Local women killed in accident in Haiti remembered for selflessness

Last modified: Friday, July 19, 2013

AMHERST — Two families devoted to working on behalf of the neediest people in the world met tragedy this week when the minivan they were riding in Haiti was hit broadside by a truck as they headed to the airport to return home.

Killed in the crash were Amanda Mundt, 22, of Amherst, and Meagan Leza Bell, 28, of Belchertown, friends whose lives were devoted to making life better for others; Diane Mundt, Amanda’s aunt, who was a scientist from Hull; and the Haitian driver.

The fathers of the younger women, Kenneth Mundt and David Bell, were injured and are back in the United States receiving treatment.

In a flood of grief, friends and relatives are mourning their deaths, filling phone conversations, Facebook pages and college websites with terms such as “extraordinary,” “unwavering passion,” “deep spirit,” “positive force” and “strength.”

Amanda Mundt, on leave from Clark University in Worcester and working as an intern for the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, traveled to Haiti in early July with her father, Kenneth, and family friends David and Beverly Bell and their daughter Meagan to see the opening of the summer school program Amanda started in 2011.

Meagan Bell, who had special needs, had worked with Amanda Mundt and her mother, Elizabeth, who are key members of the organization Opportunities for Communities in Belchertown, an educational group formed to help people across the world. Her dream was to travel to Haiti and meet the people she had heard about, according to a family friend.

Two Haitian colleagues, Timothe Indrik and Emanuel Samuel, were also with the group and suffered bruises, said Opportunities for Communities founder Douglas Albertson.

The 10-day trip was over and the group was to catch a flight home Wednesday afternoon.

“It was one of the highlights of her life to go on that trip and meet the people she met through Amanda’s work,” said Nola Stephen of Amherst, a close Bell family friend.

As a senior lecturer in the University of Massachusetts School of Education, Stephen often invited Meagan Bell to speak to the students in her classes about inclusion of special needs students.

“We are just devastated,” Stephen said. “She was so wonderful.”

Amanda, who had been to Haiti several times, including a stint just before the devastating earthquake struck in 2010, was to return to Boston to continue her internship. She had hoped to graduate from Clark next year.

“Her death is a great loss for IJDH and for the world,” said Brian Concannon of the Institute for Justice andjustice Democracy in Haiti on the organization’s website.

The accident occurred on Route Nationale 2, according to a Clark spokesman.

Stephen has been in close contact with Meagan Bell’s mother, Beverly, who is with David Bell at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he is being treated for head and spinal injuries. She said those injuries are serious but not life threatening and he is scheduled for surgery with the hope of returning home in a few days.

Kenneth Mundt was flown to a hospital in Florida, and has been joined there by his wife. He had minor surgery and is expected to return home soon, too, according to Albertson. Beverly Bell received cuts and scratches, Stephen said.

Accomplished women

Both Amanda Mundt and Meagan Bell attended Amherst Regional High School. Mundt went on to attend Greenfield Community College and then Clark University, where she was majoring in international development and social change and played on the field hockey team.

On a trip to Haiti in 2011, Mundt established a school for students in third through sixth grade in Les Cayes, a seaport town on the southeastern peninsula of Haiti near Fonds des Negres. She earned grants totaling $12,000 through the Davis Projects for Peace Foundation to get it started.

“One way to know Amanda is by seeing Lekol Dete (summer school), the program she started in Les Cayes to unite children from extremely different social classes,” Albertson wrote in an email. “This was her idea from the beginning and she made it happen. ... Those of us involved have never seen so much joy as that concentrated in the children in that program. That joy was Amanda. Amanda is an example, and will continue to be an example, of what we should aspire to if we are to be an advanced civilization. She never sought attention, she gave for the sake of others, she had a quiet charm mixed with bright intellect that drew people to her, and she led by being true to herself, her beliefs and her desire to serve people who are not blessed with the luxuries our society provides.”

By all accounts much of the same can be said for Meagan Bell.

“She never wanted to be the center of attention or the star,” said Stephen, though the young woman drew friends and admirers wherever she went. She said Meagan Bell’s mother, Beverly, wants to stress that her daughter’s passion was to give back to her community — which she described as all of the Pioneer Valley.

“She knew so many people,” Stephen said. “I see her as powerful advocate and an example for those representing difference.”

Though Meagan Bell contracted meningitis when she was 2 that left her with disabilities, Stephen said she had a sharp memory and facility with language, along with a keen sense of empathy and the ability to fit in wherever she went. She said Bell had an uncanny ability to sense when people were down.

“She’d be drawn right to them and make them feel better. She was one of the most positive people I have ever known.”

Bell stayed at ARHS until she was 22, as is allowed for special needs students. She was involved as a leader in the Best Buddies program, which pairs special needs students with mentors, the Special Olympics, and was helping to organize an event that raises money for special needs programs in South Hadley. She had a business, supervised by the group Community Resources, selling snacks at local businesses, Stephen said.

Changed attitudes

“Meagan Bell had an endlessly bright spirit,” Albertson said. “She remembered everyone she met and immediately embraced each person with friendship. Meagan often inspires me to try to show such love to everyone I meet and to be so enthusiastic about life.”

Stephen said she regularly invited Bell to her class to teach her students how to deal with special needs people.

“She showed them how to focus on a person’s strengths rather than their disabilities,” she said. “She was one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known. She changed people’s views about differences in people.”

She described how one of her students told her she expected Bell to be a shy girl clinging to her mother when she arrived in the class. Instead she burst into the classroom and announced that her mother was parking the car and it was time to get started. Stephen said one of her student told her, “I thought I understood about differences and disabilities until I met Meagan.”

Stephen said Bell was close to her brother Bradley, who is a year and a half younger, and that he and his friends, like much of the rest of the Amherst community, always included and accepted her.

The Bell family moved to Amherst from South Africa when Megan was 12. David Bell, who is now the interim director of Clark’s Department of International Development, Community and Environment, was doing graduate research at UMass when Stephen and her husband, Andrew Effrat, a professor emeritus in the School of Education, met them.

The family, Stephen said, needed help figuring out how to get the proper services for their daughter. She said she began assisting them and a long, close relationship ensued.

“I advocated for them and supported them, but Meagan taught me so much.” She said the way Meagan approached and befriended people shattered stereotypes about disabled people. “She showed that individuals’ strengths are greater than their disabilities.”

‘Quiet strength’

Just as Meagan Bell didn’t expect the attention she got, neither did Amanda Mundt, as the memorial on the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti website points out.

“She began interning with IJDH at the beginning of 2013 and she quickly became a vital part of our team,” it says. “We will miss her beaming personality, quiet strength, eagerness to learn, unwavering passion. We are honored to have worked with such a dedicated young woman who was working to become a strong voice for human rights.”

“Amanda had a deep spirit — one of seeking meaning, enjoying life, loving those around her, and persisting through any adversity she might encounter,” Albertson said.

On Meagan Bell’s Facebook page, which is filled with messages of love and grief, one of her friends wrote: “Meagan, I will miss your smiling face and great outlook on life. I enjoyed being your best buddy when we were in high school! The world won’t be the same without you!”

Stephen said Meagan Bell has been cremated and details are being worked out for a memorial service. Arrangements are still being made for Amanda Mundt, who also had a sister, Sara, and brother, Zachary.

Stephen said Meagan Bell has been cremated. A celebration of her life will be held Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at the Belchertown United Church of Christ, 18 Park St., Belchertown. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to one of Bell’s four favorite organizations, said Stephen: Best Buddies of UMass, Western Massachusetts Special Olympics, Golf Fore Autism and Opportunities for Communities. Stephen said specific instructions on how to contribute to each will be provided at Saturday’s service. Arrangements are still being made for Amanda Mundt, who also had a sister, Sara, and brother, Zachary.


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