Durham professor and his wife help to build hope in Haiti

Durham professor and his wife help to build hope in Haiti

Calendar Icon Oct 30, 2014      Person Bust Icon By Karl Vogel     RSS Feed RSS

Durham professor James Goedert fastens one of the roof joists that were installed at the new Flower of Hope school.
Durham professor James Goedert fastens one of the roof joists that were installed at the new Flower of Hope school.
James Goedert wasn’t expecting to make much of a difference for the people who live on the mountains outside of Hinche, Haiti, when he made his first trip there in 2009.

The professor at the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction had been asked by his wife, Martha Hoffman Goedert, to join her on one of her many trips to help the Haitian people improve their healthcare through Midwives for Haiti.

“I didn’t have a preconceived notion of what I could do,” Jim Goedert said. “My construction skills are better than my engineering skills, so it’s pretty easy to find something to do to help people. I could fix almost anything if I have the tools and parts, so I figured I’d go with Martha and just piddle around.”

But Jim got more than he expected.

“I installed a solar water pump for an orphanage. They had the pumps but didn’t know how to install them,” Jim said. “I was helping around with things like that, but then we started getting involved with the people and, like Martha, I fell in love with them and knew that this wasn’t going to be my last trip.”

In the five years since, the Goederts have helped to improve the lives of the people who live in an impoverished region and forged relationships that keep them longing for their next trip to the tiny Caribbean nation.

Martha, who has a doctorate in health education and is working for UNMC’s College of Public Health, began working in 2005 with Midwives for Haiti, which tries to improve prenatal care for pregnant women and decrease one of the world’s highest infant-mortality rates.

She had convinced James to join her on a trip to Haiti in 2010, but that was before a series of earthquakes – the first and biggest registering at 7.0 on the Richter scale – devastated the nation, killing at least 50,000 people and demolishing or severely damaging close to 300,000 residences and commercial buildings.

More than 50,000 people died, most from injuries received when poorly constructed buildings were leveled by the quakes. The Haitian government, which has no building codes, estimated at least 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial structures were severely damaged or demolished.

Complicating matters was a three-year-long outbreak of cholera that killed thousands more, and a prolonged drought that hit the region near Hinche and made the growing of food and starvation even more prevalent.

After arriving in Hinche, Jim quickly experienced how difficult life is for the mountain people.

“They took us 12 miles outside of town, and we had to drive through two rivers. Not over and not across the rivers, through them,” Jim said. “Then we get out and start walking, three miles through this gorgeous land to get to the school.

“It’s rough, but the children had to make this walk every day to get to school in Hinche.”

Two of their interpreters, Theard and Manno built the three-room Flower of Hope School with tree branches and palm fronds and dirt floors. The hill country school was far enough from the epicenter to survive the earthquakes but was in rough shape.

Jim was asked to help figure a way for the school to provide water for the children and teachers. That was the beginning of a school construction project, which included the recruitment of the Goederts’ friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

When the Goederts returned in 2011, Flower of Hope had a building partially constructed with a rainwater harvesting system installed.

Members of an Omaha Knights of Columbus council later provided funds for doors and a new kitchen and helped to construct a composting latrine.

UNL architecture graduate Christopher Lander worked up the conceptual plans for the addition of three classrooms, and Martin Janousek and Adam Andrews from Leo A. Daly led a team that completed the design and construction drawings.

An alternative to the typical concrete roof design was needed. Jim, with help from structural engineers at Leo A. Daly, devised a wood joist system that could be fabricated on site.

The Goederts returned over Christmas break in 2013 to install the roof. On the flight, they each brought two bags filled to the 50-pound maximum with screws, glue, saws, and connectors.

“We were high-fiving when the roof went up,” Jim said.

Martha spoke to a youth group in Seattle a couple of years ago, and those teenagers decided to spend their spring break helping to pour the concrete floors in the new classrooms.

In June of this year, the Goederts received word that the 14 sixth-graders, the first class to graduate from the school, all passed their government exams. The overall pass rate in Haiti is 50 percent.

Except for plastering the walls, construction on the classrooms is complete, but by no means are the Goederts ready to slow down. They have plans for more projects at Flower of Hope, including building four more classrooms, finding ways to help the school be more self-sustaining in creating energy and developing a small fish farm that would provide more protein to the children’s diet.

“Meeting the people and doing all of this is good for my soul. It lifts me up. It’s why I’ve gotten hooked,” Jim said. “People think I go down there (to Haiti) to help others, but part of it is self-serving in that going there fills my soul. I don’t think anyone could go there and not have it change their life.”