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Social Worker Calls on Skills, Faith in Haiti

Feb. 24, 2010

When Jennifer Smyer volunteered to go with a team of 14 from her church to the earthquake-ravaged island of Haiti, the last thing she thought she'd see amid so much destruction was the birthing of new life.

By the end of her seven days there, though, she had experienced more death - and more life - than she could have imagined.

"Death and life are closer than we think. They are not polar opposites as we often think here in America. While we were there, pain and hardship and hope and life were working side by side."

Smyer, the director of Global Mission Leadership Initiative at Baylor School of Social Work, left with the team of primarily physicians and nurses from Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, on Jan. 25. Using her social work knowledge and skills, Smyer (BA Social Work, MSW) organized the team's logistics, provided grief and crisis counseling, led post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sessions, coordinated social services and strategized for the immediate future.

Social workers as first responders

"There is such an important role for the social worker to fulfill in crisis - the therapeutic process groups I led, the organizing and coordinating of all these groups of first responders. The social worker functions as a key networker and advocate for those unable to meet their most pressing needs in a crisis setting," she said.

"We were there to come alongside, and often that is the role of a social worker - to come alongside to offer encouragement, support and coaching, but ultimately the clients, in this case the Haitians, have to push through."

The Antioch team was in Port-au-Prince and set up a small medical clinic where they saw about 275 people a day. It was one of 30 nonprofit agencies coordinated by CRI, Crisis Response International, a nonprofit organization that resources, trains and mobilizes volunteers, churches and other organizations to respond to disasters and other compassion initiatives in the United States and worldwide (www.criout.com).

Resilience and faith

Smyer, who lived in North Africa for several years as a missionary as well as in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, had story after story of the Haitian people's strength and the tender mercies of God that she experienced. A mountain man was breaking up the concrete rubble of his collapsed home with a pickaxe, but on one upward swing, the point of the axe punctured the skull of his son's head. Horrified, he grabbed his son and scrambled down the mountain to find help. He stumbled into the medical camp serviced by the Antioch Relief Team where a physician said the boy needed brain surgery immediately. Others in the camp had heard that day that the relief-group, Samaritan's Purse, was making medical airlift evacuations. Members of the Antioch Relief Team were able to pinpoint the coordinates of where the helicopter would land and work with others to get the man and his son to the landing. After successful surgery in a hospital in Northern Haiti, the boy is expected to recover fully.

"Here is this mountain man, who doesn't even know for sure his son's age, who stumbles down a mountain right into a place that can arrange for his son to be airlifted out," Smyer said. "To me, that was God's tender, divine hand at work."

Collaboration key

Smyer said she saw examples of that kind of collaboration throughout the week, and she praised the efficiency and coordination CRI brought to the nonprofit groups that had gathered. "They were the greatest servants of all, and at the same time, they were the strongest leaders. They completely tasked us, and we had the ongoing sense of knowing that we were hitting the mark of greatest need every day," she said.

Smyer counseled with a young woman of about 26 who had been cooking dinner in her ground-floor apartment when the five-story building pancaked on her, her husband and their 4-year-old son. Her husband landed on top of their son in an effort to protect him, but the boy died. Three days later, they were dug out of the debris, but in that time the boy had decomposed under his father.

"She came to me and said she thought she was going to lose her mind," Smyer said. "She was very bold with me about her Christian faith, so I shared with her the scripture that came to my mind in that moment: 'In him all things hold together' (Colossians 1:17). So we prayed that God would hold her together - mind, body and soul."

Memorable night

One of Smyer's most memorable stories, though, was of the night she served as a doula, or birthing coach, for a very pregnant woman whose blood pressure had skyrocketed. She arrived with two cousins and her aunt and was going to return home, but the doctor insisted she stay. They made a hospital bed out of a table for her. The two female cousins linked arms and with their backs to the laboring woman's back, they gave her leverage as she pushed through the contractions. Throughout the 22-hour delivery, the cousins softly sang melancholy worship songs to God.

"I could see big tears coming down the mother's cheeks, but I could see the same big tears on the faces of her cousins - yet they could not see each other. They were truly bearing one another's burden," she said. The woman delivered a healthy girl.

"Twice during that night, I tried to leave and go to bed, but God kept telling me to go back, that I had the opportunity to be with someone in their pain," Smyer said.

The woman's birthing experience became a metaphor for the trip and what she experienced in Haiti, Smyer said. "We came alongside people in the birthing process - their relationships, pain, and dreams. It is an excruciating process that leads to new life.

"I was so moved by the resiliency of the people. Maybe because of their many trials, they seem to have muscles of endurance that prepare them to be overcomers in crises like this," she said.

The Haitian voice

Smyer also believes the social workers provides a needed perspective in the rebuilding process by making sure decisions are made with the Haitians and not for them. "Social workers know how to encourage and empower, to be sure the Haitian voice is heard and respected.

"I believe the Haitian people are going to rise up and become a restored nation. I felt God's presence in the Haitian people - their strength and resiliency - and I think that will be the answer; the answer is in them."