UAlbany MagazineUniversity at Albany

Phara Pignard, B.S.'02, M.S.W.'08

Helping Haiti

By Carol Olechowski

hen a massive earthquake struck Haiti last January 12, Phara Pignard “immediately knew I had to do something.” She did, organizing her own relief effort to help her family and friends back home.

Pignard’s mother, born in Hinche, and her father, a Dominican Republic native who moved to the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, as a teenager, married in the 1960s and relocated to New York, where they started a family. Pignard herself spent her formative years in Haiti and attended school there.

Initial estimates placed the death toll from the 7.0 temblor between 50,000 and 200,000, and the number of homeless in the hundreds of thousands. “I could only imagine the devastation. This earthquake affected the whole Haitian community worldwide,” says Pignard, who lost a cousin and an 8-month-old nephew in the disaster.

Over several weeks, Pignard and the Rockland County Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.; longtime friend Vinny Raffa; her colleagues at WestHELP Mt. Vernon, the Westchester County, N.Y., homeless shelter where she works as a team leader and director of Social Services; and other friends amassed “barrels of relief supplies.” From April 26 to May 7, the Pignards traveled from Port-au- Prince to Hinche, staying at family homes “fortunate enough to remain standing with no fractures” while distributing clothes and other necessities. Pignard’s brother Mario, a motion-picture lighting technician and freelance filmmaker, documented the experience on video.

Phara Pignard worked with family, friends and colleagues to collect relief materials for earthquake victims in Haiti. She visited the island nation last spring, distributing clothes, medical supplies and other necessities to people who, in many cases, had lost everything they owned.

The destruction in Port-au-Prince “was unbelievable. Seventy percent of the homes there were damaged or crumbled to pieces,” observes Pignard, who majored in sociology and criminal justice at UAlbany, then returned for a master’s in social work. As she and her relatives handed out baby clothes, wipes and bottles; medical supplies; and personal-care items at a makeshift clinic set up in a Port-au-Prince home, “I saw many families wait for hours to be seen by only one nurse, one doctor and several nurse interns.”

With aftershocks continuing weeks later, “the people of Port-au-Prince do not feel safe in their homes. Many choose to sleep outside under tents; others are brave enough to sleep indoors with one eye open.” Yet, Pignard adds proudly, the Haitians carry on, “going to work and attempting to make ends meet. They are the strongest, most resilient folks I have ever met. Throughout history, this country has been ravaged by war, corruption and natural disasters. Still, the people remain strong and hopeful.”

Pignard says “the truly rewarding experience” of aiding the Haitians “cannot be put into words, but my heart and soul were pleased. The people of Haiti were grateful for our generosity.”

In December, Pignard plans to return to Haiti to continue her relief work. “Any kind of assistance,” including medical supplies, clothing, food and money, is welcome. For information about supporting Haitian relief, please contact her at [email protected].