Intrepid Woman: Mwen regrèt ou gen pou doulè.

Margaret Schramm HornContributed by Margaret Schramm Horn

“Mwen regrèt ou gen pou doulè.” (I am sorry for your pain.)

It was the chant that greeted the redhead American, Ian, who led our team, as we returned patients from surgery to their family and cots.  Ian, an American from Colorado, had been volunteering at the hospital in Jimani, a small town on the Haitian/ Dominican Republic border, since the first evacuations from Port-au-Prince.  Creole is the national language of Haiti, but rarely taught or studied outside of Haiti.  He mastered (and taught us) that simple but heartfelt sentence in their language, and it created an immediate bond between all of us. In that small phrase, we were able to cross cultural boundaries.

I was thousands of miles away from my corporate life. I had just parted company with my former employer, a casualty of the financial crisis. The timing proved perfect to volunteer as a relief worker in the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake.

The work reminded me of what was truly important in life and put some of my challenges in perspective. Even though I had no medical training, there was still much that I could do to make people’s lives better. Small tasks such as sorting the medical supplies and donated clothing that came from around the world, helping the surgeons find the bone screws they needed, contributed in a tangible way to the hospital’s daily accomplishments and efficiency.

The trip provided me with a great grounding, as I decide what to do in the next chapter of my professional life. Such efforts reminded me how essential each team member can be to achieving the larger objective. It is a lesson I will take with me to my next corporate leadership position.

Lessons Learned through Relief Work

When working on teams, we occasionally observe political agendas. If everyone can remain focused on the long term goal, you can get there faster and it’s a much more pleasant trip for all.

Too often we focus on nations’ disagreements with each other, and such arguments can distract us from the greater good. To see caravans of trucks bringing supplies, clothing, food to the Haitians, is to witness the good in people and underscores how much can be achieved if we constantly search for and find common ground.

Projects need resources to be successful, so it is important to make the link between project goals and resource allocation clear to all involved.

These survivors inspired us; they had come through so much, and frequently had just the clothes on their backs. They were grateful for having survived. Before I went to Haiti, I shopped for reasonably priced items that I could easily contribute. When I returned through customs, the agent asked me where my suitcase was. It was February, there was snow on the ground, and I had only a cotton dress and flip flops. I was so touched by the relief effort and the great need of the Haitian people, I left everything behind, my clothes, my luggage and toiletries.

An effective team deploys talents to where they are needed most, and empowers team members to achieve the desired goal.

One afternoon, I was presented with a sixty year old patient waiting for an x-ray, who had been told to fast since midnight the night before, more than 12 hours. When the volunteers learned that I spoke Spanish, they enlisted me to be an intermediary between the Spanish medical team and the overworked x-ray technicians. There had been a mistake; he hadn’t needed to fast, so I asked the technicians if they could take him next. Everyone volunteering wanted to help, so they juggled patients to accommodate the request. Within 45 minutes Carlos was in and out of x-ray, smiling and enjoying his first sip of water.

Being able to communicate real time makes everyone feel more engaged and creates “ambassadors” for the project.

My sister is a 4th grade teacher.  Her school had a “Hats for Haiti” day where the children were allowed to wear their favorite hat to school for a $1 contribution to the Haitian relief. Many of the older children donated allowances and savings, and all-in-all they raised over $400. I set up a twitter account, and took the children on the journey with me (and we did some math problems too):

  • We were leaving xxx driving to yyy; the distance was www kilometers and we were traveling zzz mph; when would we get there?
  • Then an update 40 minutes later; we are now on unpaved roads and our speed has slowed, when will we get there now?

Everyone who tweeted with me knew what I’d done every day. When I had helped move latrines, when I’d worked transport, and when I got the very cushy job of sorting supplies in the air conditioned orthopedic supply room, they were with me. By sharing the experience with me, a Glen Rock, NJ elementary school had become advocates for Haitians.

To be able to make a more meaningful contribution you have to be attentive to your own condition.

Similar to the announcement on airplanes that you need to put your oxygen mask on yourself first before you can help anyone else, you need to prepare before you go into any country that has had a natural disaster.

On a Haitian relief project, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella and polio, typhoid, are the things team members need to protect themselves from. The amount of time, energy and effort to get a sick relief worker out of a disaster recovery area, diverts precious resources away from helping the people that need it most. The same is true with a corporate team. If everyone is attending to a needy team member they are not able to give their all to the project. To excel, every team member must bring their “A” game, every day.

Whether starting to work in a new company, or integrating through a merger, when the road changes, you need to change with it.

Roads wash out, custom check points are backed up with large trucks carrying cargo, and electricity and running water are sporadic. We all need to remember that although this new environment was not one we were used to (or would have preferred) nevertheless it is the new reality and there remain important goals that needed to be accomplished. Creativity and tapping into the talents of the entire team, allowed us to adapt to the new environment to overcome the difficulties presented.

Margaret Schramm Horn volunteered in Haiti and the Dominican Republic with Foundation for Peace.