In a small Haitian town devastated by the earthquake, communal jogging is helping kids rebuild their shattered lives.
Sara Bernard | July/August 2011 issue
When I was volunteering for All Hands Volunteers in Léogâne, Haiti—building schools, visiting orphanages and clearing the rubble from destroyed homes and other buildings—we finished work every day at 4:30, exactly when Sean Farrell would meet anywhere from half a dozen to 60 children to go running. “Sean! Sean! Sean!” they would call, bounding with the excitement of jogging through sugar cane fields to the beach or across muddy paths to the local swimming hole. They jumped into his arms or wrapped their arms around his legs. When I stood there in my running shorts, they showered me with affection, too.
Most were barefoot. Many lived in the strip of tents that made up the internally displaced persons camp near our volunteer base. Some didn’t go to school. But all were there every day to meet Farrell and run—an event that is the one constant in their lives.
Farrell, formerly of La Jolla, California, has been working in Léogâne since February of 2010. First he volunteered for the University of Notre Dame (UND) Haiti Program, coordinating logistics, building fences and tracking medical supplies. Now he’s the project coordinator for the UND salt project, which fortifies local salt with iodine and the chemical that kills the parasite that causes lymphatic filariasis. He’s also a marathon runner and wasn’t about to let Haiti’s stifling heat change that.
“People would come to the edge of the roads wherever I went,” crowding and calling to him as he jogged along, says Farrell of his early days in Léogâne. “But I thought, ‘I’d like to engage people. I’d like to get them running with me.’” He leveraged friends for funding to help design and print T-shirts with “Léogâne Track Club” on the front and “Vini Kouri” (Creole for “Come Run”) on the back. The kids now sport them proudly, and the candy-green shirts dot the city, adding to their wardrobes—and their psyches.
Ninety percent of the buildings in Léogâne, a mid-sized town two hours west of Port-au-Prince, were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake of January 2010, along with nearly 5,000 of the country’s schools. Local children have few organized activities they can count on; especially after the earthquake, such things are low priorities. Having something to look forward to every day lends some structure to their lives. It creates a community that separates them from everything around them, something they can identify with, be a part of and rely on.
I began to rely on it too, and the children I met there, including a tiny girl with ribbons in her braids, hardly more than 3 or 4 years old, who would trot along beside me in a frilly white dress and bare feet, dodging rocks and puddles; a smiling boy who would take my hand and not let go; a young woman who told me she lost her mother in the earthquake and there was no money for school, leaving her days empty and lonely. The track club, she said, was her only reliable routine.
“It’s spiritually nourishing for me as well,” comments Farrell. “I feel bonded to all the kids to the extent that I can’t see myself saying goodbye to them.”
And so, a year and a half after the earthquake, the kids are still running—these days in the shoes collected by community organizations. Farrell’s deeper hope, of course, is that this will go on without him, that he will be able “to teach them that hey, what we’ve got here is the Léogâne Track Club. I don’t have to be here for this thing to keep going.” And he doesn’t; on days when Farrell is working in Port-au-Prince, the kids still run with a handful of volunteers.
“We’re not doing it for them; we’re doing it with them,” says volunteer and athlete Caitlin Boulger. The runs gave us a way to exit the often-tense dynamic between international volunteer and local child. The demand to be given something and the seeming obligation to give both vanished. “When we’re all out there and we’re all thirsty, we’re all in it together at that point. No one has anything to give each other but encouragement,” says Boulger.
Yes, we would signal to each other with a grin, we are all crazy enough to jog through this heat, over these muddy roads laced with rocks and potholes and lined with pancaked concrete, doing something bystanders find ridiculous. It created a common ground for us all to access, something to sprint across, laughing, holding hands. I cried to anyone who ogled us, anyone who would listen: “Vini Kouri!”
Sara Bernard is a freelance writer who volunteered in Haiti in the summer of 2010—and hasn’t run near as many miles since.
Photo by: bradjward via Flickr
EVENTS & COURSES
You got the diet and nutrition in the last telecast; ... Read on
Today, hundreds of thousands of women's initiatives ... Read on