Boston College home page | office of public affairs | BCinfo | bc Media | event calendar | directories | search BC

Melissa Law,’10, and Lauren Galinsky,’09, assist in cleaning up a Haitian community that was damaged by severe rain and flooding.

Many Hands to Do the Work

BC alumni, students help non-profit’s relief effort in Haiti

By Melissa Beecher | Chronicle Staff
Though barely a blip on the American national radar, the rapid succession of tropical storms and hurricanes that hit Haiti in 2008 led to what some observers call the worst humanitarian disaster in that nation in 100 years.

Lauren Galinsky,’09, and Melissa Law,’10, saw the destruction first hand. The two traveled to Gonaives in January to help residents literally dig their homes out from a flood of mud that encrusts the city, located in northern Haiti.

Hands On Disaster Response (HODR), a nonprofit staffed by two BC alumni, has been on the scene since September. HODR has participated in numerous disaster sites, including Indonesia, Peru, Bangladesh, Mississippi and Iowa.

In Haiti, HODR worked with Catholic Relief Services, UNICEF and other relief organizations in an attempt to help the thousands of families left homeless by the disaster.

“Gonaives was the hardest hit area because of the geography of the area — it’s low-lying — and deforestation,” said Beca Howard,’06, communications manager for HODR. “This was one site where it was very easy to see who needed help. Despite how much time has passed since the storms, families are still living on the roofs of their homes, with other families or in tent villages.”

The experiences of several BC alumni propelled Galinsky and Law to volunteer. Howard and HODR Operations Director Bill Driscoll,’05, along with Driscoll’s brother, John,’08, have all worked on or coordinated the Haiti project.

“We have both traveled and participated in service work, but I don’t think that anything can prepare you for being in a disaster zone,” said Galinsky. “The only way to really describe it is intense.”

“There is nowhere for people to put the mud except for the middle of the streets. Houses are covered, some with two or three, others with up to six or seven feet of mud,” said Law. “People there lost everything and have nothing.”

For two weeks, Law and Galinsky lived in a former hotel HODR had secured. In the yard outside the building, volunteers constructed concrete wells to rebuild clean water sources. Each evening, volunteers gathered to eat a dinner of rice and beans together and talk with local volunteers or participate in community events.

Each day, however, was all business. The HODR model does not charge volunteers a participation fee, but rather asks people to simply show up and be willing to work. In exchange, food and lodging are provided. In Haiti, work means an eight-hour day where volunteers do the backbreaking work of mud removal and infrastructure rebuilding.

To date 130 volunteers from 14 countries have cleaned enough houses to allow 1,000 residents to return home. More than 12 well platforms have been built and HODR has led efforts to clean and paint the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition School, which serves 600 orphan children, and the Sisters’ Community Center and Medical Clinic.

“One day we went to the tent camps to see the displaced families, and that was very difficult because for them, there was no end in sight,” said Law. “The children had so much energy and were so excited to see people who wanted to play with them.”

“Twenty local (Haitian) volunteers would come with us and work the whole day helping the people in the community. Getting to know them and the volunteers from other countries was a really meaningful part of the trip,” said Galinsky.

HODR has pledged to remain in Haiti until the end of March, and in that time hopes to help as many families as possible.

“What we are doing might only be clearing one room in one house on a given day, but it’s a start,” said Howard. “Neighbors and other residents come out and help because they know where to begin rebuilding. Sometimes that’s what a community needs most: a place to start.”

For more information on Hands On Disaster Response, visit

Melissa Beecher can be reached at