Pasco High grad trying to help solve effects of Haiti's poverty

Dori O'Neal, Herald staff writerMay 4, 2014 

Bringing hope to Haiti is something Brittany Hilker has been doing since 2009.

The last time the Herald talked with the Pasco High grad was in 2010, when she was a recent transplant to Haiti, working as a volunteer with Hope for Haiti Children's Center, a nonprofit agency.

But within months after her arrival, a devastating earthquake struck the small Caribbean country, killing thousands and injuring thousands more.

Hilker, 29, the daughter of Edie and Fred Olberding of Pasco, decided to make Haiti her home after the earthquake to continue to help solve the effects of the country's rampant poverty.

"Haiti was supposed to be a yearlong experience for me after grad school," she said. "But after living through the earthquake, going through so much with these people and seeing the great need that is here, I couldn't leave."

Today, she helps run a nonprofit agency called Reimagine Haiti.

"Our vision is to work in community with the people we serve by seeking out what they believe they need, not what we believe they may need," Hilker told the Herald in a recent email.

She and a handful of other volunteers live on the southeast coast of Haiti in a grouping of six tiny fishing villages tucked into a mountainside known as Belle Anse.

There are no hospitals and no running water or electricity. The only road to her village is a four-hour trek on a run-down path that only an off-road vehicle can tackle, she said.

"To get to our town, it takes two hours on a small fishing boat," Hilker said. "My two business partners and I are the first Americans to ever live here. Though Haiti has been given so much aid after the earthquake, Belle Anse has been forgotten."

Because of the remoteness, supplies are scarce, so Hilker and her coworkers work with the local Haitians to produce sustainable changes in their living conditions, she said.

"Our organization is all about sustainablity," Hilker said. "We believe that free handouts, as well meaning as they are sometimes, can hurt people and further the cycle of poverty. The only way for true lasting change is to work with the local people in a partnership.

"If we just give out free rice and food to the people in this village, we would be taking away from the local rice farmers. If we did that, we would actually be causing more poverty and malnutrition."

So instead of handing out donated food, Hilker's organization buys clothing and food from the locals, helping them stay in business. Her teams also help locals build schools and teach trade skills so out-of-work Haitians can earn an income, she said.

"The village is full of very smart people, so the schools will get built here one day," she said. "And we will teach the villagers how to build them so they can take pride in that education. That is our mission."

After graduating from Pasco High in 2003, Hilker earned a sociology degree from Whitworth University in Spokane in 2007. Five days after earning her master's in social work at Eastern Washington University, she moved to Haiti.

"I have a 6-year-old Haitian daughter I adopted after the earthquake," she said. "Haiti is home now."

And though her life is materialistically poor, she says it is rich in relationships and love.

"Sometimes the poor are the most giving and happy people of all," Hilker said. "I have so many amazing friends here who have become like family to me. They took me in when I was new in town and taken care of me when I've been really sick.

"These people have patiently taught me their language and every day they continue to help me learn how to live in a different environment, how to open a coconut with a machete, how to thread an oil lamp, how to collect rain water for a bath, how to kill giant tarantulas with a brick, and most of all they have taught me to appreciate simplicity. They love to laugh, tell jokes and stories, they love to sing and dance. They share everything they have, even if they don't have much."

Anyone who would like to donate to the nonprofit, go to www.reimaginehaiti.org.

-- Dori O'Neal: 582-1514; doneal@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @dorioneal

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