Public health students work in Haiti over alternative Spring break

April 28, 2014

UMass Amherst Public Health graduate and undergraduate students with community health workers in Bellabe, Haiti

Professor of Community Health Education David Buchanan led a group of eleven undergraduate and one graduate Public Health students to spend ten days in Haiti this March for an applied field work experience, as part of a new course on Sustainable Development. The trip was organized in collaboration with Opportunities for Communities (OfC), a private non-profit organization founded by former SPHHS faculty member, Dr. Ken Mundt, which has been working in Haiti for five years.

In the eight weeks prior to their departure, the students broke into teams to design, plan and prepare for the field work, as well as learning basic Haitian Kreyol. While on site in the village of Bellabe, the student teams worked on four projects: (1) designing and implementing a training for local Haitian community health workers on sexual and reproductive health; (2) primary data collection for a new botanical medicine manual specific to Haiti; (3) collecting detailed specifications and cost estimates for building a new irrigation canal to support increased agricultural productivity; and (4) gathering height and weight information on children under 5 to determine levels of malnutrition in the village.

MPH student Stephanie Voltaire (center) with local health workers

Graduate student Stephanie Voltaire led the sexual and reproductive health project. “I developed a sexual and reproductive health training guide for my MPH project,” says Voltaire, who is Haitian-American. “The program is called ‘Pwoteje Jen Bellabe Yo’ or ‘Protecting the Youth of Bellabe,’ and it includes information on HIV/AIDS, STI knowledge, transmission and prevention, negotiation skills, birth control methods and much more on sexual and reproductive health.”

“We used a train-the-trainer approach,” adds Anne Hickey, a junior Public Health major who worked on the project. With funds raised by public health students last year, OfC hired three local community members to become trained community health workers. Together, they recruited community youth to participate in two focus groups and two training sessions to pilot test the new sexual health training guide. They were all highly enthusiastic about the training and program.

“These women were trained to facilitate educational activities like condom demonstrations, a STI transmission activity, and an activity that shows HIV/AIDS’ effect on the body,” explains Hickey. “At the end of the week, the community health workers did a pilot run of the program. We got really great feedback and some ideas for new activities.”

“The village of Bellabe is located in Les Cayes, the same province where my father was born and raised,” says Voltaire. “The people there are very friendly, determined and motivated. I met village leaders [on a previous trip] who expressed the need for a sexual health program for youth in the village. Due to my interest and past experience in sexual health – specifically HIV/AIDS prevention – I felt determined to give back to that community.”

The botanical medicine team worked with a local herbalist, who is also the community’s traditional birth attendant, and she took the students out each day into the surrounding area to identify and photograph medicinal plants in their native habitat. The students also met with staff from the Cayes Botanical Garden to learn the plants’ scientific names and what is known about their beneficial properties. They are finishing up the manual under the supervision of Dr. Lyle Craker, a botanist on campus and renowned international authority on botanical medicines.

The growth team found that 63% of children under five in Bellabe fell below the 25th percentile for healthy height and weight according to WHO standards. Impressively, one of the students on the trip is from Taiwan and, while in Haiti, she met with Taiwanese officials running a nearby international development project aimed at increasing rice production in Haiti, and they agreed, at least in principle, to build a new irrigation canal for Bellabe. The water project team also secured funds and lined up a local contractor to install a hand pump well to provide clean safe water in Bellabe.

The UMass Amherst Sustainable Development class takes a break from the sun and hard work.

During their stay, the students were also treated to local Haitian musicians to celebrate one student’s 21st birthday, learned how to cook fried plantains and to make pikliz, and spent a day on the tropical resort beach of Port Salut – a welcome reprieve from the 17-degree weather they had left in Massachusetts.

“The trip was remarkably successful,” reports Buchanan.

“I realized how lucky I am,” says Hickey. “I really valued this trip because it gave me a real-life experience and knowledge that I could never have received otherwise.”

“I learned many personal values from working in this community; most importantly, to be grateful for the opportunities I have and those that are available to me,” remarks Voltaire. “It was an amazing experience to give back to my parents’ birthplace and the country that means so much to me.”