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A lesson in how to help Haiti from Windham Church

Haiti, January 21, 2010

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Derrick Perkins

Union Leader
January, 2010

WINDHAM – A local church is pitching in to help relief efforts in earthquake-devastated Haiti by collecting donated medical supplies and food from area families, but not everything received passes muster.

"The first bag I opened had bathrobe and some curtains," said Sally Stewart of Windham Presbyterian Church. "Whether it's food or clothing, this is not the place for the jar of pepper jelly that no one else wants. Beans, rice, tuna fish and salmon, those are the things we're looking for. This is not a place for things you're looking to get rid of."

Stewart and a handful of volunteers from her church kicked off their collection drive after meeting with Haitian-American community and religious leaders from across the East Coast on Sunday. Donated goods are sorted by volunteers and then driven to New Covenant Church of Cambridge in Waltham, Mass.

From Massachusetts, the goods are trucked to New York where a waiting cargo plane is scheduled to fly the clothing, basic medical supplies and foodstuffs to the island nation.

Things Haitians struggling to survive after last week's earthquake don't need include sweaters, fruitcakes and, of course, bathrobes, said Stewart.

"Some people have asked about used items, like individually wrapped bandages or extra large Band-Aids and out of the 10 in the box you used one or two and there are eight unused -- that would be fine to send," she said. "This gives people an opportunity to do something hands on, to contribute in terms of food or medical supplies and knowing it will be delivered by hand to the people who need it in Haiti. It's another opportunity and a way to encourage our Haitian-American friends."

Though some groups are collecting material goods to ship to Haiti, most international relief organizations on the ground are asking for financial donations, said Mercy Corps spokesman Caitlin Carlson. A dollar can go a lot further than people think, she said.

"People have really great intentions, but a lot of times when they start collecting those items they don't always fully understand the back end of it all," Carlson said. "They'll say, 'I have some extra items in my home I don't need. Why don't I give that?' What they don't realize is even a small amount of money can go a long way. Ten dollars can provide 20 people with clean water."

Shipping donated goods is expensive, she said, and in some cases the materials may be redundant. If survivors already have been given blankets, it doesn't make sense to collect and send any more, she said.

"The biggest impact is going to be by donating to the bigger humanitarian agencies," Carlson said. "We work with professional emergency responders on the ground. ... They're the ones with the expertise and experience to make the most difference. Supporting their work is how to best help."

Which is why Stewart also is encouraging donors to give money to the Haiti Earthquake Relief Disaster Fund at any Citizens Bank, account number 1316549604.

So far, the Windham Presbyterians have seen an outpouring of support. Despite the occasional bathrobe or sweater, they were busy sorting and packaging much-needed food and basic medical gear yesterday morning.

"I can't imagine not doing it," Stewart said. "I encourage people to give in whatever ways are available to them."