‘Called to Serve’

Tragedy in Haiti brings mission of class home to Maryville College students

Partners in Health founder Paul E. Farmer listens to the heart of a young Haitian girl.

Photo by Mark Roseberg/Partners in Health

Partners in Health founder Paul E. Farmer listens to the heart of a young Haitian girl.

When news broke of the destruction and despair following the earthquake in Haiti, Preston Fields’ email lit up.

Not from national news agencies but from students with a desire to serve.

“About as soon as the earthquake happened, I was getting emails from students wanting to respond,” Fields said. Fields, director of Volunteer Services for Maryville College, is teaching a J-Term class entitled “Called to Serve.” Students in the class do 25 hours of community service and discuss activism, politics and how to be civically involved.

The students had been reading “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World.” The book is about Farmer’s work in Haiti and how he helped found Partners In Health.

PIH began in Cange in the Central Plateau of Haiti and has developed into a worldwide health organization. The PIH hospital in Haiti provides free treatment to patients. PIH helps patients living in poverty to obtain effective drugs to treat tuberculosis and AIDS.

When Fields began getting emails from students in his class and from organizations throughout campus wanting to help the people of Haiti, Fields wanted to make sure there was a coordinated effort.

“They really feel engaged, and so many people are interested. I was afraid if we didn’t talk, we would have five different responses,” he said.

After meeting with Fields on Jan. 15 and discussing it among themselves, students from the different organizations set a campus-wide goal of raising $10,000 by the end of the semester to help aid relief in Haiti.

“We’ve got a few projects down. A lot of representatives wanted to go back and talk to their groups but the main point was we established a goal,” he said. “They decided by May they had a goal of raising $10,000 for Haiti.”

Fields said that amount would be raised and forwarded to Partners In Health a portion at a time after each group’s fundraiser. “It will come in bits and pieces,” he said. “I’m going to keep a tally. I’ve already contacted Partners In Health, Dr. Farmer’s non-profit in Haiti, and we’re going to donate to PIH.”

Fields said PIH has already set up a temporary hospital at the quake site. “They have a secure supply line through the Dominican Republic. I feel our money will quickly impact Haiti,” he said.

Fields said he wasn’t surprised when so many students expressed a desire to help the people of Haiti. “I think our students definitely have the passion. They bring that to campus. Our job is to channel that natural passion in ways that are helpful,” he said. “Our students are so kind hearted, it was an immediate reaction…how can we help?”

Erin Calthorn is a member of the American Humanics group and said when she initially heard about the devastation in Haiti, she was horrified. “My family and church have a very close relation with Haiti, and I’ve got a few friends down there. I’m still worried about them because I can’t get in contact with them,” she said. “It is a country that has already suffered so much.”

Calthorn said the different groups on campus got together with Fields and came up with ideas on how to raise the money, including a “Friday Night In.”

“We are going to have a Friday Night In where we ask students to donate any money they would have spent that weekend on drink and food and put it toward the relief fund in Haiti,” Calthorn said.

Calthorn said it would be better to get the money raised sooner rather than later but the relief effort will still need money in the long term. “We’re planning on raising that amount throughout this whole semester,” she said. “It’s a big number, but we are very hopeful and confident we can reach it.”

Fields said the students in the “Called to Serve” class are studying the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains” and by helping in the relief effort, they feel that much closer to the subject matter they are studying. “Not only are we reading about this, we are actual participants in the story,” he said.

Fields said students initially considered abandoning their local community service commitments in order to respond to the emergency.

“All these students are volunteering in the community, and their first response was, ‘Should we stop our community projects and focus on Haiti?’” he said. In the end, they decided to take on the Haiti project in addition to the community service hours they have already promised.

“Being part of a community is about the commitments we have ongoing,” explained Fields. “It’s a good lesson to keep full commitments we have and then work harder because we have this emergency that needs our attention. We want to make the biggest impact we can.”

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