I want to go to Haiti.
This was how every call seemed to start. I’d answer the phone and the person on the other end, male or female, young or old, would tell me they wanted to go to Haiti to volunteer.
And I would tell them no.
In the summer of 2009, I had joined the flood of cast-offs torn from safer shores by the global economic collapse, joined them poring over Craigslist job postings and sitting primly in ill-fitting business-wear in temp agency offices. I spent that summer balanced against lampposts and building facades, switching from flip-flops to sweaty Payless pumps at the last possible second, stuffing the flip-flops deep into my bag and hoping they didn’t smell. Among the jobs I interviewed for: dental office front desk; admin for a babysitting company; personal assistant to a musical theatre composer. I spent two temp agency weeks putting labels on file folders at Ann Taylor’s corporate offices, hiding the cord of my headphones under my blouse so I could listen to podcasts while I worked, so maybe the monotony wouldn’t drive me insane.
I had applied for jobs in what I’d thought was my career field, too, my little life’s calling. But only about nine jobs in new play development existed in the city; one was open. My two years of experience at the job I had lost rendered me overqualified.
At the end of the summer, a friend forwarded a job listing from her office. “I don’t know if this is something you’d be interested in, but just in case?” She had left a career in fundraising for nonprofit theatres for one fundraising for this medical aid organization. And this organization needed someone, now, to answer the phones.
In theory, of course, I was a big supporter of humanitarian aid. Very glad it existed and all that. But I’d never thought about it with any more specificity. I had never felt compelled to leave the nonprofit arts for a true charity. That had been a thing for other people to do. My friend coached me through convincingly feigning a longstanding and specific interest in this organization’s work. The HR manager called to offer me the job in the middle of one of those midday naps of the somewhat-employed.
I was told on my first day that I could bring a book to read at the desk, feel free to check my e-mail or browse the Internet. It’ll get busy around tax season and at the end of the year, they said, but other than that it shouldn’t be anything stressful. Donors would call with questions, potential applicants would call baffled by the online application. Aid workers would come to our office, returning fresh from the field, six months in Sudan or somewhere like that, and I would be the first face they would see.
The job was part-time, but enough hours to qualify me for health insurance and paid me more than my old full-time job in theatre. I had never felt so taken care of by an employer.
The other part-time receptionist walked me around the office for introductions. I met men and women from all corners of the world—a doctor from New Zealand, a nurse from the Netherlands, a program coordinator with the gummy accent of southern France—all drawn to New York, now, for this. A sandy-haired Australian man, built like a Disney cartoon hero, ran Field Human Resources, the recruitment and hiring of the scores of medical and logistical workers stationed around the world, saving lives. There were Americans, too; some had been to the field, some hadn’t. Some were just there for a nice job with nice moral implications. About eighty people worked there. I had absolutely no confidence that I would remember any of their names.
They all smiled and welcomed me, but I felt very small when I sat down at the front desk.
I started in October. I got the hang of the phone system, got the hang of a job that I could leave entirely behind at the office. A perfectly nice job that had no impact on the rest of my life—this was new to me, and the stillness it lent to the rest of my life was appealing. Life was on hold. I was figuring things out, or would, eventually.
I wish I could say I read a lot of novels with all that time at the desk. Instead I read a lot of the Internet.
Things got a little busy just before New Year’s with end-of-year donations, and then the holiday ended, and the office exhaled.
A few months after I started, the office manager went on leave. The other receptionist took over that job, and I went full time to fill the gap. The part of this that matters is that there would be two trained receptionists full-time in the office when the earthquake hit.
I learned about the earthquake less than an hour after it occurred, from a phone call. No memos had gone out yet. No announcements. Just a phone call almost at the end of the day from a girl who sounded about my age.
“Hi, my friend’s working with you guys in Haiti—I just heard there was an earthquake there? And I wanted to make sure she’s okay.”
I didn’t know anything, but my protocol for a question about someone working in the field was to send the call back to Field Human Resources. I don’t know if anyone was even still there to answer the call. Ten or fifteen minutes later I put the phones on night service and headed home.
Leaving the office I rejoined the world, and that was where I got my news. In the little bubble world of work you know details. In the little bubble world of work you know people on the ground, one degree of separation away. In the whole world you get facts and figures from Anderson Cooper and wait for pictures from the newspaper and TV.
At 4:53 p.m. local time on January 12th, 2010, local in Haiti and local in New York, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake occurred with its epicenter just east of the town of Leogane, about sixteen miles west of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince.
Over the next two weeks at least fifty-two aftershocks above magnitude 4.5 would be recorded. 250,000 homes and 30,000 commercial buildings were severely damaged or destroyed. The eventual report would be 316,000 people dead, 300,000 injured, and one million people homeless.
The earthquake felt like everything then. Big news, the kind no one forgets. But it all blurs and fades. I don’t know if I’d even remember it at all if I hadn’t been answering the phones. I don’t expect anyone to be fresh on the details. I had to look them up myself.
The next morning I listened to the BBC news on the radio while I dressed for work. I took in the news with disorientation tinged with expectation, that this distant catastrophe would somehow have to do with me, that I would have a part to play. Rather than my usual jeans-and-whatever, I put on a skirt,tights, and black oxfords, and I walked in the office door that morning with purpose. At least before I took the phones off night service, before the deluge began, at least then I felt like a Serious Lady in my Serious Attire, ready for Serious Work.
When I got to work I didn’t notice the office feeling busier than usual, yet. I made my morning rounds. As always there were a few people in early; I turned on whatever hallway lights were still darkened. I emptied the office dishwasher. I had once told my mother that I did this when describing the job, and she had echoed, “You empty the dishwasher?” with a little bit of disappointment and disbelief. But the way I looked at it, my co-workers were doing good and noble work in the world, and if I could help make sure they had clean mugs for their coffee, so be it.
I sat at my desk at the front of the office. I opened up my email, and as the night’s memos and messages started to load, I pushed the little button that opened up the phones. And the phones started to ring.
Are you going to Haiti?
Everyone asked. We already had teams there, had had projects in Haiti for the last nineteen years. (Our staff was all okay—they had checked in overnight—but one of our hospitals was damaged beyond structural safety.) Any country that has needed international medical aid for the last nineteen years is not primed for a quick recovery. But we were there, yes, on the ground. I’d like to make a donation. I transferred them, or gave the address to mail a check, and hung up and the phone rang again. I’d like to make a donation. I want to go to Haiti.
I hung up. The phone rang again. The phone rang while I was still on the phone, all ten lines lighting up. We were an office, not a call center. Not the rows and rows of phones that were the backdrop to the president’s Red Cross photo op. If he’d come to be photographed with us—to deliver morale and a donation boost—it would’ve just been me and the other receptionist, just our ten lines and two phones, ringing all at once.
More timezones woke up; more people saw the pictures on the news; more people called.
Updates came from all sides of the office—fundraising, communications, field recruitment, operations—and I read for updates, this privileged information, but I read to build my script, too. It’s been years now but I can still rattle it off:
Right now we’re only taking people who have worked with us before, just our most experienced staff.
Yes, you can make a donation just for Haiti
Let me transfer you to someone in our press office.
Around five p.m. that first day, a day full of adrenaline and the discovery of what this thing would be, two lanky Frenchmen from the office—the head of field communications and the head of operational programs—headed out the door with something like seven laptop cases hanging off their shoulders. I asked where they were going, and one of them answered in a thick French accent that gave the word three syllables: Haiti. And then they were out the door. I felt proud. I sat up a little straighter in my chair, leaned forward toward the door after they were gone.
I left that first day exhilarated and exhausted. I met my boyfriend for Thai food near the office. It was maybe the first day at this job that had left me with anything interesting to say. Something important was happening in the world, and thanks to nothing more than luck and a pleasant phone demeanor, I was part of it. As I told my boyfriend about my day, a part of me looked around to wonder if any of the other diners might hear my front desk stories and take note of my immediacy to the crisis. I wasn’t even sure that my immediacy was worth noting, but I wondered if someone else might think it was. I soothed my nerves with pad Thai and went home and straight to bed.
For the next week and a half, the phones rang relentlessly. I ordered a headset for my phone; my hands were liberated and my neck un-cricked, but sometimes it felt like the callers were inside my head. The phones rang so much that even with double receptionist coverage, we couldn’t leave the desk. Nonstop, all lines at once. Co-workers brought food to us trapped at the front desk: chocolate-covered almonds, pizza, a clementine dropped off with a blown kiss.
On the second or third day, once it became clear that this was not a quick spike of call traffic, we started training each department’s assistant to be able to cover the phones. I typed up a cheat sheet—the answers to common questions, which calls got transferred to whom, the basic scripts. It felt good to know what I was doing. After months feeling like a quiet imposter in this world, I had knowledge to share, and could help people.
They called with questions, but mostly they called with things to give. Supplies, medicine, time. And my job was to say no.
No, we can’t take your old blankets. We have blankets, we have a logistics warehouse in France full of them. No, can’t take your expired prescription medications. Even if they are unopened. Even if they are still wrapped. Yes, people in Haiti need medicine. People everywhere need medicine. But the human and financial expenditure to organize and make uniform a thousand people’s leftovers far outstrips the simple cost of buying the stuff ourselves, in nice, disaster-ready assemblies. Sometimes people understood. What you really need is money? Great, then: credit card or check? But mostly they didn’t want to hear that what they had to offer—supplies, medicine, healing herbs—wasn’t needed.
On one of the calmer calls, a woman donating money said, “We only give when there’s an emergency.” She also said, “We want to feel that we’re doing something right.” Everyone wanted to feel better, and I couldn’t help them.
It was harder convincing the volunteers. I’m a nurse. I speak Creole. I speak Spanish. I have two hands and want to go. The endless refrain in the newspapers and on TV was the dire need for help. People were trapped under buildings. People were dying. People were dead. And there was not nearly enough help. We weren’t even a volunteer organization; our field staff got hired and paid. But how could volunteers not be needed?
It didn’t matter if I explained that we were only taking our most experienced staff into this emergency relief situation. It didn’t matter that we had scores of experienced American field workers ready to get on planes, but limited supplies, limited resources in Haiti, limited access to get in. Everyone wanted to feel better about the situation. Everyone wanted to help. The island was close, the devastation was horrific. I understand how it seemed illogical. Worse, how it seemed like I was sentencing people to die because I was denying them help.
When I explained why they couldn’t volunteer, people yelled at me. Called it arrogance that we wouldn’t take them. Arrogance rather than prudence for not just putting anyone who wanted to help on a plane and dropping them off in Port Au Prince with a pair of gardening gloves, in front of what used to be an apartment building or market or school and saying, “Go to it! Good luck!” I think this is what people really wanted.
I’m sorry, sir, if you’d like to apply to work with us, you can go to our website, under “work in the field.”
With our organization, you’re not able to apply to work in a specific country, but you apply to work with us in general.
The application and screening process can take several weeks or months.
One man answered, “A few months? It’ll be over by then!” He wasn’t getting the internal memos, he hadn’t been filled in on the years of work we’d been doing in Haiti, the great needs that two decades of interventions could not meet. And now an earthquake on top of that. But I probably would’ve thought the same thing if I hadn’t been sitting at that desk.
I know that what you’re seeing on the news is horrific, and you want to help, but we can only take staff whom we’ve trained, we can’t take more people than we can put to work.
Perhaps it felt easier for me to say no because it never would have occurred to me to volunteer. If I had been a nurse, sure, maybe. But I wasn’t a nurse. But neither were many of the people calling, with their bags already half-packed. I was talking sense to them—come back to reality where you and I stay here, where we watch the news and donate ten dollars by sending a text.
It was only an accident that I was working where I was, that I had any involvement— any awareness, even—at all. Yet, there I was, the little gatekeeper.
I spent ten minutes on the phone with one girl. She was ready to fly to the Dominican Republic and walk straight across Hispaniola to the wreckage.
“It’s not that we don’t need help, it’s not that the situation isn’t dire. But even if you were able to hitch a ride from the Dominican Republic, think of the whole picture.Where will you sleep? How will you get water to drink? What will happen to you if you, hitch-hiker and unaffiliated, get sick or hurt?”
There was a lull in the calls and she was breaking my heart, so I managed to stay on the line. She couldn’t tell me how she would find drinking water for herself – she said questions like that were keeping her up at night. By the end, I think I convinced her not to go. I hoped so.
When there was a full-office briefing, everyone filed into the biggest conference room we had. There were updates from every department—logistics, fundraising, press—and news from teams on the ground. But we two receptionists stayed at the phones, answering the nonstop calls. It felt right, I was doing my work. But it also felt a bit lonely. I was running interference so everyone else could hear about the work, so the work could get done.
One small brightness in all this was the organization we recommended to people wanted to donate prosthetic limbs. That organization was called A Leg to Stand On. Enough people called wanting to donate prosthetics that a woman from A Leg to Stand On called to thank us for all the donations we were sending their way. A Leg to Stand On. I never stopped loving that name.
Early on, our supply planes were blocked from the one runway in Port Au Prince, displaced for U.S. military planes or, one time, American press. We put out a news release decrying the congestion, and although the issue was resolved within days, concerned and misinformed calls came in long after. Have your planes been able to land? Oh good. Sometimes people didn’t believe me when I said yes. Oh, but I heard—and I’d say, Ma’am, I promise. One man offered his connections with the CIA. Something about the Pentagon that I never understood. Something about Cuba. I made wide, help-me eyes at the other receptionist while I calmly said, “No, sir, I don’t know what’s going on with the Cubans. But thank you for your help.” He called a few times—I think he thought that he had cleared the runway himself.
The calls were so strange that I started taking notes, recording scraps of this world in which I’d unexpectedly found myself, wanting to save each ephemeral token of humanity.
“I only had seventy dollars to live on, so I donated fifty.”
“Haiti doesn’t need me. The mountains need me. The hills need me. The children need me. I’m not interested in Port au Prince. Port au Prince has enough. I’m saying what’s going on in the mountains. I’m saying when you have 200,000 people in the mountains and seventeen doctors. I’m an intelligent man. I can add.”
“God bless you.” To which I couldn’t help but answer, “You too.”
I sorted the massive bags of mail our postal carrier was bringing. Donation checks had to be forwarded along to be processed; envelopes that were not obviously either donations or correspondence had to be opened. We weren’t able to answer the unsolicited letters, but I read them.
“Please accept the funds (5,115 US), 77 from scrap metal, 28 from deposit refund bottles/cans (Perrier & Orangina work!) 5,000 from my vacation plan for 2010.”
“For your consideration. I have three weeks vacation last week March first two April. I am a union electrican and have worked in harsh environment doing new construction… Temperatures as high as 122F (50C).” [sic].
“I could help you rebuild your operations in Port au Prince Haiti.”
“I do not speak French but could take a crash course using ‘Rosetta Stone.’”
“I could brush up on my morse code with the Amateur Radio Relay League in Connecticut.”
“The only negative aspect is I am suffering from depression. Which I have learned to live with during the past five years.”
“Keep going no matter what.”
I started to lose my voice during the first week. That day or the next I took a nap in the server closet, wrapped up in my puffy red winter coat. It wasn’t a secret—I think I told my boss, “I’m going to lie down for ten minutes in the server closet.” But the time was a thing I snuck, stolen from the people calling who needed so much from me.
People in shirts bearing the logo that was stenciled on the wall behind my desk were performing life-saving surgeries in tents. People were trapped under rubble. I was safe and warm in an office.
But my coworkers were bringing me food, and they were thanking me. They were admiring my work. They said, over and over, I don’t know how you do it. These were people who had worked in the field, who advocated at the UN, who did real and important things in the world and were daily saving lives. I knew I was working maybe the hardest I ever had, but that couldn’t be a universal measure.
People who entered the office as receptionists and assistants often left to go work in the field. One communications assistant left for nursing school so she could work in the field, the programs assistant went to Uganda as a logistician, the field human resources assistant who’d been the receptionist before me left for the brand new nation of South Sudan. Even my friend from college, who worked in corporate fundraising, spent a month in Uganda. Field workers coming through the office would ask me this, the given small-talk, So when are you going to the field? After the earthquake my coworkers started asking me, too. But my answer started with a vigorous shake of my head. Oh no. Not me. Not ever. I’m good at organizing, good at getting things done—I probably have what it takes to make a decent field coordinator. Except for the part about the field. I’d laugh it off, saying, I’m too attached to warm showers and not having sand in my food. But the truth went deeper. I wasn’t strong enough to hack it. I knew how hard things were in the field, I knew a little about the horrible things going on in the world, and I knew I couldn’t handle them face to face.
I could intercept the crazy phone calls, though. I could lighten the load for the human resources team placing doctors and nurses in the field, the fundraisers making the work possible, the communications team letting the world know. I could answer the easy questions that were hard because of their volume, and I would accept my co-workers’ thanks for this.
When donations are earmarked for a specific country or cause—in this case I was relaying to donors that they should write “Haiti earthquake” on their checks—the organization legally cannot use them for anything else. It took two weeks for donations for the earthquake to reach our projected two-year budget for the response. Our executive director’s thinking was that even though we would be in Haiti for years and years to come, people restricting their donations to Haiti right now wanted their money to go to the emergency earthquake response. More than two years out, our work in Haiti wouldn’t be that.
We took the option to earmark for Haiti off the website’s donation form, to slow the restricted donations down. But the stymied donors just picked up their phones, and I had to add a new script to my repertoire:
We’re actually no longer taking online donations specifically for Haiti, but you can donate online to our emergency relief fund. This fund is for emergencies such as the earthquake in Haiti, and also emergencies that are less in the media spotlight. It’s this fund that allowed us to respond immediately to the situation in Haiti without having to wait for specifically earmarked donations to come in, and it will also allow us to respond immediately to whatever happens next.
Four out of five times they’d let me finish my spiel and say, Yeah, but I want my money to just go to Haiti. There was fighting in Somalia, a refugee crisis in Pakistan, a malaria epidemic in Burundi, but this was not on the news. The woman who’d called and said, “We only give when there’s an emergency” hadn’t known there are emergencies everywhere all the time. Six months ago, neither had I.
Soon enough, the world started to move on from Haiti, and my phones quieted down. If I’d had any other job, I would have been at the leading edge of that forgetting. A few days of news, and move on. Instead I kept reading the emails and updates. Instead I answered the straggling calls. They faded into questions about already made donations and requests for posters for fundraisers.
Eventually even those faded away. A year later, there would be the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Months after that, a famine in Somalia. And I would eventually leave this job. And I would never go to the field.
But not everyone can be in the field, and that is not always a bad thing. Someone has to earn money to write checks. Someone has to organize a fundraiser. Someone has to answer the phone and say no. I’m sorry, and thank you, but no.
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