Thursday, April 1, 2010

Whitworth alumna pursues her calling through work in Haiti

While she was at Whitworth, Brittany Hilker, '07, knew that she was being called to give voice to those who were suffering in silence. But she never considered that such a vocation would lead her overseas. After a brief trip to Haiti, she fell in love with the country and the children, and knew she wanted to spend her life there. Today, she is a long-term volunteer missionary for Danita’s Children, a Haitian orphanage.

Hilker first traveled to Haiti on a four-day trip in April 2008, when she accompanied a cousin who was in the process of adopting children from an orphanage there.

"I was a mess after that trip. It was all I could think about, all I could pray for. It didn't feel right to be back in the States," says Hilker, originally from Pasco, Wash. "Many people feel that way after returning home from a mission trip, but my feelings never faded. Months later, I still cried every day and begged God to send me back."

Hilker immediately began researching ways to return. During her search, she found the website for Danita's Children, a Haitian orphanage that focuses on providing well-rounded care for all aspects of a child's needs – physical, spiritual, emotional and academic. Of all the organizations Hilker found, Danita's Children was the one that she couldn't get out of her mind.

While planning her trip, Hilker completed her master's in social work at Eastern Washington University, at the suggestion of her advisor, Whitworth Associate Professor of Sociology Jennifer Holsinger. After receiving her degree from Eastern, she left for Haiti in June 2009, and she now serves at Danita's Children as a housemother to 20 boys under the age of 12, who call her "Mommy."

"Some of our children were left in garbage cans or outside to die," Hilker wrote in an article for the Danita's Children's newsletter. "Now those very children have a home and a family, and I have the privilege of being a part of that process."

The orphanage run by Danita's Children is located in Ouanaminthe, which is in the far northeastern tip of Haiti, just a few minutes' drive from the Dominican Republic. Though the town felt tremors from the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake, its buildings didn't suffer any structural damage. But because the orphanage has food, water and safe housing, Hilker says it has become a refuge to many families from other parts of Haiti who lost everything that day. Before the earthquake, the orphanage housed 75 children. Now there are nearly 130, along with many mothers who also live there.

Hilker says one of the biggest recent changes for the orphanage has been the number of children with special needs – many with broken bones and amputated limbs – they've taken in since the earthquake. Fortunately, the level of care has also dramatically increased, with teams of doctors, nurses and volunteers pouring in to help care for children. However, Hilker points out that Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country, has always been in a desperate condition. Now it is desperate to the extent that people around the world are forced to see.

"Before the earthquake, people were dying of starvation, most people were living in conditions you and I wouldn't even call suitable for our animals, and there were thousands of orphans and street children," Hilker says. "The difference now is the level of desperation – what we used to call poverty, we now call a blessing."

Now, for example, one meal a day is more food than most people get, and a one-room dirt floor home for a family of 10 is now considered a decent living situation. Hilker says the biggest needs for Haitians remain the same as those of all poor countries, except that resources such as clean water, food, medical care and shelter have become even more pressing since the earthquake.

She says that although the aid that has flooded in to fund new relief efforts since the earthquake has made a big difference, Haiti also needs people to support organizations that were established before the earthquake, so that more people can be helped. She says prayer is also desperately needed – for the country as a whole and for the individuals and families who have lost everything.

In Haiti's capital city, Port-au-Prince, Hilker visited many people with amputated arms and legs who said that upon leaving the hospital, they planned to live in tent cities where they would make homes out of bed sheets.

"So many thousands of people died on Jan. 12, but it didn't stop there. They will continue to die at an even more rapid rate than before because those who were injured and affected by the quake don't have access to basic needs," she says.
Social Work

Hilker says that when she was first considering entering the field of social work, people cautioned her about getting burned out and becoming tired of helping others. She doesn't share that perspective.

If you are interested in international social work, the only way to see if it is for you is to try it," she says. "I don't believe it is for everyone. I think people are wired differently and not everyone will feel fulfilled working in a developing country, but you will never know until you go try it."

Hilker is a long-term volunteer for Danita's Children, and she doesn't plan to return to the U.S.
"I cannot imagine doing anything else with my life," she says. "Although I know it's impossible to plan out my entire future, I know for now and the upcoming years, I will be in Haiti."

Hilker says living in Haiti has taken her away from the self-focused distractions of everyday life and shown her what's actually important. She no longer admires celebrities; she saves her admiration for people who have dedicated their lives to serving God and other people, even when they go unrecognized.

"We are on earth for a very short time. I want what I did here to matter, not in the eyes of the world, but in the eyes of God," she says. "To say I'm privileged that I get to live here in Haiti working with such an awesome ministry is an understatement. I will never feel that I deserved this life, and I'm forever grateful to God that He's let me find such purpose in it."

Follow Hilker's journey by visiting her blog, http://brittanyinhaiti.blogspot.com/. To learn more about Danita's Children, visit http://www.danitaschildren.org/.

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private liberal arts university affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The university, which has an enrollment of 2,700 students, offers 55 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Contacts:

Emily Proffitt, public information officer, Whitworth University, (509) 777-4703 or eproffitt@whitworth.edu.