Page last updated at 12:52 GMT, Friday, 5 February 2010

Miami Haitians mobilise for quake victims

Supplies are packed in the church courtyard
The courtyard of the church has been a hive of activity

By Henri Astier
BBC News, Miami

Notre Dame d'Haiti , a Catholic church in the heart of Miami's Little Haiti, looks more like a warehouse than a place of worship these days.

Its courtyard is filled with boxes. More are piled from floor to ceiling in church annexes.

Fr Jean Jadotte
We are all part of the same family, the human family
Fr Jean Jadotte

Parishioners are busy packing food, clothes and medicines donated by members of the public.

Notre Dame has taken a leading role channelling relief supplies to victims of last month's devastating earthquake near the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.

Jocelin Toussaint, one of the volunteers, is making sure the boxes are marked carefully. "This box here has clothes for boys only," he says.

"We've put small children's clothes there, adult clothes here, girls' clothes over there. So immediately when the box arrives, when they open it, they will know exactly who the clothes are for."

Nine relatives lost

Like many Haitian-Americans, Mr Toussaint has been personally affected by the 12 January earthquake - in which an estimated 200,000 people died.

Boxes of aid stacked at the church
Supplies have been donated by members of the public

"I lost nine relatives in Port-au-Prince," he says. "The quake has affected everybody, rich and poor, and that's why we're all sticking together to help victims."

Another volunteer at Notre Dame d'Haiti, Elizabeth Desrosiers, is sorting piles of shoes into various boxes. She agrees that the bond between Haitian communities everywhere is crucial in such a time of need.

"This is important to us because we are all Haitians," she says. "What happened in Haiti could happen to all of us. It's by the grace of God that we are not in Haiti right now."

Notre Dame and its congregation mobilised quickly. On the day after the earthquake, a prayer service was held at the church.

Donations poured in and, within two weeks, the church had sent seven containers of supplies to Haiti. The aid is being distributed by church bodies in the ravaged capital and in camps for displaced people around the country.

Notre Dame also flew medical teams to the earthquake zone. As Fr Jean Jadotte explains, the relief effort is being supported by many outside Miami's 100,000-strong Haitian-American community.

"We have collected piles of food, water, medicines, clothes," Fr Jadotte says. "Everybody came. Not just Haitians, other ethnic groups too: Hispanics, African-Americans. We say thank you for that. We are all part of the same family, the human family."

Friends overseas

One of the many outsiders who have come to Notre Dame to lend a hand is Debbie Benik.

Volunteer Debbie Benik gathers supplies at a Haitian Catholic church in Miami
Debbie Benik has been spending her holiday time helping out

A retired lawyer from Boston, she is currently spending a few weeks on holiday in Miami.

But instead of taking full advantage of the winter sun, she is spending several days a week packing tins of food, conscientiously checking the sell-by dates.

She says doing her bit for the relief effort was the natural thing to do: "I read the stories about what was going on, and about a week-and-a-half ago I came over and I said can I volunteer. And they said 'absolutely'."

Ms Benik felt that, in such an emergency, writing a cheque was not enough. "They needed manual labour, they needed people here as you can see," she says.

The aid effort does need all the hands it can get. Marleine Bastien, co-chair of Miami city's Haiti Relief Task Force , has just returned from a trip to Haiti to assess the country's needs - which she says are enormous.

"The situation is catastrophic," she says. "Haiti has been basically crushed. Thousands and thousands of buildings, schools, universities, hospitals have been destroyed."

The country, Ms Bastien says, needs more help from the diaspora and international donors.

But despite Haiti's desperate situation, Ms Bastien's message to the Haitian people is one of hope.

"Do not lose heart," she says. "We have friends overseas who are concerned by what you're going through and want to help - not just in the short term but for as long as you need help."

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