermarket checkout, tabloids are trumpeting that Dr. Phil’s marriage is on the rocks, and there are updates on the turbulent love lives of actors called Brad, Jennifer, and Angelina.

It can be easy to feel superior to this trivia. But the truth is, after a few months my memories of Haiti do begin to fade. Immediate “concerns” reassert themselves. Even for World Vision, there are other big issues to think about—devastating floods in China, for example, or a hunger crisis in Niger.

So the six-month anniversary of the quake is a good reminder for me and an opportunity to check on progress. A World Vision report on the last 180 days is encouraging in that it shows how much help is getting through: the distribution of food to 1.8 million people; the delivery of 2 million liters of clean water every week; the construction of hundreds of toilets and showers; the continuing work of 10 health clinics; and the ongoing distribution of tarpaulins, tents, and cooking utensils to assist some 120,000 people.

Haiti earthquake

James interviews a quake-affetced family. (Jon Warren/WV)

And yet, as the report notes, the needs remain great. About 1.5 million people still live in emergency shelters. Difficulties in securing construction materials and establishing land ownership rights and the logistical challenge of removing tons and tons of rubble are proving to be major obstacles.

I confess it’s been a while since I prayed for Gina Jean and the thousands in her predicament. I’ll do so tonight. Perhaps you could join me?

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It’s all about the story

Tom Costanza writes from Uganda, where he’s working with a film crew on an upcoming project.

Tom tells stories with one of these (Tom Costanza/WV)

It’s all about the story. My wife, Kari, and I have spent years traveling the world, hearing and telling people’s stories. The story I’m working on right now in Uganda, in fact, came from one of Kari’s trips here. She often finds them, does a print version, and then says, “This would make a great video!” For that reason, I am known in many places around the world simply as “Kari’s husband”—a title I’m proud to hold, I might add. But enough about us.

Let’s talk about stories. What’s so wonderful about stories is that they let us go where we might not go otherwise. They let us glimpse, even if it’s in our imagination, heartaches, struggles, triumphs, and transformation. They help us think differently. And they teach us. There’s a reason Jesus taught in parables.

“Jamaa,” a World Vision film currently in production, has all of that. Because it’s based on real life events, it highlights stories of lives lived in service to God and to others.

Jamaa” is the Swahili word for “family.” Without giving too much away, it’s the story of two children who lose their parents to AIDS. Together they carry their mother’s body from the slums of Kampala to the rural countryside of Kasangombe. It’s a journey of heartbreak and desperation as they search for family, happiness, and hope.

Max Lucado is one of Kari’s and my favorite writers. Max is a fountain of love and common wisdom. Here’s what he says about life stories: “Let your life be your first draft … Love grumpy neighbors. Feed hungry people. Help a struggling church. Pay your bills, your dues, and attention to your spouse … Live with integrity.”

Videographer Tom Costanza.

You see, it’s all about the story. The one you hear. The one you tell. The one you live.

Related:  Why I do it (April 13, 2010)

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Why I do it

World Vision videographer Tom Costanza reflects on his time in Haiti a few months ago.

Haiti earthquake

(Jon Warren/WV)

I don’t even know where to start. So I guess I’ll start at the end.

Haiti was the kind of experience that changes your understanding of how desperate people can be and how unselfishly others can respond. By the time I left, I was sure I was different. I was definitely more tired. I weighed less. But I also felt that, mentally, I’d reached some kind of turning point. Whatever it was, I began to feel, more deeply than I had in some time, that all I’d seen and heard—the cries of injured children, the pleas of helpless mothers, the anger of people who’d lost everything—was weighing on me, more than it had since I first started in television news more than 25 years ago.

It wasn’t a breakdown—just a vague feeling of fatigue and sadness. The culmination, maybe, of the last year’s frantic schedule. Since November 2008 I’ve covered stories in Niger, Mozambique, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, American Samoa, New York, Ecuador, Cambodia, Zambia, Ethiopia, and back again to the DR and Haiti. Hunger, poverty, disease, earthquakes, a tsunami … it’s enough to make your head spin. The sick and the lame. The hopeless and the hungry. The dying and the dead.

World Vision in Cambodia

Tom shooting video in Cambodia (Heidi Isaza/WV)

People often asked me, “How do you do it?” “I don’t know,” I reply. “I just do.” Why do I do it? is what I ask myself. I could be home on the couch, watching HBO. Instead, I’m shooing cockroaches off my pillow, trying to get some sleep before my next cold shower.

Sometimes I think I know why I do it. When I’m feeling noble, I think it’s a calling. At other times, I think it’s just to satisfy my wanderlust—a taste for adventure, a chance to get a few more good stories to tell.

Then I go somewhere like Haiti, where people sleep on the remains of their crumbled houses and children scream in pain. “God help us all,” I think. Then I turn on the camera, and it captures people like Lomene LaGuerre. She was selling things in the marketplace when the quake hit. Now she lives with her three children under a tarp on a basketball court. She cooks what’s left of her food and summons what’s left of her pride. “I was a businesswoman,” she says proudly. “A businesswoman does not go hungry.”  A few days later, World Vision brings her more food. Her pride will have to wait a little longer.

Haiti earthquake

Tom and World Vision communicator Paula Saez interview families in a displacement camp in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Jon Warren/WV)

Outside the city, near the Haiti/Dominican border, Nicole Muse, a World Vision child sponsor, holds a small boy with a large bandage. She left Haiti several years ago and is now a nurse in Chicago. When she saw the news, she says, she just had to come. Her Creole makes her a valuable asset at this makeshift hospital, where a few words in a mother tongue, from a mother’s tongue, can calm a scared, hurting, and parentless child.

I meet people like these, and I’m reminded that they are why I do it, why we do it: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I don’t know who said it first, but I like it. It’s why, when I feel tired and sad, I do lay on the couch and watch HBO. And I recharge my batteries and go out there again. And again. And again.

Related: Photographer deployed to Haiti (Jan. 18, 2010)

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Rains make life hard in camps

By Laura Blank in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Haiti earthquake

Rain and mud can exacerbate health problems in camps. (Katie Chalk/WV)

It hasn’t rained here for more than a week, but it rained again in Port-au-Prince last night. Not that torrential, heavy downpour this Caribbean nation is used to experiencing during the rainy season in April and May. Just a steady, slow kind of rain. But it doesn’t matter. The camps are already crowded, difficult places to live. Rain only makes it worse.

Earlier this week, I traveled down from Boston for my third trip to Haiti in the past several months. I had traveled here for work this summer, the time now known as “before.” Then, as part of my job as a disaster communications officer with World Vision, I was deployed to Port-au-Prince almost immediately after the earthquake and spent nearly a month here in January. After returning home for a bit, I found myself back on a plane to Haiti just a few days ago to join up with our relief response team here in the capital.

Haiti earthquake

World Vision supports children living in displacement camps. (John Kisimir/WV)

One of the things I hear most often from people is, “Are things getting any better down there?” That question is always asked with a bit of hope, but the underlying belief seems to be one full of more doubt than hope. How could a country so fragile before this disaster possibly survive – or even come back better – after this? And could anything improve in just a few months?

There is no easy answer to that question. But yes, Virginia, things have started to get a little bit better in Haiti. The humanitarian community has made headway, addressing critical issues like food insecurity, lack of water and emergency shelter in the early days after the quake.

Millions of people have been fed with staple food items through World Food Program partners like World Vision. Water trucks and bladders have been providing the camps with clean, safe drinking water. More than 50 humanitarian aid groups have been working to provide emergency shelter for the 1.3 million homeless people by the start of the rainy season, and at last count more than 75 percent had received those much-needed items.

Today, more than two months later, other challenges have emerged. Tonight’s rain—and the coming rainy season—reminds me of one growing concern: the health of Haiti’s children.

Haiti earthquake

(Katie Chalk/WV)

The rains exacerbate already-existing problems in the camps: crowded, filthy conditions; exposure to the weather; and lack of nutritious food. In fact, World Vision’s health specialists say the combination of wet weather and unsanitary camp conditions could heighten the health risks for children, including fears of malaria and dengue fever, diarrhea and other water-borne diseases.

I was in a camp known as Saint Preux the other day and saw one little baby, he couldn’t have been more than a month old, sleeping on the “floor” of his family’s tent. Isaac had been born with the help of one of our health specialists, and the “floor” in this tiny shelter was nothing more than the dirt and rocks on the ground. No blanket, certainly no mattress, nothing to protect him from the dirt—or mud—of this camp.

Aid agencies are working fast and furious to address these concerns. More emergency shelter supplies are being delivered, latrines are being built, mobile clinics are staffed up, flood-reduction projects are underway, and discussions continue on more sustainable solutions to ease the crowded living conditions in the camps. Things are getting better, but we still have a long way to go.

In the meantime, Haiti’s children wait. The rain has stopped for now, but what will happen tomorrow?

World Vision staff Haiti earthquake

Laura Blank in Haiti (Jon Warren/WV)

Laura Blank is a World Vision disaster communications officer based in the U.S. She was on the ground in Haiti immediately following the earthquake, and recently returned to continue reporting.

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Hot tent, thirsty children

By John Kisimir, World Vision relief communicator in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Haiti earthquake

Wilner (right) and his grandchildren in their tent. (John Kisimir/WV)

On my arrival at Terrain d’Enaf displacement camp one morning, I walk past a group of children who are playing with a pail of dirty water. I want to ask where they live, where their mama or papa is, but Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is not a good place to ask questions like that. Nine out of 10 people are said to know someone who died in the devastating January 12 earthquake.

A tall, old man stands at the entrance of a tent, sweating, possibly trying to get a feel of the breeze. Wilner Jasinthe welcomes me to what he now calls home—a tent among thousands of other tents. He offers me one of the three white plastic chairs in what looks like a two-man tent that now houses 10 people.

Haiti earthquake

Regina wears the same dress as on the day of the quake. (John Kisimir/WV)

It takes a few minutes for me to realize that a tent is not the best place to call home on a hot day.  The heat is rising; sweat drips from my face. I do not feel any circulation of fresh air.

Wilner’s cell phone rings. It is the camp leader, passing on a message. The water tanker has broken down on the way to the camp. World Vision trucks water to the camp every morning and deposits it into a tank for residents to share. But today, chances of getting water are slim. A wave of disappointment runs through the faces of the women nearby. They need five gallons of drinking water every day and more for bathing and cooking.

Wilner moves his chair toward the door in search of a little fresh air. I follow suit. “How did you come here, Wilner?” I ask.

“I had a home and a business that I ran at Delmas Road,” he says. “It is all gone now. Nothing left but a pile of stones.” He looks around the tent, and his eyes settle on an empty water bucket in the corner. “It hurts that I can’t even get drinking water when I need it. Just a few weeks ago, I had flowing water day and night,” he says, then chuckles and shakes his head in disappointment.

Suddenly there is a commotion at the door. Children—four of them. They surround Wilner, noisily pushing, climbing on him, and calling for attention. “My grandchildren,” he says.

Haiti earthquake

The girls guzzle John's water. (John Kisimir/WV)

“We dug through the rubble for two days to save this one,” Wilner says as he holds 2-year-old Erline. Like many other children here, Erline’s scars are visible. Hair on the back of her head is missing.

The eldest is Regina Castele, 6. She survived the quake because she was on her way from school. The checked blue dress she is wearing is the same she had on when their house collapsed. Her wide eyes are alert, always watching. They land on my camera bag—and the bottle of water at its side. She makes a beeline for it, urgency and thirst in her eyes.

Within a few seconds, the children have gobbled down the water. That explains why I take such a bad photo of this sudden activity—it happens too fast and is over too soon. They need more water.

Wilner apologizes for the children’s water raid. “I am not in good health, but I must line up every morning to get drinking water. The children cannot bear the thirst,” he tells me.

Haiti earthquake

New latrines under construction in another camp. (Madeline Wilson/WV)

Children’s health is a priority for World Vision here. Volunteers visit households to teach families about basic hygiene practices and check if there are sick children who require medical attention. World Vision has installed toilets and bathrooms in many camps. Mobile health clinic also operate to treat the sick and monitor child growth and signs of malnutrition, while new mothers can ask for an extra tent to take care of their baby away from the crowds.

“World Vision is doing a lot to make the situation bearable in this camp. Life will get better someday, and we hope we will all return to our homes,” says community leader Ignance Belange.

It is 2 p.m.; the inside of the tent is inhabitable and the outside baked to a crust by the sun. “What’s the plan for drinking water?” I ask.

“We need five gallons, and it costs a dollar if the water tanks do not come. We do not have the money,” says one of the women. But eventually between them, a dollar is found or borrowed, and the water arrives to quench dry throats.

World Vision staff Haiti earthquake

John Kisimir (left) with the family.

I leave Wilner and his grandchildren at 4 p.m., clustered together and looking toward another day. They are hopeful. If the tanker broke down today, it will certainly come tomorrow. World Vision will not let them down two days in a row.

I do not ask about the children’s mother. She remains unmentioned, but I can work it out for myself.  Port-au-Prince is not a good place to ask questions like that.

Related: Haiti: An African’s view (Feb. 23, 2010)

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