When the Haiti earthquake hit, Rachel Prusynski was visiting her friend Molly Hightower, a Port Orchard native who was doing volunteer work with children. Hightower died in the rubble while Prusynski survived. Prusynski has helped start a Portland University scholarship for Haitian students in her friend's name.
When Haiti’s earthquake hit, Rachel Prusynski was visiting her friend, Molly Hightower of Port Orchard, who was doing volunteer work with orphans and special-needs children.
Hightower, 22, died, trapped by rubble. Prusynski, on a higher floor of the collapsed building, was rescued, a survivor of the epic disaster that slammed Haiti two years ago Thursday.
“I remember being buried, then I remember not being buried,” Prusynski recalls. “It’s the in-between that was fuzzy.”
Prusynski, now 24, is a graduate student in physical therapy at the University of Puget Sound. She has twice returned to the earthquake zone as a hospital volunteer with the Latin American affiliate of Friends of the Orphans, and she’s helped raise funds for the organization back in the Northwest.
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“I’ve had many well-intentioned people wish me closure, peace and healing,” Prusynski wrote in a blog post. “But I do hope that people don’t consider my attention and passion for Haiti as something that needs to be cured or fixed. …
“Sometimes I resent Haiti for bringing an unexpected path to my life, for taking Molly, and making it difficult for me to relate as easily to others. … But sometimes I am also incredibly grateful for the richness of experience and the amount of conviction and passion Haiti has brought to my life.”
The Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake killed more than 220,000 people and left more than 1.5 million homeless in a nation that already had the lowest per-capita income in the Western Hemisphere.
Two years later, more than 500,000 people remain in homeless camps, and the nation continues to battle a post-quake cholera epidemic that has killed more than 7,000. Haiti’s plight has led to frustration with the Haitian government, the thousands of aid groups working there and international donors, which followed through with less than half the $4.6 billion pledged for aid.
In the Northwest, the quake spurred a wide-ranging response from individuals, businesses and aid groups. Many of those efforts continue.
Bellevue-based Trilogy International Partners, through its Haitian cellular subsidiary, Voilà Inc., has developed new services that allow mobile-phone customers to store money on their phones or use their phones to pay for merchandise. In October, Voilà received an $889,250 award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for expanding mobile-money services to serve more than 300,000 people.
For Federal Way-based World Vision, which has a long history in Haiti, the quake marked the biggest humanitarian response in the organization’s history. It raised more than $220 million, and relief work included a role in managing 27 camps, setting up education programs for camp children and running feeding programs. World Vision also built more than 2,700 transitional shelters, though that program fell short of its goal of 5,000 dwellings because a tangled landownership system made finding building sites difficult, according to an organization official.
Portland-based Mercy Corps raised more than $20 million to launch post-quake programs in Haiti. They included an effort to strengthen the rural economy by assisting mango farmers.
World Concern, a Seattle-based agency, raised more than $2 million. Its post-quake work included building more than 770 new houses and repairing more than 2,500. Though camps remain a big problem, David Eller, the organization’s president, said he found progress while touring some neighborhoods this week.
“I see people getting back to their lives, and things being put together,” Eller said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Aid that honors friend
Prusynski, a Boise native, and Hightower had become close friends while attending the University of Portland. During a school break in December 2009, Prusynski went to visit Hightower in Haiti. Her friend was working there for a year with Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos, (Spanish for “our little brothers and sisters,”) which operates an orphanage and a pediatric hospital.
Prusynski made her first post-quake trip to Haiti in December 2010 and stayed for the first anniversary. Some of the hardest moments came in returning to the site of the building where her friend died, and attending a memorial service at a mass grave site.
In returning to Haiti, she also found welcome support. “It was what I needed,” Prusynski said. “I really hadn’t had anyone around who had been through the earthquake, and understood. I got to be back in that community.”
She made her second trip back last month, putting her physical-therapy skills to use at the hospital.
Back home, Prusynski has helped start a University of Portland scholarship in Hightower’s name for a Haitian student to study there for four years. The scholarship has been fully funded by a donor. And Prusynski is encouraging Jean-François Seide, a young Haitian studying at Seattle Central Community College, to apply.
Seide grew up in the Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) orphanage and later went to trade school. After the quake, he returned to NPH to help treat the injured at the hospital and launch a network of day camps for children.
“We gathered them together, and had games, dancing and singing,” Seide recalls. “It was a good way to get them away from all the trauma.”
Seide will mark the second anniversary with some silent time.
Prusynski will spend the day volunteering in a Portland class, where Molly’s sister, Jordan Hightower, is the teacher. Sometime in the future, she plans to return to Haiti for a longer stay.
“I plan to finish Molly’s year.”
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org