'The people are wonderful': Retired Green nurse helps out in Haiti – Canton Repository

GREEN – The story of Haiti is a saga of freedom and beauty haunted by unrelenting suffering.
As of late, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere has been hit by a trifecta of tragedy, starting with an exodus of climate refugees, trying to emigrate to the U.S., the assassination of  President Jovenel Moise, and the kidnapping of 17 Christian missionaries connected to a ministry in Ohio.
More:17 US missionaries kidnapped in Haiti, Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries says
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For Vonnie LaRue, seeing Haiti’s troubles up close has been life-changing. The retired nurse has served as a medical missionary in Haiti through her church, Holy Cross Lutheran Church North Canton.
LaRue has served in places that don’t have electricity, running water or toilets; where houses made of tin or sticks and blocks have dirt floors, and food is cooked on charcoal outdoor stoves.
Places where malnutrition stalks the most vulnerable and where outsiders don’t dare to travel unescorted, and where good people are trapped by poverty, corruption and violence.
It is a nation with no substantial infrastructure, no public school system, and where unemployment tops 70 percent – with no social safety net.
A native of Cuyahoga Falls and a resident of Green, LaRue was a part of the first nursing class to graduate from Walsh University in 1984.
“I married right out of high school,” she said. ” I went to nursing school when my youngest child started kindergarten.”
She went to work for a pediatrician, then for Akron General Hospital as an occupational medicine nurse. She retired from nursing in 2011 and started a disability management company with a friend.
LaRue said the medical mission began after a woman from a church in Cleveland gave a recruitment presentation at Holy Cross seeking volunteers for Haiti.
LaRue’s first mission to Haiti was in the fall of 2010, the same year a devastating 7.0 earthquake killed an estimated 200,000 people, flattened more than 4,000 schools, and left more than 1.5 million homeless.
The group flew into the capital city of Port-au-Prince.
“It was a mess. There was no infrastructure,” LaRue recalled. “There were thousands of blue tarps, six months later. We got off the plane and were inundated with beggars.”
The team hasn’t been able to visit since 2019 because of the pandemic.
LaRue said most people equate Haiti with Port-au-Prince, or Île de la Tortue, an island stop for cruise ships.
“Haiti used to be called ‘The Pearl of the Caribbean’ but sometimes, I think the government there would be glad if the rest of Haiti fell off the earth,” she said.
The medical missions team’s first assignment was a rural area four hours north of Cap-Haïtien, the nation’s second-largest city. At night they stayed in the city.
“We spent a lot of time outside of the city, in the mountains,” she said. “The hospitals there are horrible. One of our members had a heart attack and the hospitals didn’t even have an EKG. The families of patients must provide everything from food to blankets. The medicine has improved a little in 10 years because more foreign teams are running clinics.”
LaRue said Holy Cross has a sister church in Haiti, and that for the team’s safety, Bishop Eliona Bernard oversees their projects and activities.
“Our pastor down there won’t let us go anywhere without him,” she said. “He is a target, too, because people think ministers have money.”
LaRue said such precautions are necessary because of kidnappings. The latest incident occurred after the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory against visiting Haiti.
At least one American-run hospital has been burned to the ground.
“The gangs have gotten bigger and more powerful because of poverty,” she said. “I would be surprised if they’re harmed because of the United States.”
The Rev. Kip Smith, a retired pastor who served Holy Cross for 12 years, has traveled to Haiti 12 times. Smith retired in 2019, after 39 years in ministry.
“What I took away from it is that human need is the same no matter where you’re at,” he said. “The poor people in that country just can’t get a break. The poorer you are, the more devasting every catastrophe is.”
Smith said Holy Cross has been fortunate to work with Bernard.
“You’ve got to look long and hard at who you’re trying to help,” he said. “We’re very honored to work with Pastor Bernard, who is honest and hard-working. He’s also president of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Haiti, as well as the bishop of the five churches we’ve worked with. Even that has been wonderful. He has not tried to pump all of the money into his churches, but into the outlying churches.”
LaRue said the island nation is rife with malnutrition and is lacking in basic infrastructure.
“There are no public schools outside of the cities,” she said. “Illiteracy was at 70 percent about 10 years ago.”
Some Holy Cross volunteers have built desks for the few schools which are functioning.
“There’s no electricity in schools, which have dirt floors,” LaRue said. “Our philosophy is we never do anything for them. We do everything with them.”
In 2010, the island had an estimated 300,000 orphaned children.
“There are orphanages everywhere,” LaRue said. “A lot of them are foreign-run. We visited a couple of times. A lot of births are not recorded because children are born at home … so when a child comes to an orphanage, there’s no information about them.”
LaRue said common health problems Haitian adults suffer include hypertension, cataracts, diabetes, malaria, skin infections, such communicable diseases as measles and chickenpox, due to a lack of immunizations, and little-known viruses most people have never heard of.
“With kids, it’s worms and malnutrition,” she said.
LaRue said accessibility to clean water is slowly improving thanks to wells installed by such ministries as World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse.
“They just don’t have the infrastructure to support people,” Smith said. “We have hurricanes in our country, and resources come from everywhere. The situation continues to go from bad to worse.”
About 60 percent of Haitians are Catholic, a holdover from their past as an enslaved French colony.
In 1825, the Haitians overthrew the French, becoming the first free Black nation in the Caribbean. The French recognized Haiti’s independence but forced the country to pay $100 million francs ($21 billion in 2021) in reparations.
The debt was finally paid in full after 122 years, in 1947.
LaRue was inspired by the faith and gratitude she’s witnessed. 
“The common people thank God for everything,” she said. “But there’s still an underlying belief in voodoo, even among Christians.”
LaRue said Haitians will often go to voodoo doctors because they don’t trust traditional medicine.
“They view unexplained sicknesses as a ‘curse,'” she said. “But I love the people. I’ve heard a lot of people say they deserve it (suffering) because of the voodoo. You wish you could change it because the people are wonderful.”
Holy Cross currently assists a Haitian immigrant, now 23, who attends the University of Akron on a student visa. He has a younger brother who is an American citizen.
Holy Cross also is supporting five Haitian schools, providing teacher salaries, and students with daily meals, books, and uniforms
It costs $300 to sponsor a student for a year.
The missions team also set up a portable pharmacy, helped their sister church build a chicken farm on its land to feed students, and helped open a bakery near Cap-Haitien.
“The farm is struggling because most people are too poor to buy a chicken,” LaRue said. “They will splurge for the holidays.”
Smith noted that it’s difficult for desperate people to save or plan ahead when they’re in dire straits.
“You’ve got the same problem there, in terms of people squandering outside opportunities to help because they’re so short-sighted,” he said. “When you don’t have anything, you don’t plan ahead. That’s true wherever you’re at, but it’s exasperated down there.”
However Smith said he is optimistic about Holy Cross’ ministry partners.
“I don’t know that I have optimism about Haiti’s future, but I was tremendously impressed in the news a week ago when 200 Evangelical Lutheran churches were having a peaceful march and prayer in the streets in Cap-Haïtien. It was a very peaceful rally, as opposed to the gangs down in Port au Prince.”
Asked about the current exodus of Haitians trying to emigrate to the U.S., she said, “If  I lived in Haiti, I’d want to leave.”
Yet, despite all the challenges, LaRue said she’d like to return to Haiti as soon as it’s safe, noting that teams now fly to Cap-Haïtien, which is less chaotic than Port au Prince.
“The people are wonderful,” she said.
Reach Charita at 330-580-8313 or charita.goshay@cantonrep.com. On Twitter: @cgoshayREP


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