Katie Riley Lends Haiti a Helping Hand
Katie Riley, a Communication Studies major at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, took her first trip to Haiti in July 2007 with a group of fellow students, and has since been active with a group known as the Haiti Outreach Program. Katie, 19, is active in raising funds and awareness for the country. Katie tells Teen Voices about her passion for helping Haiti recover from the January 2010 disaster.
Teen Voices: What is the Haiti Outreach Program?
Katie: The Haiti Outreach Program has its origins in Sacred Heart Cathedral in Knoxville. It started about ten years ago at Sacred Heart when Pope John Paul II made a calling to all the Catholic churches in the world and said that they need to help the poorest of the poor. Sacred Heart started a Haiti outreach mission that [has grown to] include other churches in Knoxville, students in high school in Knoxville, students at the University of Tennessee, and local businesses that are collaborating to fix the situation in Haiti.
Teen Voices: What has the Haiti Outreach Program done for Haiti following the earthquake?
Katie: We have set up a disaster relief fund, and we've accepted a lot of donations through that fund that are going directly to Partners in Health. I can't even count how many nice things I have to say about Partners in Health. They are an amazing organization. They had a huge presence in Haiti long before the earthquake, and they are basically taking over all the medical care in Haiti now. That's where our emergency funds are going.
In terms of anything else, we really haven't changed our mission since the earthquake. We've set up an opportunity for people to donate specifically to emergency relief if they want to. But our whole outlook on the situation in Haiti is that they've needed help for years, and they're going to need help for a lot longer. We're working on rebuilding and making it sustainable for the people there when the earthquake isn't in the news anymore "“ in six months or a year when something else has happened, when people are forgetting that this earthquake even occurred. When something bigger or better has come along, we're still going to be there doing what we've always been doing.
Teen Voices: What is your role in the Haiti Outreach Program?
Katie: Managing our blog, Facebook, Twitter, and updating our website when something needs to be changed. I also do a lot with student involvement. I love working with my peers and I love working with high school students and really seeing what this generation can bring to the table in terms of non-profit organizations. I've sort of taken over trying to bring students to our program and give them ways to get involved.
Teen Voices: You've been involved with the program for five years. So what kind of projects have you been helping out with?
Katie: The majority of my involvement was in the Haiti Club at my high school. We did a lot of fundraisers. We've done bake sales with no-bake cookies that look like mud cookies. With every cookie we sold, we would give them a copy of an article that was written about a mother in Haiti who made real mud cookies because that was all she could give her child could eat; a stomach full of dirt is better than an empty stomach. I've also volunteered every summer at our annual medical benefit. It's probably the biggest fundraiser the Haiti Outreach Program does. Every summer we host a medical benefit with a dinner and updates with what's gone on throughout the year. Any funds raised that night are matched by Partners in Health and that's what supports our clinic in Haiti.
Teen Voices: For a 19-year-old, you do a lot "“ and you're a student! What does volunteering mean to you?
Katie: Nothing prepared me for what I saw in Haiti. There is no way that I could have possibly gone down there and seen the conditions and come back and not cared. I am a student and I have a job and I have friends in the States and I can't just go to Haiti and spend all my time there. But volunteering in the States has given me a way to know that I am supporting them, know that I am connected to that country, and know that even though I'm not there and even though I'm not hands on, I'm not forgetting what they need.
Teen Voices: How many times have you been to Haiti? Tell our readers about your first experience.
Katie: I've only been twice. Being there was the weirdest experience because there are so many things you never think of. When I get up in the morning, I don't think it is weird that I can take a 30-minute shower if I want to. You can't do that there. I take for granted that I can put on shoes, or turn on a light to read a book before I go to bed. None of that happens in Haiti.
Teen Voices: How can teens get involved with the Haiti Outreach Program?
Katie: For those interested in Knoxville, we're always looking for volunteers at our events. We're always looking for more students that want to tell their friends about it at their high school and start a Haiti Club at their school. I think my biggest answer for anyone not in [Knoxville] is, "stay aware." Stay up-to-date. Just being informed about what's going on makes a huge difference. You're never going to be able to help a situation if you don't know anything about it. Spread the word and keep the awareness going. I think that's one of the biggest ways anyone can help out.
Teen Voices: What kind of response has your organization received from the community since the earthquake?
Katie: We have gotten such an outpouring of generosity from everywhere. Anyone that has found out about our organization has asked us, "How can I help? What can I do?" So many people are so passionate now about trying to help the people in Haiti since this earthquake. It's been an amazing and humbling response.
Teen Voices: What do you find is the most rewarding part of helping Haitians?
Katie: I would get letters from Haitian people that remembered me from the first time that I went there. When another student trip went after mine, I would get a letter addressed to "Katie Riley" from people I met there, and I kept in touch with them. It would be a rewarding experience to be working with these people either way, but especially when I know that I personally had an impact on one person's life. I have names to put with the country. It's not just the Haitian people, it's Diego, Joseph, or Julio. It is really cool to not only have helped them out but to have actually built relationships and friendships.
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