Mary Jo Dunne sees moments of joy and beauty among the destruction left over from the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti.

Mary Jo Dunne sees moments of joy and beauty among the destruction left over from the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti.

They are the same happy events that are celebrated in the United States, she said. A male Haitian friend of Dunne’s and his wife recently had a child. In December, Dunne will attend her Haitian boyfriend’s university graduation – Jimmy’s university had collapsed in the earthquake, so his graduation was postponed.

When she walks into a Haitian classroom, Dunne said she encounters joy among the teachers and students, even if the area is covered with a tarp. These are moments that Dunne, the team leader in Haiti for the Independence-based Outreach International, must allow herself to rejoice in.

In a one-day trip to Independence on Monday, Dunne, 28, shared her experiences as the Outreach International team leader in Haiti, a position she has held since July. The 31-year-old humanitarian organization aims to create long-lasting change in impoverished countries around the world.

Dunne previously worked with the Haitian Project Inc. from 2006 to 2008. A Catholic mission, the Haitian Project supports and operates Louverture Cleary School, a tuition-free, Catholic, co-educational secondary boarding school for economically underprivileged Haitian children.

Dunne received the news in mid-January through a text message from a cousin. “I’m thinking of you and praying of you,” it read. She immediately called her mother, afraid that something had happened to her parents. Her mother mentioned hearing of an earthquake in Haiti, and Dunne started crying.

“I could picture in my head the infrastructure before the earthquake and the buildings, and I knew that it meant that a lot of people were not going to make it,” Dunne said.

Through mutual friends in Haiti, she learned that her boyfriend was safe. Initially, Dunne was told that one of her closest Haitian friends, Christina, had died when her university collapsed. Christina, however, pulled herself out of the building about three days after the earthquake, telling Dunne that she heard scream after scream among the rubble, and as she waited to die, Christina had thanked God for all of the people in her life who had loved her, according to Dunne.

Others Dunne had known weren’t so lucky. She was closely associated with six of the thousands of people who were killed – a colleague, three students and two former students who had become her close friends. Only one received a proper burial, Dunne said. The other five are lost among the disaster’s rubble.

Dunne still mourns the loss of her close friends. She had intended to return to Haiti for work, Dunne said, though not as soon as she did. Her efforts continue because of what her lost friends taught her, she said.

“You have to move forward, and you have to progress. I think that having experience in Haiti helps me to do my job there,” Dunne said. “I love that Outreach International’s plan is a long-term plan for Haiti; it’s not like Outreach is planning to leave Haiti in two or three years. Their long-term vision and mine really sync well together, and that helps me to do my job.”

Her first visit following the earthquake took place in April, and Dunne said she was unsure of what she would see, using TV news clips as the basis of what she might encounter in a country she had called home for two years.

“I wasn’t sure if I was going to go to a place I didn’t even recognize anymore,” she said.

She actually received pleasant surprises through several familiar scenes. Dunne said she saw people working in markets, on roadways, just as they had, but the effect of the earthquake still was present.

“The obvious difference was that there were a lot of buildings that had collapsed that I was used to seeing,” she said. “There was a lot of rubble in the roads and on tops of houses. The grocery store I used to shop at had completely collapsed.”

A cholera epidemic is now sweeping through the capital, Port-au-Prince. The infection causes extreme diarrhea and dehydration and is often transmitted through contaminated food or drinking water. Through a partnership with UNICEF, Outreach International aims to educate Haitian citizens on cholera and how it is prevented. Outreach International has five schools within Cité Soleil, an impoverished and densely populated neighborhood of Port-au-Prince.

Within the next five weeks, however, UNICEF’s and Outreach International’s work will take them to 55 additional schools and to 16,500 children. The organizations will distribute Aquatabs, small water purification tablets that kill microorganisms in an effort to prevent diseases, and bars of soap for proper hand washing. The educational seminars also will tell citizens what they should do if they or family members exhibit symptoms of cholera.

Originally from Chicago, Dunne’s parents now live in Iowa City, Iowa, where she will visit this week for the Thanksgiving holiday. She earned her undergraduate degree in political science at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, and is now completing her master’s degree in public service management through DePaul University in Chicago. Dunne said she will remain in Haiti at least another year through Outreach International.

With Outreach International’s headquarters in Independence and its efforts in countries across the world, Dunne said she would like Eastern Jackson County residents to remember that rebuilding Haiti is an effort that won’t soon go away – and that the destructive earthquake of less than a year ago shouldn’t soon be forgotten.

“This is a situation that’s ongoing,” she said, “and it didn’t start on Jan. 12. There were a lot of problems in Haiti before Jan. 12, and I’m very hopeful that people will continue to remember those in Haiti in their discussions and when they plan their giving.”