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February 2011 • Vol 6 No 11

Class Visits Haiti on Mental Health Mission

In the days and months following last year's devastating earthquake in Haiti, millions of people around the world were eager to help with necessities like food, water and shelter.
Britanee Eckhard M '10

The campus community has counted itself among the many making those efforts, but in January a group of Oswego professors and students took on another necessity — mental health.

"These people are very resilient, they still work every day," Britanee Eckhard '08, M'10 said. "They really don't sit around and cry or talk about it."

The SUNY Oswego group of eight students and three professors offered coping strategies for those dealing with anxiety, loss and grief through a series of workshops.

The group spent more than a week in a country dogged by an outbreak of cholera atop the well-documented trauma of recovering from an earthquake that devastated the capital of Port-au-Prince, killed an estimated 220,000 people, injured 300,000 more and left more than a million homeless.

"It was a place and a time for the entire community to get together and talk," said Eckhard, who participated in workshops aimed at children. "They were able to voice what they felt."

The trip was the culmination of one of the college's key responses to the Haiti disaster, a redeveloped upper-division and graduate-level psychology and counseling and psychological services course for students and professionals titled "Ethnocultural Aspects of Trauma: Focus on Haiti."

Course professors Barbara Streets, Karen Wolford and Roger Brooks first traveled to Petit Goâve to assess the situation. Joshua McKeown, director of International Education and Programs, said the pre-trip was crucial: The college would be sending students to Haiti knowing that the State Department and Centers for Disease Control have advised no unnecessary travel.

"This brings a whole new level of complexity" to study abroad programs, McKeown said. "The situation is very fluid there."

Yet all involved with the course and the effort believe the trip would tie curriculum with travel in a way that would be invaluable to students and their professors.

"Many students no longer want to just go and study in a foreign place — they want to do something," said McKeown, who oversaw four short-term study-abroad opportunities over winter break.

The teachers for the Haiti ethnocultural trauma course began work in the spring by seeking expert help on understanding Haiti and the overwhelming issues of trauma there, and found experts from the University of Kansas, UMass-Boston and the University of Miami.

"We've had the right people helping us," said Streets, whose ties with the Association of Black Psychologists and other professional organizations helped her connect with Guerda Nicolas at Miami. "I think a lot of credit, respect and admiration should be given to Dr. Nicolas for her assistance. What's unique about her is her social justice and work ethic-service to Haitian Americans, the Haitian community in Miami and the nation of Haiti.

"Her cultural competence, expertise and compassion are guiding the delivery of our work. That's what makes her an ideal consultant to work with us," Streets added.

Nicolas, a Haitian-American scholar and department chair at Miami, has helped Streets, Wolford and Brooks develop the course curriculum, understand better the Haitian worldview and create ties with community programs. Nicolas' 15 years of work in Haiti included co-founding multiple projects to help aid workers and the people of Haiti.

"I think in the beginning, it was a chance to learn about a culture outside of my own," Eckhard said. Like so many others who were moved by media coverage of Haiti's ordeal, she also felt the need to help.

"In the end you realize, you're the one who learns the most," she said. "I think I learned more than I taught them."

- Shane M. Liebler and Jeff Rea '71

Amanda LeBeau '10 learns about planting and farming with the Association de Paysans de Vallue (APV). 

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