En español | When I was approached about visiting Haiti to assess the impact of AARP's disaster relief efforts following the 2010 earthquake, I reluctantly agreed. My hesitancy almost cost me one of the most memorable and rewarding experiences of my life.
Four years ago, AARP members and AARP Foundation, along with many caring individuals, donated nearly $1.5 million to help meet the needs of older people in the aftermath of the earthquake that took the lives of more than 150,000 Haitians and left 3 million others without food, shelter, clothing or medical care.
Through our relationship with HelpAge USA, the only global relief agency to focus specifically on the needs of older people, we have supported 84,000 Haitians 60 and older — whom the United Nations declared the most vulnerable victims.
When I arrived in Haiti in February with AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson and Debra Whitman, AARP executive vice president for policy, strategy and international affairs, we were overwhelmed by the outpouring of gratitude. Many said they wouldn't have survived without our help.
They called us their "guardian angels," but we explained that AARP members were the real guardian angels. They asked me to tell you how thankful and appreciative they are for the help you provided. They want you to know how important you are to them and their country.
We heard many inspiring stories (see videos below). One that particularly touched me was from a 74-year-old man who walks 14 miles a day to help and "keep an eye on" his less fortunate friends. He started as a "friend" in one of the Older People's Associations set up by HelpAge in the refugee camps. Older people were paid $5 a day to look out for their more vulnerable elderly neighbors. He stopped receiving payments almost a year ago, but he continues to visit his friends.
As part of our visit, we also met Haiti's first lady, Sophia Martelly. She said we had helped make her aware of how much the elderly in her country had been affected by the quake and how much they had been ignored. She pledged to make their welfare a priority.
Perhaps most inspiring to me was that AARP members gave so generously and that, under the direction of HelpAge, the people of Haiti have taken that money and used it — not just as a handout, but as a way to help themselves. Four years after the quake, those donations are still helping people get back on their feet and still helping to rebuild the country.
My reluctance to go to Haiti was surpassed only by my reluctance to leave. At our final stop at the Asile St. Vincent de Paul nursing home, several women in wheelchairs stood up to give us hugs. It was an emotional farewell that left us all wiping tears from our eyes. I was moved not only by their gratitude and resilience, but also by my own sense of pride in leading an organization of so many concerned and caring people who find meaningful ways to give of themselves to help make life better for others. So, from the grateful people of Haiti and from all of us at AARP and AARP Foundation — thank you! You are an inspiration to us all.
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