Two students recently extended the reach of WVU Law’s public service by helping families in Haiti.
Veronique Vernot and Shane Young traveled to Haiti over winter break to help residents rebuild their lives following the widespread destruction caused by Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and an earthquake in 2010.
With the help of Vernot’s family, the pair traveled across Haiti to deliver toys, clothes and food to families devastated by the two natural disasters. They had gathered the donated items from the College of Law and institutions around West Virginia and the United States.
While in Haiti, Young and Vernot also helped assess damage to homes for NGOs working to rebuild communities in the island nation.
Vernot and her family have been travelling to Haiti since she was a child, providing aid to Haitian citizens for around 20 years. Her father was born and raised in Haiti, and she is a first generation American.
“My dad always made the effort to make sure I knew where my family came from, and that I knew about the history of Haiti and that I would go there to visit,” said Vernot. “I’ve always done volunteer work here in the United States, so when my dad started taking me back to Haiti, I really wanted to be able to give back to those who may not be able to help themselves.”
After Hurricane Matthew hit Haiti in October 2016, Young reached out to Vernot to see how he could get involved in relief efforts. He spearheaded a donation drive at the College of Law called Operation Haitian Christmas and started a GoFundMe account.
For much of the fall semester, “Operation Haitian Christmas” included a palm tree beside a donation box in the law school. Even though it was one of many donation drives held on Law School Hill during the holiday season, many students, faculty, staff and local attorneys contributed to the effort.
Other than items, a few cash-strapped law student students gave Young whatever money they had in-hand, he said. Others reached out to Vernot and Young while they were in Haiti to offer well wishes and support.
“It’s great that we have so many opportunities to give at WVU Law,” said Vernot. “We’re definitely like a family here, so when anyone mentions that there is a need for something, students do what they can, any way they can. It’s such a great part of our culture here at the law school.”
Young extended the donation drive throughout West Virginia and acquired donated soccer balls from his alma mater, Wheeling Jesuit University, and Bethany College. Thanks to Vernot and her family, the pair also took with them donations from drives across in Florida, Georgia, New York, and Connecticut.
Items that couldn’t fit in their suitcases, or heavy clothing that isn’t appropriate for Haiti’s tropical climate, were donated to victims of the summer 2016 floods in southern West Virginia.
“I knew I could lend a hand in Haiti, and even if it’s just taking two suitcases full of clothes and toys and $300 that we raised, it’s still an opportunity to learn what it is to be a global citizen and what it is to give back globally and not just in your local community,” said Young.
It didn’t take long for Vernot, Young and the rest of their group to become part of the community in Haiti.
They connected with locals through pickup games of basketball, soccer matches in fields of sugar cane, and through their donations and help in the areas they visited.
When Vernot and her family got to a donation site on Christmas Day, children were already there waiting for them. They were dressed in their best clothes, sitting in chairs they had brought from home.
“People look forward to this, and they know that we’re coming every year,” Vernot said.
On a particularly long and rugged drive to a remote area in the Haitian countryside, the group’s car got a flat tire while crossing a fast-flowing river. Word spread quickly and villagers quickly gathered to help get the car going again.
While Young and some locals worked on the car, the group handed out water bottles, food and clothing to show gratitude for the help.
“These people, who don’t have much, saw that we needed help and they dropped everything to come and help us,” Vernot explained. “It just shows the camaraderie and the spirit of the people of Haiti. We were happy we were able to give something back to them, as well.”
The two students, a year apart in law school, connected on the project and became closer friends during the Haiti trip.
Vernot and Young have worked together in the past Lexis representatives, and they were both speakers at the college’s annual Dean’s Partners Gala. But being together in Haiti, where a number of Vernot’s family still live, brought them closer together as friends.
“When you’re working in a house with no electricity and no air conditioning, and when you’re putting a battery in a car at 9 p.m. to prepare for a toy drive the next day, there’s no way you can’t become closer through those types of experiences,” said Vernot.
Back on Law School Hill, Young hopes to use his experience in Haiti to advance in his focus in international law.
While the trip to Haiti was about helping a community other than his own, Young gained experience organizing a service project and insight on a culture that was unfamiliar to him. He returned to the United States with a greater understanding of Haiti’s struggle and the impact the earthquake and Hurricane Matthew had on the residents, he said.
“To give back and to learn at the same time, I think, is a really great adventure.”