By Sam Oester

CAP HAITIEN, HAITI – Gerda Birchell grew up in a very different Haiti than is known to the world today. Born in Port-au-Prince, she recalled the Haiti she once knew on the way to a makeshift clinic in Pillette Monday, to serve as an interpreter and nursing aid. “When I was 18, I remember, it was so beautiful,” she thoughtfully explained. “People came from all over to visit Haiti. Cruise ships came every day, and celebrities visited. The famous people, they had private residences here and even got married and had their honeymoons here.”

Now in her 70s, Birchell lives in Florida and is a certified nursing assistant and educator. She travels back to Haiti with her niece, Elizabeth Kaplan, a registered nurse also born in Port-au-Prince. Birchell comes to Haiti to interpret for, educate and assist those in need. Since the Jan. 12 earthquake, an “already broken Haiti is even worse,” she said. According to Birchell, much of Haiti has been in a state of devastation for many years, and the quake immensely increased the needs of the tiny Caribbean country. “It makes my heart bleed,” she said clutching her chest. “It’s very, very, very sad now. This is not the Haiti I knew.”

Gerda Birchell grew up in a very different Haiti than is known to the world today.

Gerda Birchell grew up in a very different Haiti than is known to the world today.

But Birchell has hope. Although she believes it will take “a very long time,” good changes can be made and progress instilled. “Education is the key,” she said. “We need to build more schools, so the young people can be educated and help make a difference in their own country. That was already happening a little, but it needs to increase.” Birchell says that education not only informs new generations, but increases their self-esteem and shows them how they can be effective in helping others. Only about 20 percent of the population in Haiti gets the opportunity to go to school. “They just need to be shown, and they will rise to the need,” she said.

She added that help from people from other countries, like the United States and England, is making a huge difference, and will be an important factor in rebuilding Port-au-Prince and the rest of the country. “It will be hard work and it will be long work, but I know, in my heart, that it will happen,” she said, squeezing my hand. “I will get my Haiti back.”

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