Heather and Gerson Nozea know that it takes more than desire to help earthquake victims in Haiti.
The local missionaries rushed to that country a few days after January’s disaster, but in the nine months since then, their plans to build housing for some of the survivors have stalled.
The Nozeas said the Haitian culture and government have made humanitarian efforts like theirs difficult. They were regularly asked to pay additional “taxes” — which they say were basically payoffs to officials — for permits and other necessary documents. And they were forced to abandon two pieces of land for a housing project after they learned the deeds they bought were fake.
“Every Haitian told us the same thing: ‘You know if you’re going to do something good in this country, you are going to face many obstacles and problems, nothing is easy here,’ ” said Heather, 28. “We resolved to continue to fight.”
The couple had a heart for Haiti long before the earthquake, which killed about 230,000 and left more than 1 million homeless.
Gerson, 30, grew up in Port-au-Prince, and when he was 19, he moved to St. Louis du Nord, Haiti, where he spent the next six years working at a Christian mission.
Heather grew up in Desloge, Mo., in St. Francois County, and her desire to help children led her to Haiti in 2002, to the same mission where Gerson was working.
Four years and several trips to Haiti later, the couple started dating, and after Gerson began studies to pursue a ministry degree at St. Louis Christian College, they got married. Heather took a job as an insurance and billing clerk at an eye clinic in O’Fallon, Mo.
They started a nonprofit group, Growing Hope For Haiti (growinghopeforhaiti.org) with the goal to build an elementary school in a rural area about 40 miles from the mission. Last October, a fund-raiser made about $15,000.
When the earthquake hit, people who knew about the Nozeas’ charity, donated money to help with relief efforts. Gerson decided to take some time off from school to go to Haiti, and Heather joined him. Since they both speak Creole and know how to get around, they worked with a medical team from Missouri. They set up a clinic in a church building in Carrefour and installed a water purification system.
“Basically, it was chaos,” Heather said. “The medical care we were able to offer wasn’t enough. We were seeing people who had broken bones and open wounds that hadn’t been treated in two weeks.”
The Nozeas soon moved to a field hospital on the grounds of the Port-au-Prince airport. Heather helped with admitting and triage, and Gerson served as a translator and performed maintenance work. They worked 12-hour shifts, lived in a small tent and ate pre-packaged military meals.
After three weeks at the hospital, they looked for the best way to spend the rest of the $120,000 they had gotten in donations. They thought they could make the biggest impact by providing housing, since more than 80 percent of the buildings in Leogane, a town near Port-au-Prince, had been destroyed.
The couple said they knew that Haiti suffered from corruption, but they had no idea the obstacles they would face. They lost $30,000 on two fake land deals despite checking with officials and doing extensive research.
“The thought is that there has been a lot of money pledged, and everyone wants a piece of it,” Heather said. “There’s no sense of community; it’s every man for himself.”
As the young couple worked through the red tape on their project, they’ve taken a job with the Fuller Center, a nonprofit housing ministry based in Georgia. They are living in Leogane now and have a third piece of property — an eight-acre tract next to a tent camp where nearly 600 people live.
They’re working with an attorney to ensure there are no ownership problems, and have already begun work on a well and composting toilets. They are busy selecting the families who will get one of the 280-square-foot, one-room concrete block homes.
The Nozeas said they have money to build 50 homes, a community center, a soccer field and gardens, and should begin work next month.
They are in St. Louis this week to pack up their apartment before heading back to Haiti. A fund-raising 5K/10K race is planned for Oct. 30, and the Nozeas hope to bring in enough to add solar lighting and a basketball court to their project.
“I don’t want what we’ve been through to discourage people from helping,” Heather said. “A lot of people are still suffering and in need. Fifty more families will have homes, and for those 50 that changes everything.”
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