Minnesota nonprofits rally to support Haiti after deadly earthquake

As the ground began to tremble in the rural mountains of southwestern Haiti, books and dishes crashed to the floor inside Madeleine Maceno-Avignon’s home.

More than 2,000 miles away in Minnesota, Maceno-Avignon’s daughter, Norka Avignon Petersen, frantically dialed her mother after hearing the news, desperately hoping she was safe in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that leveled much of the region Aug. 14.

After 15 minutes of dialing over and over, Maceno-Avignon finally answered, screaming: “I’m alive! I’m alive! I’m alive!”

“It was terrifying,” said Avignon Petersen, 31, of Little Canada, who grew up near the epicenter of the destruction and whose parents lived in St. Paul before returning to their homeland in 2001 to help rural Haitians. “I was very scared about her having to run for her life.”

Maceno-Avignon was one of the lucky ones. All told, the 7.2-magnitude earthquake claimed more than 2,100 lives and injured more than 12,000 people, according to the Associated Press. Thousands more are homeless after the tremors leveled buildings and homes across the countryside, which was later pounded by heavy rain from Tropical Storm Grace.

Amid the ruins, many Minnesota organizations are rallying to support the impoverished country as it struggles to recover. More than 2,400 Minnesotans report having Haitian ancestry, according to census data.

Feed My Starving Children, with three sites in the Twin Cities, is collecting money to fund meals it plans to deliver to Haiti.

In Champlin, Healing Haiti, a Christian charity, started a fund to support organizations providing emergency aid.

And in Golden Valley, Haiti Outreach is hoping to raise $50,000 to offer financial help for a medical team, water resources and other relief organizations.

“The need is overwhelming and obviously the problem is overwhelming,” said Dale Snyder, executive director of Haiti Outreach, a nonprofit.

The disaster comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic and as Haiti reels from the assassination of its president last month. What’s more, the country is still working to recover from a 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people.

“Haitians have endured so much for so long,” said Avignon Petersen, who was born and raised in Haiti before moving to Minnesota as a child. “It is gut-wrenching … for me, this is really personal because this is home.”

Aid to the most vulnerable

Avignon Petersen’s mother and father, Nicaise Avignon, are Haitian Americans who moved to Minnesota and started a St. Paul nonprofit to support their homeland before returning to Haiti.

The organization, Communities Organizing for Haitian Engagement and Development, or COFHED, is now trying to raise $25,000 to help Haitians, especially those living in the rural villages far from spots receiving the most humanitarian aid, with food, shelter and clothing.

“There is a lot of aid going to Haiti right now and I think that’s absolutely fantastic,” Avignon Petersen said. “Unfortunately, the aid doesn’t always get to the most vulnerable communities and these are the people living in the most remote parts of the island.”

COFHED, which has 10 employees in Haiti and Minnesota, helps local communities with fundraising and provides grants for projects such as helping to start a school. The earthquake leveled that school, which will now likely become another project in the country’s massive rebuilding effort.

Avignon Petersen’s parents live next to their nonprofit’s community engagement center in Haiti, which was also damaged. Though the couple and their extended family were not injured, Maceno-Avignon spent a sleepless night Aug. 14 resting in a chair outside to steer clear of anything that could fall amid aftershocks.

Their nonprofit doesn’t usually focus on disaster relief, but after the earthquake, all organizations are rushing to help.

In Golden Valley, Snyder’s organization is usually focused on water-related development projects, but since the quake hit, the four Minnesota employees and 50 Haiti employees at Haiti Outreach are scrambling to respond, driving a tanker truck some 100 miles across the country to supply the hardest-hit areas with clean water.

‘People are living outside’

Snyder said his nonprofit also was asked by the Haitian government to inspect water systems in the area since Haiti Outreach drills wells and creates basic water systems.

“People are living outside. They don’t even have a shelter. They don’t have water. They don’t have food or much of anything,” Snyder said. “If one is concerned about this tragedy occurring in this country, the poorest country in our hemisphere, then every little bit helps.”

HOW TO HELP HAITI

Many global and local organizations are providing aid:

• American Red Cross: Haitian Red Cross teams are helping with first aid, search-and-rescue operations and sheltering efforts. Go to redcross.org for details or to donate.
• COFHED: Communities Organizing for Haitian Engagement and Development in St. Paul is trying to raise $25,000 to provide supplies such as tents, food and clothing, especially in rural villages most affected.
• Feed My Starving Children: The organization, which has three sites in the Twin Cities, is fundraising for meals to deliver. Go to fmsc.org.
• Haiti Outreach: The Golden Valley-based nonprofit set up an online fundraiser that will support a medical team and clean water efforts. Go to haitioutreach.org.
• Healing Haiti: The Champlin-based Christian organization started a disaster-relief fund that will be doled out to organizations in Haiti providing emergency aid. Go to healinghaiti.org.
• Salvation Army: The Salvation Army in Haiti is providing food, drinking water and hygiene items. Go to sawso.org.
• UNICEF USA: The agency is providing medical kits, water and other supplies in Haiti. Go to unicefusa.org.

[email protected] 612-673-4141

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