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Alumna raises awareness of Haiti following quake survival

She went to Haiti to document why some impoverished children thrived while others fell ill to malnourishment. When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake tore apart the Caribbean nation, Courtney Latta ’09 found herself struggling not only for her own survival, but to help the countless victims of the region’s largest natural disaster in several generations.

Courtney Latta

Latta, an international studies major and Periclean Scholar, escaped injury in an event that killed more than 100,000 Haitians. The native of Winston-Salem, N.C., had been volunteering with the Children’s Nutrition Program of Haiti in the coastal town of Leogane, about a dozen miles west of Port-au-Prince, since shortly after graduating last spring.

And why not? With her caring spirit that former professors remember, plus the history of her father’s charitable medical work there, Haiti was the logical place to go to put her education to use for good in the world.

“She’s been passionate about helping and doing,” said English professor Stephen Braye, who mentored the Periclean Scholars class of 2009. “Some people want to plan this or think about this, and Courtney wants to jump in and do it.”

On the day of the quake, two fateful decisions ensured her survival. A colleague invited Latta to travel to Port-au-Prince for a meeting, taking her away from a complex that would be nearly destroyed just a few hours later. “If I hadn’t gone with them, I would have been the only one in Leogane when it happened,” said the soft-spoken Latta. “Honestly, if I had been in my house, I probably wouldn’t have made it.”

Following the meeting, and already hungry for dinner, the nonprofit workers chose to dine at an outdoor café rather than inside another restaurant just a short distance away.

The earthquake struck during the meal. The other restaurant collapsed, killing many of its patrons. Within minutes, Latta and her friends made their way toward a nearby square, dust and smoke clogging the air as Haitians pleaded for help from beneath rubble.

“As we got into the square, there was a schoolhouse where children were stuck inside, and they were screaming and running, some falling over the balcony,” she said. “Our driver, Jean-Claude, who’s one of the greatest heroes I’d ever known, ran straight for the school to see if he could help.”

Unable to return to their headquarters that night, Latta and her colleagues contacted relatives in the United States. Her supervisor’s husband called families of every person in the group to let relatives know of their survival. Later that evening, the group found an administrative building in Port-au-Prince for Doctors Without Borders and assisted medical professionals with treating the injured.

The next morning, Latta and her colleagues started on foot for Leogane. They walked about six miles before hitching a ride the rest of the way with a colleague’s friend. Corpses littered the road, which itself was ripped apart where shock waves from the quake rolled across.

“As we left Port-au-Prince, it was utter devastation, but it only got worse as we went west,” she said. “I’m so worried. It has been very difficult to mobilize outside Port-au-Prince, and I’m hoping aid will get there soon to the people in Leogane. There are no words to describe it.

The team soon realized there was little they could do to help and headed back to the Haitian capital to be airlifted out. In the early morning hours of Jan. 16, Latta arrived in Raleigh, N.C., to meet family and friends.

Since her return, Latta has visited Elon on several occasions, meeting with students to help coordinate relief efforts to sharing her story with classes, including one course led by her former Periclean Scholars mentor. “They were just shocked by Courtney’s specific descriptions and were amazed by the doctors and nurses treating the people who were hurt,” Braye said. “It’s hard to fathom that kind of devastation and desperation.”

Haiti, however, is not just a memory for Latta: It is once again a destination. She plans to return to Leogane in the early spring to help the community rebuild, brick by brick, in what promises to be a lengthy recovery.

“I really did fall in love with the Haitian culture, the people and even the language,” she said. “I knew that one day I wanted to live there and work. I love living in Haiti and being a part of Leogane. I would not trade my time in Haiti for the world.

“I have a lot to process with what just happened, but I do plan to go back.”

For more about the Children's Nutrition Program of Haiti and how to help in its recovery, click on the link to the right.


Eric Townsend,
2/2/2010 5:33 PM