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Alumnus weathers storm, helps Haitian neighbors rebuild from Hurricane Matthew

As millions of dollars of aid and disaster workers pour into Haiti to assist in the recovery from Hurricane Matthew, TSSW graduate Jonathan LaMare (MSW ’11) is already helping his neighbors recover.

LaMare is no stranger to hurricanes, so when the storm turned towards Haiti for an October 4th landfall, he knew what to do even if his Haitian neighbors didn’t.

“It was certainly a long week,” said LaMare, who serves as the Country Director for the Be Like Brit Foundation in Haiti. “It was such a slow moving storm, and Haiti has no notification system. So we went around notifying neighbors that they could shelter in place here, and people just didn’t believe us. They thought we were nuts, so that was challenging. Of course, a lot of the same people came running when the storm hit.”

The foundation runs a 19,000 sq. ft. earthquake proof orphanage about two hours from Port-Au-Prince. The group employs 100 people and includes a residential program with 66 children as well as a 1,200 sq. ft. on-site medical facility that serves about 300 people per month.

While the hurricane force winds and rains reached the orphanage, they were spared much of the flooding and destruction experienced on the southern tip of the country. Part of the reason for that was the hilly terrain and preparation. The group offers a community development program that builds homes aimed at replacing the temporary shelters built after the earthquake of nearly seven years ago.

In the past three years, they’ve built 58 homes through their volunteer program that range from fully earthquake proof to wood framed, reinforced homes on a cement pad that are designed to weather a hurricane.

“Hurricane Matthew was our first real test to see if our buildings would stand up,” LaMare said. “So we have 58 homes in the community and our building, and the only damage that we suffered at our building was our security gate was blown off the tracks. And as for our homes, some homes took on water as the rain ran down the hill, but none of our homes were destroyed, and they’re all still habitable. We were very lucky.”

The orphanage has a generator – which ran non-stop for five days – that provided power for the group while the storm passed. The building also served as a place of refuge for 60 residents whose homes were flooded or destroyed during the storm.

LaMare said his group was extremely lucky.

“The real tragedy is about two hours south of here,” he said. “From what I’ve been told, it’s like 98 percent destroyed. Our focus now is helping our neighbors fix the damage they had, replace the loses they have, so we’re just very much in crisis mode right now.”

Indeed, they were lucky as Hurricane Matthew, the most powerful Atlantic storm since 2007, levelled homes in parts of the country as the United Nations said at least 1.4 million people needed emergency aid. The storm killed more than 1,000 people in the impoverished Caribbean nation.

Starting on Oct. 11, his foundation has committed to building a home a day for those who lost their homes in their region.

“We want this to be a community driven response and not a top down kind of event,” he said. “We want the local people to drive this recovery. That’s our focus right now, and we just consider ourselves really lucky. This community has suffered through a lot, but they are so resilient. It’s really amazing.”

The Be Like Brit Foundation is the No. 1 employer in its area, and LaMare said the group is taking their role in the region’s recovery seriously. While helping with the cleanup, the group will continue its mission of trying to instill a sense of social responsibility for children while focusing on educational and preventative health measures.

LaMare said his experiences at the Tulane School of Social Work were key to his ability to weather the storm and continue to help others.

“I think the key for me was the importance of cultural sensitivity, cultural relevance,” he said. “You can go anywhere and try to implement a program, but if you don’t have an understanding of the culture, the people and their experiences, then all of your work just won’t resonate. We want our residents to take ownership of everything we do.”

While his field placement in Rwanda helped prepared him for international work, he said his domestic field placement with NO/AIDS Task Force helped him feel prepared to work with a diverse population.

“This was definitely a test for us and the country,” he said. “There is so much work to be done, but the people have been responsive. Everyone here is so resilient, and they are willing and able to work to rebuild and improve their country. It’s really inspiring to see in the face of such a disaster.”

Published Oct. 14, 2016. Written by Joseph Halm, Tulane PR.