Bristol man delivers hurricane relief in Haiti
BRISTOL — Bristol resident Tyler Westbrook has just returned from two months in one of the most devastated places in the western hemisphere — Haiti.
October’s Hurricane Matthew affected 2.1 million Haitians, leaving over 175,000 homeless and over 800,000 in need of food assistance, according to the United Nations.
“I knew that I could help in some small way — not in a big way, but if you can help one family get through a disaster then that’s worth the trip,” said Westbrook, who first participated in Haitian disaster relief in the wake of the earthquake that devastated the struggling Caribbean island nation six years ago.
“The thing is that I know Haiti, I know how to operate in Haiti, and I speak Creole,” Westbrooke said. “So as soon as I knew it was going to hit Haiti, I started making plans to go.”
In 2010, Westbrook set off from Vermont to Haiti, accompanying a contingent of Vermont nurses. He ended up staying nine months, learning the Haitian language, organizing and carrying out his own aid activities and creating a network of friends and associates.
Fast forward to 2016: Westbrook got on a plane for Haiti within a week of when Matthew struck Haiti. Before setting off, he had raised about $6,000 from Vermont, national and international donors.
Westbrook used those funds to purchase packets of rice, beans and cooking oil for 200 families plus an entire orphanage full of children. He also used the money to build six houses and roof a seventh.
Hiring a local crew to distribute food and hiring local builders to carry out the construction projects was important to Westbrook. But also key was paying above-rate wages and feeding those workers, as well. Westbrook carried out his activities in the most close-to-the-bone way possible, renting his own truck from which to distribute food and living as simply as possible.
Westbrook worked in the vicinity of Les Cayes, a hard-hit region in southwest Haiti. He purposefully chose to work in rural areas because he felt those areas were a better fit for his small-scale operation.
In addition to working closely with Haitians he’d met during his 2010 relief efforts, Westbrook partnered with a local university administrator in the area, who was able to help Westbrook and his crew create a list of the families most in need of food and housing.
Traditionally built homes in the rural part of Haiti where Westbrook focused his relief efforts are simple shacks, framed with slim tree trunks, with the sides woven out of palm shingles. Many have thatched roofs, some have metal roofs. Fancier homes are made out of concrete blocks. Some are made along traditional lines but out of stones mortared together with crumbly, poor-quality concrete. Many of Westbrook’s photos show these once simple dwellings now reduced to piles of sticks or rubble. In many of the photos, families “camp out” using the scraps or remains of their metal roofs as their only shelter.
“It really gets hot under those metal roofs,” said Westbrook. “You could cook in there.”
One particularly touching photo shows a high school age girl, stooping out from under the salvaged roof, looking neat a trim in a white dress as she heads off for school.
“You can take a lot from them but not their dignity,” said Westbrook.
TURNING PEOPLE AWAY
One of the hardest parts of his relief efforts, said Westbrook, was turning people away. Given his limited resources, he knew there was a limit to the food he could distribute, the jobs he could provide, the homes he could build. Westbrook also described the importance of having a well-defined distribution system and his cognizance that with hunger and desperation on the rise in the hurricane’s aftermath, many relief convoys were traveling with armed guards.
Westbrook hired one guy, who he said turned out to be a cop, but stuck to a clearly defined protocol for how his crew pulled into an area and worked carefully from the back of the truck to distribute to those families identified as the neediest.
Westbrook still has an ongoing online fundraising campaign through the gofundme.com website to raise $4,500 to rebuild one particular family’s home. Because the home is in town, it requires modern construction and a modern foundation (unlike the simpler, traditional homes he built in the countryside). Westbrook said he had made his promise to the family before realizing that a promised funding source would not come through in its entirety.
Dearer to Westbrook’s heart, however, are plans to move beyond handouts to something that would help build a more sustainable local economy.
“What Haitians need more than free food is they need work,” Westbrook said. “They need good-paying jobs, and then they can buy their own food.”
He has in mind two possible long-term projects to benefit rural Haitians. One is collaborating with local agronomists on promoting more vigorous strains of vegetable seeds. The other is creating a business in Haiti to make and bottle hot sauce using local Haitian peppers.
“There’s always a bottle of hot sauce on the table and it’s wildly popular,” said Westbrook. “But I’ve never found a Haitian hot sauce. I’ve found them imported from the United States and from the Dominican Republic. I’ve heard stories they exist, but I’ve never seen it.”
Westbrook envisions a transparently run business that benefits local agriculture and the local economy that provides self-sufficiency via dependable work.
“I’m interested in creating something where folks are able to help themselves for the long term,” he said. “If we give them free rice, we can feed them for a couple of days. If we give a man a job, he can feed his own family for years.”
To learn more about Westbrook’s current gofundme campaign, go to www.gofundme.com/vermont-haitirelief. To learn more about Westbrook’s recent relief trip to Haiti, go to his Facebook page.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].