In the wake of the recent earthquake in Haiti, millions of lives have been affected. For four Virginia Tech alumni, this tragedy struck close because of the time they had spent experiencing the country.
“It was upsetting that something this devastating happened in a nation that was already facing an uphill battle from an economic and infrastructure stand point,” said Jeff Coyne, who graduated last spring with a degree in environmental engineering.
After his initial shock over the immense devastation in the already exhausted country, Coyne immediately thought of friends and contacts he has in the country. Coyne and two of his friends, Victor Valenzuela and Dan Phipps, who are also Tech alumni, had been in Haiti less than a month before the 7.0 earthquake struck the country.
Coyne spoke to Phipps and Valenzuela that evening, and the three began e-mailing connections they had made in Haiti.
“It was especially disturbing since we have developed relationships with people who live in Port-au-Prince, where the center of the earthquake was,” Coyne said.
Though he endured a restless night, there was some relief waiting for him the next morning.
“First time we heard from folks in Haiti was the morning after it happened by e-mail,” Coyne said.
Coyne, Phipps and Valenzuela got involved in Haiti through another Tech contact, colleague and fellow civil engineer Tim Moore. Moore had been working on projects in Haiti and traveling often to the impoverished nation for about two years before he called on Coyne, Phipps and Valenzuela to assist him with a very personal project: building an orphanage. Having made multiple trips to Haiti, Moore formed a bond with the people.
“They’re the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life, so giving, caring and kind,” Moore said. “It’s easy to fall in love with the culture and the Haitians as a people.”
On one trip Moore met Rosa Mona Gedeon, a local woman who works with Partners in Health to bring healthcare to Haitian communities.
“I was helping them develop some clinical organizations and design medical clinics,” Moore said.
After working with her to build clinics and bring medical services to villages, the two decided to partner in designing and building an orphanage in Zoranger, an area just north of Port-au-Prince. In 2007, the project became very personal for Moore. After spending time with Gedeon, who is the caretaker of several orphans, he and his wife decided to adopt one of the baby girls. The orphanage would serve as an extension of this outreach to Haitian children, a project that has become more urgent after the earthquake.
When Moore contacted Coyne, Valenzuela and Phipps to travel down to Haiti and survey the land, the three quickly agreed.
“I knew that they would want to help because we were all in the civil engineering department,” Moore said, “and we all had an interest in providing construction in developing countries so we tended to gravitate toward each other.”
Surveying the land is the first step in building a strong infrastructure.
“Once we surveyed the land,” Coyne said, “Tim said Mona could start to figure out what buildings to design and where to put them.”
Coyne, Phipps and Valenzuela had all done work in developing countries before but were deeply affected by their trip to Haiti.
“We’d all seen poverty before,” Coyne said, “but Haiti was a whole other level.”
While they were surveying, the three noticed Haitians from the local village walking by with buckets.
“We followed them one day to what was their cleanest water source,” said Valenzuela. “A few miles away they were collecting water from a contaminated low-flowing stream with animal feces in it.”
Because Zoranger is a farming community, the men of the town spend their days tending the land, leaving the women and children the task of retrieving water each day.