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A continuing effort to answer an elusive, multi-billion-dollar question: "After Haiti's devastating earthquake, where did the aid money go?"

La Pointe Haiti aid
Children receive food and drink at a meal distribution site organized in La Pointe, a small town outside Port-de-Paix on Haiti's North Coast, by Ketlye Theodore and other volunteers. Theodore, 42, travels regularly to Haiti with donations and goods to offer direct support to the needy and poor. (Ketlye Theodore/Courtesy)

Haitian diaspora reaches back home

Smaller aid efforts succeed where the large agencies fail.

BOSTON — After returning from her annual trip to Haiti last July, Ketlye Theodore stood before a church congregation on a rainy Sunday to recount the misery she witnessed during her two-week stay. Her voice rose and dropped, punctuated with the amens of the crowd.

She spoke about the seemingly permanent post-earthquake tent housing, listless adults and children with nothing to eat, lacking the most basic necessities.

“If you go to Haiti, you’re going to cry every day,” she said later.

Each year, the 42-year-old nursing assistant spends hundreds of dollars on soap, toothpaste and other toiletries and collects bundles of clothing and shoe donations in preparation for the trip. Theodore said during these trips she also carries thousands of dollars in cash, held by safety pins in the folds of her undergarments.

Often, the money she gives away is her own but a few months before each trip she solicits small donations from friends, work colleagues and fellow members of the Haitian Church of the Nazarene, which she attends in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood. Even five dollars goes a long way, said the mother of three, and people are usually happy to give. They’re happier still when she returns with pictures showing how their contribution was used.

“When God asks you to do something, you do it, but you cannot change Haiti.”
~Ketlye Theodore

Once Theodore arrives in Port-au-Prince, a pit stop on her way to her family’s home in Port-de-Paix on Haiti’s north coast, she converts the US dollars into the local gourde currency, separates the money into envelopes to distribute on the eve of her return.

The distribution is usually preceded by a huge meal of rice and chicken, spaghetti and bread that she organizes under a tarp in her grandfather’s yard for more than 300 people. “It’s a big job,” she said, but one she does willingly as part of her duty as a devout Christian.

Theodore welcomes orphans, families, the displaced and the homeless: basically anyone in need. All are welcome to join the worship service that accompanies the meal, usually led by a local pastor and filled with singing and prayer, an important part of the social fabric in a country where 80 percent of the people are Catholic.

“Since the earthquake, it’s getting worse in Haiti,” Theodore said in accented English. “When God asks you to do something, you do it, but you cannot change Haiti.”

Theodore’s account of the annual pilgrimage she has made since 1998 to feed stomachs and souls, which also includes visits to prisons and hospitals, is similar to that of many Haitians living abroad. But these trips, a staple of the more than 500,000 members of the Haitian diaspora in the US, have taken on more significance since the January 2010 earthquake.

More than a critical lifeline connecting Haitians abroad to the island, trips home now fill in some of the cracks where billions in aid donors pledged in the aftermath of the disaster have yet to reach two years later. A host of factors — ranging from Haitian bureaucracy to an ongoing cholera epidemic to lack of NGO coordination to hampered rubble removal — seem to stymie even the largest agencies even as they continue renewing their funding pledges.

Variations on Theodore’s story are familiar in the Haitian church community and so too are the warning tales. In November, the US State Department warned citizens traveling to Haiti about kidnappings, which numbered 12 in the last year along with 82 reported robberies, an improvement from the 60 reported kidnappings of US citizens in 2006.

The story of a Haitian-American woman on a church-affiliated trip who was robbed, kidnapped and held for ransom circulated widely among churches in Boston this summer. And although her mother and brother confirmed the kidnapping reports, the woman declined an interview request by GlobalPost, citing the trauma she’d experienced as well as the ongoing investigation.

Even Theodore said the desperation was palpable when she last visited. Violent fights broke out during the food distribution. On her next trip, she plans to contact the police for help beforehand. “If someone gets hurt, it will be my responsibility,” she said.

Not everyone agrees these piecemeal efforts make the kind of difference