The little boy haunted their dreams. Both Dani Lucier ’11 and Professor Shawny Anderson, unbeknownst to each other, had dreams about the toddler they’d met in Haiti while on a summer service trip not long after the earthquake there in January 2010.
“We both dreamed that he had died from cholera,” Shawny explained. “And that we could have done something to prevent it.”
The Saint Mary’s group of 11 students — in the seaport town of Les Cayes to help rebuild the house where the boy named Kerveng and his family lived — had noticed the children disappearing into a cornfield every day and returning with jugs of water. “So one day we went with them,” Shawny said. “And we saw the very marshy, muddy little river where they were getting water to drink and to bathe their babies.” The family couldn’t afford to buy water from the town’s water vendor that jingled through the neighborhoods like an ice cream truck.
Concerned about the safety of the river water, Shawny and the students offered to install a rain capture system on the house; they researched the idea and visited a successful installation elsewhere on the island. “But we failed to convince the family,” Shawny said. “They considered it a waste of time and money and wanted us to rebuild their house, which was so rickety we were able to push it over with our bare hands.”
So, with deep misgivings, the team agreed to do what the family wished. But, then, right after they returned to Saint Mary’s, cholera broke out in Haiti for the first time in more than a century.
“That news hit us hard,” Dani said. The students couldn’t stop thinking about Kerveng, or Kevin, as they pronounced his Creole name. “He was already really sick, with a huge, distended belly and cloudy eyes. He didn’t make a sound.” Every day, the students had played with Kevin and tried to make him smile. “Then about halfway through our time there, when we were all exhausted, he smiled — a huge, dimpled smile. It was just precious and it made everybody’s trip,” Dani said.
Determined to go back to Les Cayes, Shawny and her students planned a January Term trip, but it was cancelled for safety reasons, just as their initial plan to help with the cleanup in Port au Prince had fallen through because of the inherent dangers and the cost for security.
They tried to keep tabs on the family through a friend in Haiti and finally made it back last summer. “When we got there, obviously we had work to do, but the first task was to lay eyes on Kevin and make sure he was OK,” Shawny said.
And Kevin was OK, maybe even a little better. His family was now interested in the rain capture idea. Dani’s father donated the funds to buy a water filtration system. “My dad has such a soft heart,” Dani noted, quietly. “And he knows how passionate I am about this work and how much it has changed me for the better.” Aqua Sun International, the manufacturer of the water filter, gave them a steep discount on three filters, two of which went to other neighborhoods. In the end, the rain capture system and water filter installed at Kevin’s home was able to provide clean water to the whole neighborhood.
As the SMC team wrestled with the project, Shawny consulted a former student who had gone with her on a Jan Term service trip to Brazil in 2002. Jeff Hilliard ’02 is a program examiner for the National Security Division of the Office of Management and Budget. He talked through the problem with her, drawing on his experience as a quartermaster officer in the U.S. Army, serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004 and 2005 as the executive officer of a maintenance company stationed in Kuwait — “basically, a logistics person,” as he said. He was able to advise Shawny on what they needed.
Jeff cites Shawny’s trips for helping him make an easier transition than most to the rugged conditions and melting pot of Army life. “A lot of things I learned from Shawny helped me,” Jeff said. “At the age of 21 I learned how to walk in another person’s shoes. In the Army you deal with conflict all the time. I had already learned how to get people to talk to each other.”
And the preparation for the trips is a tutorial in logistics. As self-sufficient as possible, Shawny’s teams take basic tools, a large first aid kit, bedding, mosquito nets, media gear and their own food. They pack nonperishable quick-cooking staples and the special items they never travel without: Ritz Crackers, Clif Bars (specially discounted for the Saint Mary’s group), Tapatio hot sauce and M&Ms. “Those big four-pound bags,” Shawny said, laughing. When it’s time to go, they lay everything out on the long ground floor hallway of Dante Hall and start packing up, two 50-pound bags per student.
Then there’s the mental preparation. “She makes it clear that it isn’t going to be your average go-see-the-world experience,” Jeff said. “You prepare for long days of traveling, working and surviving in very different, sometimes austere conditions. She makes sure you’re going for the right reason and really tries to talk you out of it at first.”
Of course, preparation also includes rigorous academic work — background on the history, politics and cultural environment of their destination, rudiments of the language. “It’s very difficult if you don’t know the language,” Jeff noted.
“And prior to every trip, we read ‘Pedogogy of the Oppressed’ by Paulo Friere,” explained Dani. “Friere implies that acts of service are not easy commitments, as it is not as easy as it seems to determine what ‘doing good’ really means,” Dani wrote in an article she co-authored with Shawny, published in the spring 2011 issue of Women and Language, an international, interdisciplinary journal about communication, language and gender. In it they addressed the conundrum of trying to respect the wishes of the Haitian family who refused what the team of volunteers knew in their hearts was the right thing to do.
Jeff and Dani are among more than 100 alumni who are on Shawny’s DIRT (Deep Immersion Relief Team) list — veterans of more than a dozen service trips to places like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, Dominica, Brazil and Haiti. They are called on for advice or to make donations for current trips, and they remain close to a mentor who has changed their lives.
“She’s always available to talk, to mull over decisions with us,” Jeff said, like the new adventure awaiting him and his wife Sara Sousa ’02, a nurse practitioner in an endocrinology clinic, who’s been on two Brazil trips with Shawny. Jeff recently was accepted into the Foreign Service of the U.S. State Department.
He came from a military family and went to a Christian Brothers high school, so service is a way of life for him. “You want to do something to make a difference,” he said. “And it’s important to me to serve my country.”
Many students who go on these service trips come home deeply transformed.
Dani, a former Division 1 soccer player, now wants to devote her life to service and hopes to go back to school for a graduate degree in nonprofit management.
“It changed everything for me,” she said.