Photo by: Amy Borges
Whenever and wherever people are in need around the globe, there's likely to be a member of the University of Regina community nearby, doing whatever they can to help.
Katherine Owens BA(Hons)'98, MA'01, PHd'08 works as a senior psychologist for the Regina-Qu'Appelle Health District, and is a three-time U of R graduate, as well as a professional associate with the Department of Psychology and an adjunct professor with the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research.
Following the devastating magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti on January 12 of this year, Owens read about a nonprofit Canadian organization called Humanity First that was doing relief work in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. She emailed for more information and the organization got back to her right away, advising that they could use a psychologist as part of their ongoing relief efforts in Haiti.
"They asked if I wanted to go on the next rotation, and I said ‘absolutely'," Owens recalls. A few days later, after booking an unpaid leave of absence with her employer, Owens was sleeping in a tent amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince and doing her best to help the people there recover from the psychological trauma of the earthquake and repeated aftershocks.
"It was a bit overwhelming at first," Owens says. "It's a huge city, a city of nearly a million people, and to see the whole thing pretty much in ruins was a shocker. Almost no buildings were left untouched, and most of them you couldn't enter (because of structural damage)."
At the clinics in Port-au-Prince where Owens worked, the patients were first assessed by one of the medical doctors on site. Whenever one of the doctors felt someone could benefit from talking to a psychologist, they were referred to Owens.
During her ten days in Haiti, she helped people who were suffering from a variety of conditions, from grief to depression to people with preexisting conditions such as dementia and schizophrenia who no longer had access to a doctor and required medication. But most of the people she helped were suffering from anxiety.
"People had lots of anxiety symptoms, which makes perfect sense given the situation," she says. "Symptoms such as palpitations and nausea and difficulty sleeping. A lot of people thought it was something physical."
With the help of volunteer translators who spoke both Creole and English, Owens was able to reassure her patients that what they were experiencing was normal, given the circumstances, and was not caused by a more serious, life-threatening condition. "They thought something was wrong, that they were going to have a heart attack or something. So a lot of what I did was just education as far as what's normal in that situation and what's not."
Owens estimates that she assessed and counselled more than 200 people during her time in Port-au-Prince, including 40 patients during one especially hectic afternoon. Complicating her work was the fact that some of the usual strategies for coping with or reducing anxiety-such as eating well and trying to get regular sleep-aren't always possible in a city that was recently devastated by an earthquake and continues to experience worrisome aftershocks. "When people don't have food and they're sleeping in a park or on the road, those suggestions (of eating and sleeping well) are suddenly a lot less useful," Owens says. "But other suggestions like trying to stick with your family group, talking to people who are meaningful to you, getting a bit of exercise, trying to do enjoyable things-those were still useful for people."
Some of the people who Owens counselled about anxiety were other relief volunteers from Canada and the United States. "Some of the volunteers hadn't ever been away from their own country," she says. "We were so far away, in a completely different culture, and it was a bit overwhelming for some people. Working in disaster conditions can be difficult for anybody."
While Owens was in Haiti, there were two major aftershocks-giving her firsthand insight into the anxiety an earthquake and its aftermath can cause. "One of the aftershocks was fairly big and about 10 seconds long. I hadn't experienced an earthquake before, and it was definitely a bit of a scare. It happened in the middle of the night, and we all ran out of the tent into the middle of the road."
The selfless dedication of the local volunteer translators is one of Owens's abiding memories from her time in Haiti. "They were these young guys (in their late teens), and they didn't have a school anymore, and they didn't have a home or a job, so they spent their time volunteering at the camps with us. Every day they'd go back to their sheet in the park where they were living and they'd wash their clothes and lay them flat so they would look nice and well pressed when they came to volunteer the next day. They really stood out for me because they weren't much older than my own child."
About the time that Owens returned to Regina from Haiti near the end of February, another catastrophe struck another part of the world-an 8.8 magnitude earthquake centered off the coast of Chile.
Miguel Sanchez, an Associate Professor with the U of R's Faculty of Social Work, was already in Chile at the time, taking a holiday in the country of his birth, and also advancing the U of R's ongoing collaboration with Universidad Tecnológica Metropolitana (UTEM), located in Santiago.
The Chilean earthquake struck in the middle of the night on February 27, and Sanchez remembers being woken by the sound, even though he was staying more than 200 kilometers from the earthquake's epicenter, near the northern coastal city of Algarrobo.
"The sound hits you first, then the movement comes after that," Sanchez says. "I knew it was a bad earthquake immediately. I knew the shaking would come."
The earthquake didn't destroy any buildings in the part of Chile where Sanchez was staying, but other regions weren't as fortunate. Thirty kilometres away, a tsunami struck Llolleo. "In some places, eighty percent of the towns or villages were leveled," he says. "The destruction was just incredible. All the adobe construction came down."
Sanchez has many family members living in Chile in regions that were hit by the earthquake. None of his relatives were seriously hurt, but there were a few close calls. "The home of one of my sisters came down," he reports. "She was sleeping in her room and the sound and the movement came, and they got out of the house. When they came back, all the walls (had collapsed) on the bed in which they'd been sleeping, and the house was on the ground. It was an adobe house, and those were the most vulnerable."
Following the earthquake, the Regina Chilean-Canadian Cultural Society collected money to assist with the relief efforts, and the University of Regina Faculty Association (URFA) and many private donors also contributed. Sanchez made sure the funds went to people who were most in need. "URFA sent us money to donate to the college of social workers in Chile, because two social workers had been killed and 10 social workers lost their entire homes." Sanchez also helped distribute money raised by the Regina Chilean community and by friends of that community by doing assessments of different families that had lost their homes and possessions in the earthquake. "We bought refrigerators, stoves, and construction materials, and donated them to seven families in a direct way."
Sanchez was overwhelmed by the generosity of Canadian people in the wake of the Chilean earthquake. "The solidarity that the Canadian people expressed with Chile was unbelievable," he says. "We know how generous Canadian people are. They had just donated lots of money to Haiti, yet the Chilean catastrophe comes and there are still lots of people willing to donate."
In the midst of the destruction, the Chilean people did their best to persevere despite difficult and sometimes bizarre circumstances. Sanchez reports that the wine industry in Chile's Colchagua Valley was badly hit by the earthquake, and one of the peculiar results was that millions of liters of wine from damaged riverside containers temporarily polluted the Tinguiririca River. "The fish were left without oxygen, so lots of big trout came up to the surface and people were capturing them without having to fight with them," Sanchez says. "So they had a fish frying event for three days after the earthquake, where the people got together and they fried and they ate all of these fish that were coming out of the river."
The relief efforts are continuing in Chile, and Sanchez is now helping to raise money to buy 600 construction panels for the building of homes for Chileans who lost almost everything in the earthquake. Many of these families are still sleeping in tents with the Chilean winter approaching.
Meanwhile, Serena La Posta, a third-year education student at the U of R, travelled to yet another part of the world to help people in need. She recently spent seven weeks in Kolkata (Calcutta) India, as part of a group mission with eight other women that was arranged by Face to Face Ministries of Saskatoon.
La Posta and the other group members arrived in Kolkata in the first week of January to volunteer with the Missionaries of Charity, the Roman Catholic religious order that was established in 1950 by Mother Teresa.
La Posta volunteered in a home called Daya Dan, which is run by the Missionaries of Charity for orphans aged three to 18 with mental and physical disabilities. La Posta helped with the laundry, made beds, and helped the children get dressed and eat, among other daily chores. She also taught an autistic boy named Dilip, whom she estimates was about 10 years old, for up to two hours each day depending on his attention span. She helped Dilip with arts and crafts, as well as with numbers and reading.
"He was very good artistically, and working with his hands," La Posta says. "He could walk and move normally and looked like a normal kid. But speech was something he had difficulty with. He didn't know any English, but he started to pick up a few words before I left."
During her time in Kolkata, La Posta was often confronted by abject poverty, but she says the people of the city do their best to rise above their circumstances. "The train station in Kolkata is where a lot of the worst poverty is located," she says. "People make little homes along the railroad tracks. And we did have some families outside of our guesthouse that lived on the sidewalk. But it didn't shock me as much as I thought it would. The poor in Kolkata are very joyful. The people have very little, but what they do have they use, and they're very resourceful with everything they own."
While in Kolkata, La Posta stayed at a residence called Monica House, near Mother House, where the tomb of Mother Teresa is laid. La Posta visited Mother House at least twice a day, for morning Mass and evening prayers, passing Mother Teresa's tomb on her way to and from the chapel. "It's a raised tomb and the Sisters decorate it with flower petals every day," she recalls. "They take a lot of pride in the fact that her tomb is in their home, and they take very good care of it."
La Posta says she learned the spirit of Mother Teresa's work during her seven weeks in Kolkata, and found the experience profoundly moving and inspirational. One of the biggest lessons that La Posta learned was to "do small things with great love," which was a favorite saying of Mother Teresa's. "We didn't do great things while we were in Kolkata," La Posta says. "Anybody could have done what I was doing-washing clothes, or helping a little boy eat. But doing those small things with great love does have meaning, even if it seems like it goes unnoticed. Because someone's benefiting from it, and God notices."
One of La Posta's most cherished memories of her time in Kolkata was meeting Sister Barbara, who was one of the first twenty Sisters to join Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. "We got to meet her on a couple of occasions, and she just seemed like such a reflection of Mother Teresa," La Posta says. "Being in Sister Barbara's presence is one of the most amazing memories for me. She's probably the closest person to a saint that I'll ever meet."
B.D. Miller (BJ '95, BA Hons. '89) is a Regina-based playwright, fiction, and non-fiction writer whose work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies and on CBC radio. His two-act comedy, Balance of Power, will receive a workshop and staged reading as part of the Saskatchewan Playwright Centre's 2010 Spring Festival of New Plays.