Engineering, health students bring expertise to Haiti

Forget Coca-Cola, Pepsi or Perrier. There are people in Haiti who just want a simple drink of tap water without walking a couple of miles to get it. Civil engineering associate professor Marc Veletzos has been leading teams of student volunteers to the small community of Marmont in Haiti's central plateau to improve access to clean water and help their physical injuries periodically since June 2011.

The group intends to go again next June “We’ve had a total of six trips,” Veletzos said. “We bring Merrimack College students down there and they help this community.” Merrimack College alum Art Fournier was the first to approach the school about the need to help repair Haiti’s water system that was damaged in the 2010 earthquake. The Merrimack College Service Learning Initiative includes students from the Civil Engineering Department, Health Sciences Department and Campus Ministry. The engineering students work with Marmont’s water committee, and students in health sciences help Haitians who are hurt, including those with work-related injuries.

“We’re really trying to be technical advisors,” Veletzos said. The trips offer students professional and social experience, said health sciences associate professor Kevin E. Finn. They have opportunities to interact with people they normally wouldn’t meet while putting into practice their training, he said “They are actually utilizing the skills they learn here, in that environment,” Finn said. “That’s different from other service trips.” The Rev. Raymond F. Dlugos, the college’s vice president for mission and student affairs, who oversees campus ministry, said the students have skills that fit well with Haiti’s needs.

“It’s not just generous kids,” Dlugos said. “It’s generous kids with real skills bringing those skills to people in need. It’s real engineers fixing a real water problem and real athletic trainers treating real physical injuries that allow people to earn their living.” The athletic trainers give patients exercises to strengthen muscles so they can get back to work themselves. “They are trying to give ways to heal themselves without medication because they don’t always have medication or funds to buy them,” Veletzos said. The school partners with the non-profit group Project Medishare that Fournier co-founded with doctors from the University of Miami and the people of Haiti, Veletzos said. There have been six trips so far including the first, which was a fact-finding mission to learn firsthand how civil engineering can help meet Haiti’s needs, he said. The last trip was made up of a team of Merrimack alumni in June. The trips cost about $1,500 for each person. “It’s beg, borrow — but don’t steal,” Veletzos said.

The group will do some fundraising and write grant requests, as well as ask family and friends to donate before the mission in June, he said. 

“We get it from anywhere we can,” Veletzos said. “There is a student fee as well, it’s typically been $500 per student.” The college team is usually about 10 people, including three supervisors. Students stay in a guesthouse owned by Project Medishare that’s typically used by doctors who visit for clinical work. Project Medishare serves as the liaison between the college and the community because it has the contacts in Marmont, Veletzos said. Project Medishare picks up the team at the airport and helps them get through security checkpoints then coordinates meetings with community members. Students come home with real world experience, Finn said. “It gives the kids perspective on global health care,” he said. “And how it varies.” 



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