A Peace Corps volunteer and Hernando Christian Academy graduate was pulled out of Haiti in the unrest, but says she wishes she could return.
By DAN DeWITT
Published March 15, 2004
BROOKSVILLE - Leah Statkus did not have electricity or running water in Haiti.
The roads were rutted, and some of the people in her village, Mayisad, didn't have enough to eat.
But Statkus, a Peace Corps volunteer from Brooksville, has one main message to share about Haiti.
"It's not that bad," she said.
Statkus is in position to know. She was one of 74 volunteers the corps pulled out of Haiti last month as U.S. Marines were arriving and former President Jean-Bertand Aristide was departing. Statkus had completed half of her two-year term of service.
The Peace Corps took this action because it feared it would not be able to support volunteers who were spread throughout the country. But Statkus said she did not feel threatened and neither did most of the people she worked with.
"I never felt at all unsafe," she said. "The whole country is not on fire."
Some news reports make it seem that way, she said, and they tend to portray Haitians as people who thrive on looting and political violence.
In fact, only a tiny percentage of the country's 8-million residents have taken an active role in the current struggle for power. Residents of Mayisad, Statkus said, were interested in politics for the usual reasons: They want basic services and the freedom to work and raise families.
"Especially out in the provinces, people just want to get on with their lives," she said.
Statkus, 22, who graduated from Hernando Christian Academy in 1998, was disappointed that she had to leave, but not by much else during her stay in Haiti.
She had developed an intense interest in international politics while studying at Rollins College in Winter Park. She joined the Peace Corps shortly after graduation in 2002 and arrived in Haiti in February of last year.
After three months of studying and living with a Haitian family, she became fluent in Creole, a mixture of French and African languages. She then traveled to Mayisad, in Haiti's central plateau region, to build programs there.
She had help from Save the Children, a nonprofit agency, but worked largely by herself, she said, teaching about the dangers of AIDS to teenage girls and urging them to seek education and opportunities beyond the future most of them imagined: early marriage, subsistence farming and domestic chores.
"I guess I wanted them to think of bigger than was sometimes encouraged by their families," Statkus said.
She revived an AIDS education program called Club Cool. She started a career counseling group, giving it the name Fanm Djanm, Creole for "strong woman."
"It was basic women's empowerment," she said.
Besides helping girls secure better work and education, she tried to make it fun, including singing, dancing and occasional games of soccer, a national passion from which girls are usually excluded.
"The girls are home doing chores, and the guys don't have chores," she said.
She thinks she was successful partly because of her age.
"I wasn't like some grandmother lecturing them about condoms," she said.
But she also connected with the villagers because, despite their hardships, they managed to be decent, welcoming "and funny," she said. "Haitians have such a great sense of humor."
The Creole word for making jokes is "bay blag," she said. Joking eased the unpleasantness of even the most brutal experiences, such as riding on boulder-strewn roads in the converted pickups that are rural Haiti's only form of public transportation.
"You get in the worst tap-tap in the country, and they'll laugh about it," she said.
She formed close friendships with the Haitian agronomist who was her contact with Save the Children and a local math teacher in town who gave her drumming lessons.
Though the Peace Corps discourages its volunteers from talking about politics, she said, it was obvious the government was failing in basic ways.
The condition of the roads turned the ride to nearby Hinche - only a few miles away - into an hourlong ordeal. Because teachers were not paid, they sometimes did not show up to teach. Because students could not depend on their teachers, they often quit coming to school themselves.
During the rainy season, the town shared a well that provided relatively clean water. But from January to July, most residents drank from the river.
"It's frustrating to see the people suffer when you know what better government could do," Statkus said.
From her experiences and observations, she learned firsthand what previously had been an abstract idea: the importance politics plays in people's daily lives. It left her determined to go to graduate school, where she intends to study international relations.
Before returning to school, though, she wants to continue in the Peace Corps. She had the option of leaving the corps, waiting to return to Haiti, or signing up for a second two-year assignment.
She has chosen the third option and will be traveling to Africa in the summer.
She made that decision, though, mostly because she was not sure when she would be able to return to Haiti. Her real preference would have been to finish her job there.
Leaving was especially frustrating, she said, because she was in a routine training program in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, when she was informed she would be leaving the country. She and other volunteers boarded a bus that took them to the neighboring Dominican Republic, and then an airplane to Washington, D.C.
She never had a chance to collect her belongings, including her photographs and journals, she said. "And I never got to say goodbye."
Also, she said, the Peace Corps emphasizes building sustainable projects, ones that can carry on after the volunteer has left the area. Because of her short time there, Statkus said, she worries for the future of those projects, and for the town as a whole.
"I feel like I abandoned my community," she said.
But she didn't really, she knows. And she also knows that even if the programs she started don't continue, the lessons will.
"If you give people education, that's always sustainable," she said.
"I know that everything I taught, you can't take that away."