Staff Profile: Jillian Thorp’s Story of Survival

Jillian Thorp talks with engineers in Haiti.
World Concern Haiti staff member Jillian Thorp talks with engineers overseeing house repairs. Photo by Frank Thorp.

World Concern attracts people who feel called to help in the world’s most desperate situations. It attracts staff members willing—even longing—to live in poor, troubled places, and serve.

Jillian Thorp is one of those people.

Jan. 12 had been an emotional and busy day for Jillian. She was finishing one of several meetings at her office at another nonprofit in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, that day when the building began to sway. “It was almost like having a dizzy spell, then things started to fall off tables,” she recalls. A coworker grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her under a door frame. “About 10 seconds later, everything came down around us.”

Jillian and her coworker were both trapped from the waist down on the first floor of a two-story building. A door had fallen on top of them, miraculously protecting them from being hammered by debris. Another miracle is that Jillian had fallen with her cell phone. Although she couldn’t call out, she received several phone calls from friends in the U.S. and was able to tell them she was trapped and needed help. The last call she received was from her husband, Frank, who was working about six hours north of Port-au-Prince. “He said, ‘We’re coming,’” she remembers. Then the phone line cut, leaving them without communication.

Three hours later, Jillian heard someone calling her name. It was two other coworkers who had come back to see if she was safe. She was able to call to them, and they began digging with their bare hands. Eventually they had to leave to get more help and tools to break up and remove the concrete that surrounded her. She and her coworker were trapped for 10 hours. Frank arrived about an hour before she was freed.

“They pulled me up onto the roof,” said Jillian, who was gasping for fresh air and reeling with the realization of what she’d just been through. “The house had completely pancaked. I could see that the only place I could have survived is where I was. It was just a complete miracle that I was there and the way the house fell, that I was protected and we made it out.”

As an American, Jillian was able to be treated for her injuries at a hospital in the Dominican Republic and then fly home to the U.S. the next day. She struggled with survivor’s guilt, leaving behind those who had become like family and who had risked their lives to rescue her. “Why did I make it through something like that when so many others didn’t?” She wondered.

She returned to Haiti, just five weeks after the disaster. “I’ve just got to try,” she told herself. “I’ve got to see if there’s something still in me, that I could help these people.”

Jillian heard about World Concern from family members at home, researched the work we do, and saw it as a shining example of a successful aid organization. She liked that we have a 30-year history in Haiti, and that nearly all staff are Haitians. “So many organizations brought in so many people, so many foreigners, who didn’t understand,” she said. With a background in advocacy and a degree in diplomacy and conflict resolution, “It felt just right,” said Jillian, who accepted the position of Program Support Manager for the Emergency Relief Team in March – just two months after the quake.

“It’s been so healing for me to work with an organization that’s so supportive. It’s been a blessing,” she said. “I was looking for a higher purpose. I got through this earthquake. There’s got to be a reason.”

Jillian understands the frustration people feel, watching from afar, at the pace of the recovery efforts, but being involved in it every day, she sees much progress. “There’s such hope for the future of this country, but there’s a long way to go for sure. There are some  hard decisions in front of the humanitarian community … we can’t figure it out in one day, or even a couple of years,” she said. “But we have 617 homes we’ve repaired. That’s 617 families who have returned to their homes. We have just over 2,000 people employed through Cash for Work,” which is World Concern’s program to employ local people to clean up rubble and rebuild.

“Whether you see it when you walk down the street or not, when you look at World Concern and you see those, it’s significant,” Jillian said.

Along with the entire World Concern staff, Jillian shares great compassion for the Haitian people. “They’ve been through a lot, but their spirit is so resilient. They still have dreams. They know all this money is coming into this country. They try to take ownership of this project – to be a part of the rebuilding process,” she said. “It really should be their own. The U.S. didn’t fall apart, Haiti did. Ask Haitians what they want and ask them to help us do it. World Concern is really great at that.”

Jillian Thorp's collapsed house.
This is all that was left of the building Jillian was in when the earthquake hit. Photo by Frank Thorp.
Jillian and Frank Thorp.
Jillilan and her husband Frank are grateful she survived the earthquake and continue to work in Haiti.

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Cathy Herholdt

Cathy Herholdt

Cathy Herholdt is World Concern's Marketing and Communications Director. With a background in journalism, Cathy honed her writing skills as a newspaper editor and now enjoys sharing the inspiring stories of those World Concern serves. She has served with World Concern since 2010.

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