Pride marks remarkable mission
The pride and joy was evident in Michael Baer's voice.
It was not a personal pride, although that would have been understandable for the man who led a 16-member delegation from South Adams Schools on a remarkable humanitarian mission to provide clean drinking water to residents of the earthquake-ravaged areas around Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Instead, it was a shared pride that Baer could not contain in a telephone interview earlier this week, just days after returning from the eight-day trip to Haiti. Pride in the accomplishments of seven South Adams teachers — including the school's entire science department — and eight SA students who accompanied him. And pride in the Berne and South Adams community, which collectively donated some $43,000 to make the sojourn possible.
Dubbed Dots in Blue Water, the humanitarian effort was spawned even before a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck the impoverished island nation on Jan. 12, 2010. Already the poorest country in the western hemisphere, according to Baer, Haiti had endured three hurricanes prior to the earthquake, leaving many residents — most of them rural and already poor — without life's basic necessities, including clean drinking water.
In response to those dire circumstances Baer, who heads up the science department at South Adams Schools, coordinated classroom efforts where students helped design and develop portable water purification devices intended to yield 55 gallons of drinking water per minute.
Initial plans called for purification systems to be installed at Nehemiah Christian Academy and perhaps one other location in Haiti. The Nehemiah school was flooded in a 2009 hurricane and initiated the Dots in Blue Water project, Baer said. The goal was to provide the 400 students there with clean drinking water.
But, in the final analysis, the South Adams group accomplished much more, including providing a water purifier that has since been credited with stemming a cholera outbreak and installing purification devices at five separate locations.
Arriving in Haiti on the morning of June 18, after a long flight from Detroit, the South Adams group was lodged at a mission camp operated by Campus Crusade, an international Christian ministry. Baer said the accommodations "totally superseded any of my expectations. It was nicer than I had anticipated; a very comfortable place for Americans to stay."
But, said Baer, only a short distance from that relative comfort were endless examples of the "poverty and starkness" which still engulfs Haiti.
The village of Chambrun, where Baer and the other Adams County travelers were stationed, was similar in size to Berne. But two miles away, up the hillside, was a tent camp of 100,000 residents — a small city where none had existed prior to the earthquake.
"They were called IDPs, or internally displaced people camps. When the earthquake hit, everyone fled the coast and headed to the highlands. And they just stayed there," said Baer. "And the government allowed them to stay. It was a tent city with no infrastructure whatsoever. They were mainly just trying not to die."
A water purification system installed in Chambrun is expected to provide a least some clean drinking water for residents of the tent city.
But it was an unexpected humanitarian mission which may have provided the most satisfying part of the trip for the South Adams contingent. Three days after the group's arrival in Haiti, Baer was informed of a cholera outbreak in the nearby mountain village of Bouzie. Fresh drinking water could possibly help stem the outbreak, he was told.
So Baer and five SA teachers (no students) traveled over roads "that were little more than donkey paths" and hiked the remaining way to where a "sparse and primitive" emergency medical clinic had been established by UNICEF. With them they carried a water purifier. It was installed at the site, providing residents with 450 gallons of purified water capacity.
Since his return to the United States, Baer said he has been contacted by officials in Haiti who told him that the number of new cholera cases in Bouzie has declined from 300 to 25. "They (officials) are optimistic that this new water purification system is getting the job done."
The group from Berne also got an unexpected visit while in Haiti from a high-ranking member of the Indiana legislature.
By pure happenstance, Rep. Brian Bosma, Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives, was in Haiti with a church group from Noblesville that coincided with the South Adams visit. Bosma knew of the South Adams project, courtesy of a statehouse employee who is a South Adams graduate, and made a special effort to stop by the camp and speak with the students and teachers.
"He was so complimentary," said Baer. "He commended our school and our community, and said 'this is what education should be all about.' And I couldn't agree with him more."
Baer said the experience provided students with a living classroom, where on-the-spot problem solving was required. "They had to learn quickly how to operate our systems under less-than-ideal conditions."
But perhaps more importantly, he said, the students "got a big glimpse of life in a Third World country, and that left some lasting impressions."
Baer said the Dots in Blue Water trip "was truly life-changing for so many people, and I want everyone to know how much I appreciate the generosity, support and vision of encouraging South Adams students and teachers to fulfill their goal of making a world of difference.”
In the months and days leading up to the Haiti trip, Baer said he sometimes worried if the cost of the project – which came almost entirely from donations — could be justified.
"But I came back with the feeling that we got so much more bang for our buck than we ever expected. It's still pretty desperate there (in Haiti), but I feel South Adams has done its part."
Taking part in the Haitian trip were South Adams teachers Baer, Myron Schwartz, Josh Roby, Ashley Koons, Jeff Lehman, Kristi Geimer, J.D. Keller and Alissa McMillan.
Participating students included 2011 SA graduates Lindsey Graber, Kylie Cisney, Mallory Eicher and Caylie Yoder, along with Kara DeLong, Kara Siddons, Samantha Schwartz and Gregg Buuck, all of whom will be juniors at South Adams this fall.