You may have read last month’s story about John Giangrieco’s trips to Haiti. Or you may have heard about it Friday when Commonwealth Health Systems donated medical supplies for the Misericordia University freshman’s fourth journey to the western hemisphere’s poorest nation.
What you didn’t read was a letter from the religious sister who got the 18-year-old so involved that he keeps returning to a place where a baby he held one day died the next, where people dump trash in a river used for bathing, and where the need is so great the visits “never get any easier.”
Giangrieco credited Sister Brigid O’Mahoney, whom he met as a student at Seton Catholic Central High School in Binghamton, N.Y., with instilling the commitment to service that propels him toward a nursing degree, and back to Haiti.
Sister Brigid sent the author of that story a letter, and her focus was on a point only briefly mentioned in the April article: Robert Lupton’s book, “Toxic Charity.” Lupton argues most “service trips” to poor countries by American volunteers are one-off affairs that help neither the natives nor the volunteers. The former, he contends, would benefit more if the money spent on air fare and other costs went directly toward locals working to improve themselves; the latter, research suggests, quickly forget their experiences and go back to their daily lives unchanged.
Giangrieco’s commitment defies that argument, and Sister Brigid explained why. Her group, she stressed, works to avoid the pitfalls of damaging “the people we are trying to help.” It is a philosophy best left in her own words.
“Our work in Haiti operates from the perspective that aid must be consistent, sustained and provided by the local people. We place ‘orphaned children’ in homes with parents, almost always their own. Failing that, we seek and support extended family to care for the children. If no extended family exists we incorporate children into families we know and trust. We have no orphanages.
“Our medical clinics are staffed entirely by Haitian doctors and nurses. Our entire staff, for all our work in Haiti, is Haitian. And, they are the ones who coordinate services, hire and manage staff, propose new or expanded services, assist the children, etc. In other words, the Haitians are in charge. When we are in Haiti the people served have no idea who we are. And we intend to keep it that way.
“Hopefully we are communicating our philosophy of service to the students we take to Haiti. Hopefully, they are learning to accompany the nationals, not dominate them. Hopefully, our kids come to recognize that service to others is a commitment and not just an experience.”
Sister Brigid and Giangrieco are, in short, doing charity right. They do not fly in to paint an orphanage and drop off supplies before heading home and feeling good about themselves. They keep going back to build a system of local aid that sustains itself. It is the right way to view charitable efforts that are not emergency responses.
As she put it, the goal should always be to practice “ways and methods of helping that are actually helpful.”