Six months since it struck – Haiti’s community cholera volunteers

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In Fond Icaques, Haiti, CARE International facilitates a group of community health volunteers. Previously the group educated people in their town about HIV/AIDS, but since cholera hit earthquake ravaged Haiti six months ago, the focus has changed. An elderly man radiating energy, Espérance Lazar is one of the 22 volunteers. It might be a little rude to ask someone for their age, but Espérance Lazar is proud to share it “I am 79-years-old, and I have been active in my community since I was a young man.”

Cholera has had a large impact on communities in Haiti. People like Ginette Désormus, a mother who narrowly escaped dying from the disease, feel fortunate. "In my neighbourhood whole families were decimated. We had only five deaths, and although my daughter has not yet fully recovered, she is alive and healthy."

The group has a clear agenda for the day: To organise a work plan for the month and discuss an upcoming distribution of potentially life saving hygiene kits. All volunteers submit weekly reports indicating how many people they have communicated with and any observations. CARE tries to encourage a mixture of women and men, elderly and young members to take part.

Going the distance

At 79 has worked for his community in numerous ways. He was head of the community committee, promoted literacy and education, worked in agricultural monitoring and finally as a coffee planter. And now, his attention too has turned to cholera:

“I like to go from door to door and talk to people. Many of them have learned a lot, for example how to properly wash their hands and how to use chlorine products”, he says.

Despite his age, Espérance enjoys going the distance, literally. He walks for hours on foot to reach very isolated areas and talk to the people there. He says he has seen results. “People respect hygiene rules better than before”, he affirms. “I have nine kids and…” he hesitates “13 grandchildren. As a community volunteer, I have also learned a lot to help protect my own family.” He finishes with a Creole saying: “Atansyon pa kapon” – prevention is the best option.

Community knowledge

The meeting continues. The group discusses a plan to distribute 20,000 hygiene kits containing buckets, aquatabs, soap and other items. CARE draws from the volunteers’ knowledge of their communities to determine which families need them the most. But what are the criteria?

In a region this poor and isolated it is hard to determine those most in need. The volunteers themselves are generally not better off than their neighbours. But CARE provides them with backpacks and megaphones, useful equipment for their busy days on the move. At the end of the meeting, Espérance Lazar is off again. He walks down the hill as if he was 29, not 79; backpack and microphone in hand, off to another family that might not have heard about cholera yet.