Back to Haiti: Amherst-based nonprofit returns to country where a car crash killed three of their members last year

Wednesday, June 18, 2014
BELCHERTOWN — For Douglas Albertson there was never any question about going back to Haiti after a deadly road accident last summer that ripped at the soul of the organization he leads.

He was at his desk in the Belchertown municipal offices, where he works as the town planner, when he got word that a van carrying some of his closest friends to the airport in Port-au-Prince at the end of a 10-day mission had been hit by a truck. Four people died and several others were injured.

Now, as Albertson, who has made more than a dozen trips to Haiti, leaves for another at the end of June, he would rather not talk about the accident. The loss is still raw.

But he is anxious to get back to the work the group was doing as part of Opportunities for Communities, the nonprofit organization Albertson founded, with epidemiologist Kenneth Mundt of Amherst and Christian youth leader David Wintsch of Hadley, to promote education and cross-cultural understanding.

Mundt, who will be traveling with Albertson, was severely injured in the accident that took the lives of his 22-year-old daughter, Amanda, and his sister, Diane. Also killed were Megan Bell of Belchertown, a 28-year-old family friend, and the Haitian driver of the vehicle.

Kenneth Mundt, who has been back to Haiti once since the accident and has recovered from his physical injuries, declined to be interviewed for this story. His daughter, an Amherst Regional High School graduate who was studying at Clark University in Worcester, had been a driving force in the organization nearly as long as he had. She raised $12,000 to establish a six-week summer school that opens again in July soon after the group arrives.

Not continuing would be antithetical to Amanda Mundt’s memory, said Albertson. “If anything (the accident) made us more determined to do this because it was her vision and it was her legacy.”

Advocates for children

The idea behind Opportunities for Communities, said Albertson, is not only to do good deeds, but also to create ways in which Americans can plug into international development and humanitarian efforts whether or not they travel on the excursions his group organizes.

They work with local partners who are involved in education in Les Caye, a coastal town of about 70,000 people. Among those residents are so-called restavek children. They live under conditions widely regarded as modern-day slavery. Restavek, Albertson explained, is a Creole word derived from the French reste avec, meaning “to stay with.” These children are sent from families too poor to care for them to live as servants in households where they are often abused and treated as property.

Opportunities for Communities works with the Institution Miscte Maranatha, a school begun by headmaster Amos Filius in 1998. He makes a point of offering instruction to restavek children after school hours. He can only reach those who are allowed to attend by the families they work for.

Amanda Mundt raised the money in 2011 from the Davis Projects for Peace Foundation and the Restavek Freedom Foundation to begin a summer school. The aim was to integrate restavek children with those who live with their own families.

Called Lekol Dete, it will start its fourth year in July. As part of the grant, Mundt created a weeklong training for teachers before the classes for children begin. The focus is on critical thinking.

“In Haiti, teaching is pretty much by rote memorization,” Albertson said. “She would bring down a bunch of different games to play to promote concepts we take for granted. She came up with the idea, got the grants and pretty much created the whole theme, if not the curriculum.”

Impacts on others

Albertson describes Mundt as a “shy and quiet intellectual” who was also charming.

“People were drawn to her, especially kids,” said Albertson. “Every place we went, she was surrounded by kids. They would call her name. She just had a warmth that drew kids to her.”

She was on leave from college and working as an intern for the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti at the time of her trip last year with relatives and family friends.

Mundt’s aunt, Diane Mundt, a Springfield native who also died in the accident, had been widowed a few years earlier. “She was very generous in a quiet way,” said Albertson. “As it turns out, she often made large gifts anonymously.” Like her brother Kenneth, she was also an epidemiologist.

Albertson remembers Megan Bell, a woman with special needs who was on her first trip to Haiti, as being exuberant.

“She was going to be friends with everybody who showed up, in a very pure kind of way,” he said. “She had a lot to offer.” Her father, David Bell, was injured in the accident.

When they leave the airport after arriving in Port-au-Prince, the group traveling later this month will pass by the spot of the crash.

Moving on

Albertson is girding himself.

“I am inclined to tell myself that it will be fine, but I am sure there will be some emotions. That’s unavoidable,” he said. “I am preparing myself to be available to the people who were more directly affected than I was.”

One of those is Timothe Indrik of Haiti who coordinates the activities of Opportunities for Community in his country. He was also in the collision. “Timo just got the brace off his arm that had to be repaired three times,” said Albertson.

Among his many activities, Indrik has been coaching a youth soccer team since 2008. They are called Ouragan, the French word for Hurricane. The team formed soon after four hurricanes had swept through Haiti causing terrible devastation. Indrik’s team chose the name then as a mark of their resilience in the face of death and destruction. Albertson sees a pleasant irony in the connection the name serendipitously makes to the Amherst Regional High School athletic teams.

Albertson is not planning any ceremonies to commemorate last summer’s tragedy, though his Haitian hosts might, he said. “We really are just moving on and not trying to keep track of too many of these anniversaries. ... What we are doing is a continuation of all the good things we started.”

Asked if this trip, his first since the accident, will be a milestone in recovery, Albertson replied, “It’s going to have to be. It’s one of those things where you know you have to get through it. You face it and you stare it down, I guess. That’s how you win.”