“It’s an amazing time to be someone who cares, but we have to understand that simply caring is not enough,” writes Charlie Petty, in a much-needed post about America’s strange, sanitary charity movements. Petty’s right. We can’t save the world with Facebook. And in his world, laser-focused on helping Haitians out of poverty, a Facebook like or fair trade coffee is easy to scoff at and frown upon.
Charlie Petty knows and cares, but so, so many of his peers in the U.S. don’t know and don’t care.
Until I went to Haiti, I didn’t even know what language they spoke. I knew about the earthquake in 2010 and I’d listened to the benefit CD with Bono on it, and that was the extent of my relationship with Haiti. All of that came from links and information I gleaned off of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. A like here, a follow there.
My girlfriend Tori and I wanted to volunteer and we wanted to travel. We decided to go somewhere for winter break, scraping together Christmas money and paychecks to pay our airfare. We weren’t sure where to go, and neither of us had any personal connection to anything outside of our privileged, white American lives.
But we remembered Haiti.
We remembered the photos of the Presidential Palace in ruins. We remembered the reports of bodies in the street. The death tolls so high I wondered if someone accidentally added a zero. I remembered rallying anyone and everyone I knew on Twitter to try to get someone to help a group of children in need right after the hurricane. I remember feeling that as much as I cared about this little group, it was only because they were lucky enough to have been stuck with an American with a phone whose family was pulling out all the stops to raise awareness.
I remember donating $20 to UNICEF in a fit of frustration that I couldn’t get down there and do something.
So almost two years after the disaster we bought our tickets and we went to Haiti. We brought a couple bags of toys and clothes and school supplies. The orphanage was a brand new house, built a few meters from the foundation of the house that fell during the earthquake. The kids played with the stacks of ceramic tiles left over from construction. Mickerlange did laundry by hand and made a chicken dish I hope they serve in heaven.
I learned some Haitian Creole and I fell in love with three of the most rambunctious, frustrating, giddy boys I’ve met. I did laundry by hand and used a sledgehammer to bend some rebar out of the way so we wouldn’t get impaled playing soccer in the driveway.
I saw the hundreds of shiny white trucks with some NGO’s logo on them, drivers on their righteous, air-conditioned missions to save.
We met Joseph, a painter, outside the Presidential Palace. He lived in a tent city across the street. Faded tarps bearing the USAID logo standing next to tents donated by the People’s Republic of China; when you drink out of a bladder and piss in the road, international relations seems awfully novel.
“Only Haitians can save Haiti,” he told us in near-perfect English. For all of the billions of dollars of aid money and all the white trucks and tarps and bags of rice, we still hadn’t done enough to empower Haitians to save themselves. Most of the money we donated buying T-shirts and CDs only served to reinforce Haiti’s title as the NGO Capital of the World.
Tori and I did very little to drag Haiti out of poverty. We helped the boys learn to write so they could enroll in school. We kept them, at least for a couple weeks, from being impaled by rebar. We gave them T-shirts and pencils. We cared.
We cared, but a feeling of helplessness set in as well. The helplessness that comes from walking down a street so covered in garbage that filling up a bag or five would seem futile, and then you’d have nowhere to put the bags. The helplessness that comes from seeing a tent city thriving as a palace sits empty in ruins two years after a tragedy.
But also the helplessness that comes from bringing a bag full of brand new toys then watching a group of kids use their new scissors to make cars out of juice bottles and play with them all afternoon. What could we possibly give these people? They show more grit and heart and love in an afternoon than I’d seen in a year in the states.
Poverty is incredibly complex, and I learned that in the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere, but so many of my peers didn’t. So many people know only as much about Haiti as they find between Facebook updates on Honey Boo Boo and Snooki’s baby, and that’s not their fault. To hear most American media outlets tell it, those are the important issues of our time.
I only went to Haiti because I saw things on Twitter and Facebook that piqued my interest and I followed them. My Facebook likes don’t help, it’s true. But without that starting point, my infinitely larger yet still infinitely small contribution would never have happened.
Caring alone is not enough, but it’s a damn good place to start.