March 11, 2004 - The Sylvia Herald: Peace Corps Volunteer Jessica Heckert forced from Haiti in wake of political unrest

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Haiti: Feb, 2004: Peace Corps evacuates Volunteers from Haiti: March 11, 2004 - The Sylvia Herald: Peace Corps Volunteer Jessica Heckert forced from Haiti in wake of political unrest

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Peace Corps Volunteer Jessica Heckert forced from Haiti in wake of political unrest

Peace Corps Volunteer Jessica Heckert forced from Haiti in wake of political unrest

Heckert forced from Haiti in wake of political unrest

By Travis Bugg

A Cullowhee woman was forced from her Peace Corps position in Haiti two weeks ago due to growing political unrest and instability on the impoverished island.

Jessica Heckert’s required 27-month stay as an agricultural volunteer was cut dramatically short as armed rebels swept the countryside, burning police stations and demanding that President Jean-Bertrand Aristide be ousted.

Peace Corps volunteer Jessica Heckert, right, befriended Haitian youngster Yusley during the four months she lived in Yusley’s home village of Dufayi. Heckert, a 1999 Smoky Mountain High graduate, is at her parents’ home in Cullowhee after being evacuated due to Haiti’s political instability and dangerous conditions.

Heckert received notice to evacuate Feb. 19, after only six months of service. She walked and hitchhiked from the small town where she was stationed to the capital city of Port-au-Prince without complication and was then escorted to the Dominican Republic, which shares the eastern half of the island with Haiti. From there she took a plane to Washington, D.C.

“The journey wasn’t a big deal at all,” Heckert said. The 1999 Smoky Mountain High School graduate said she never feared for her life and never crossed paths with the rebels.

When Heckert left Cullowhee for Haiti in August, she had no idea of what to expect or that she would be forced to leave. What she found during her time there were unique and special people who are remarkably resilient, considering the daily hardships they face.

After graduating from Greensboro College in 2003 with a major in psychology and a minor in biology, Heckert had a choice: graduate school or the Peace Corps. She chose the Peace Corps.

“It just fit into my life schedule,” she said last week. “I wanted to serve people abroad, and the Peace Corps is the Harvard of volunteer programs.”

After being accepted as an agricultural volunteer, Heckert found out she was going to Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti also has the highest rates of HIV and infant mortality outside of Africa.

“I don’t regret it in any sense,” said Heckert. “I knew I was going to do agriculture, but I didn’t know the details.”

After arriving in Haiti, Heckert was stationed in the town of Archaie for a three-month training session. There she was introduced to Haitian culture and instructed in Haitian Kreyol, a combination of French, Spanish, African and English languages.

“Kreyol was not grammatically difficult to learn,” Heckert said, “and there was a linguist in our group, so that helped.”

After training in Archaie, Heckert was sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer in a ceremony held in Port-au-Prince. From there she was assigned to help improve farming practices and help solve the food shortage in the small mountain village of Dufayi (pronounced Doo-fa-yee), located approximately 8 miles northwest of Mirebalais along the Peligre River.

For three and a half months Heckert lived with a family in Dufayi in a three-house group that shared a common outdoor kitchen and social area. Her meals consisted of ground corn meal, bean sauce, millet and an assortment of fresh fruits and vegetables. There she became fluent in Kreyol and set her mind on improving agricultural conditions.

“Slash and burn agriculture is still used for the most part,” Heckert said. This method of agriculture enriches the soil for short-term growth, but greatly depletes the soil over time. Combine this with the fact that deforestation has claimed all but about 1 percent of Haiti’s original tree coverage and what remains is an environmental crisis of major proportions, she said.

Without trees to prevent erosion, vital topsoil is whisked away in torrents of runoff. Heckert said the mountaintops were “extremely bare” and fertile soil was hard to come by.

As part of her service, Heckert was working to establish a tree nursery.

“People were eager about it, but we had to put those plans on hold because Dufayi was experiencing major water issues,” Heckert said.

Finding a reliable source of clean water is a hardship that many Haitians face daily. Only one-fifth of Haitian households have running water, according to a May report in the Miami Herald.

“The people of Haiti have been getting the raw end of the deal,” Heckert said, referring to political corruption and economic embargoes that limit imports and exports.

“Haiti has cannibalized itself in terms of resources,” she said, citing the country’s bare mountains and disappearing clean water supply.

Fortunately, organizations like the Peace Corps are up to the task of lending a hand, said Heckert.

“There are tons and tons of development workers in Haiti from many nationalities,” Heckert said, “but it is a hard place to do work because it’s so slow in terms of seeing results.”

The Peace Corps motto is “sustainable development”, a philosophy that directs volunteers to make sure that the knowledge and technology they bring to nations in need can be carried on by the people of that nation once volunteers leave. This policy is evident in the projects that Heckert was working on, including the tree nursery, tree-grafting, agricultural education and a sesame seed oil press.

The oil press was needed to provide otherwise expensive cooking oil and a source of added fat for the malnourished people who subsist on an inadequate diet, Heckert said. She was working on a manual press that could be manufactured easily.

Due to the crisis that developed on the island, these projects were never finished.

Heckert said she wants to “go back to Haiti if it opens back up. It’s always in and out of chaotic and peaceful situations.”

Regardless of Haiti’s stability, Heckert said she plans to continue to work in international development.

“I love Haiti. It was a wonderful experience with unique and special people,” Heckert said. “They have such a good attitude considering what they’ve been through.”

Heckert has returned to Cullowhee and is staying with her parents, Sue and Paul Heckert. Pictures and diary entries of her experiences in Haiti are available online through Cullowhee United Methodist Church’s Web site,

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Story Source: The Sylvia Herald

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Haiti; Safety and Security of Volunteers



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