En español | The day a delegation arrives at the Asile St. Vincent de Paul nursing home, Sister Claudette Charles' legs are throbbing from arthritis. Even in February, the temperature has hit the 90s by midmorning, the sun is blaring down, and she's wilting from the thick, waist-high circulation hosiery she wears beneath her slate-blue habit. Yet when the AARP delegation arrives, she springs to life, scampering to pump the hands of those she calls her guardian angels.
In January 2010, the nursing home she operates in Léogâne, Haiti, was destroyed by the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that killed at least 150,000 Haitians and smashed houses, businesses, schools and other structures. As many as 30,000 of the seaside town's residents died, 90 percent of the town's buildings were turned to rubble, and bodies were piled deep beneath thick dust. The elderly were often abandoned in tiny clearings, quietly weeping as the children of the village wailed with grief. The nursing home and school that Sister Claudette and the other nuns had helped build over three decades lay in ruins. The devastation "broke my heart," she says.
Within a week of the disaster, AARP members and AARP Foundation, the charitable arm of the association, raised $1.5 million to aid the estimated 84,000 Haitians over age 60 who had been harmed or displaced by the disaster. These people, according to the United Nations, were the most vulnerable victims of the quake. With the donation, AARP Foundation helped fund HelpAge USA, a nonprofit that focuses on the needs of older people and that administered the relief aid from AARP and others.
I covered the earthquake in Haiti four years ago and have been back a dozen times since, several times with my children. In February, my partners at AARP asked me to travel to Haiti to follow the association's leaders — Barry Rand, Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson and Debra Whitman, AARP executive vice president for policy, strategy and international affairs — who wanted to determine whether AARP members' money was spent wisely and well.
In the immediate aftermath of the quake, the donations paid for water, food, shelter, medicine, walking sticks, eyeglasses and clothing. In addition, the program supported medical consultations for more than 9,000 older people at clinics run by HelpAge's health partners, as well as the training of more than 200 home-based caregivers, who paid regular visits to 4,000 of the most frail older people in Haiti's tent camps for refugees of the disaster.
Walking through dusty streets lined with rebuilt structures, Ryerson says the $1.5 million in donations helped with "hunger and housing and isolation and health. In fact, we've achieved some results. That's the inspiring part."
Rand is clearly touched by the still-visible devastation and the response by so many AARP members.
"In the end," he says, "our members want to make sure people are taken care of, if there's a chance to get it done. If it takes a little money, they take the money out of their pocket and they contribute."