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.

We Love You, Haiti! Sincerely, Washington State

A school desk bound for Haiti
World Concern Haiti Country Director Christon Domond inspects desks with Susan Talbot during a visit to our headquarters last month. The desk is one of dozens being loaded today into a shipping container bound for Haiti.

It’s like an enormous care package for Haiti from all across Washington.

Today, just south of Seattle, a 40’ shipping container is being packed with a variety of supplies to help children in Haiti, just in time for the new school year. We’re loading up dozens of desks, uniforms and school supplies for more than 1,300 kids. All of the items were donated – most by donors in Washington.

Eighty-seven desks from a Washington State University dorm in Pullman will be put to use in classrooms in Haiti, and a Port-au-Prince hospital will receive 25 patient tables and cabinets from an assisted living home in Bellevue.

Imagine the delighted smiles when 1,320 kids open packages filled with school supplies, hand packed with love by donors and churches around the Puget Sound region. The Kids’ Healing Kits also include soap, toothpaste and other hygiene items, as well as stuffed animals and other toys to help the youngest earthquake victims heal from emotional trauma.

Volunteers and homeless men hired for the day are helping World Concern pack the 40’ shipping container inside of a warehouse in Sumner. From there, the container will be trucked to a rail yard, then loaded on a train bound for New York. The final leg of the trip will be on a ship, the MSC Austria, which is scheduled to arrive in Port-au-Prince on Aug. 29.

We’ve put some thought into what we’re shipping. Our staff in Haiti has either requested these items, or has found areas where these items will fill a critical need – an important piece in making sure humanitarian aid helps communities, rather than hindering the healing process.

Thank you, donors and volunteers, for making this giant care package possible!

To read more about what we’re doing in Haiti, click here.

What looks different in Haiti now

The following is a report from World Concern’s Jacinta Tegman, who is in Haiti this week with a team from the Seattle area:

A Hatian boy outisde his newly repaired home.
A smiling young boy outside his newly repaired home in Port-au-Prince.

It has been almost four months since I was last in Haiti. When I was here in early March the city of Port au Prince was just ending a critical response phase. Some streets were impassable because of rubble. Very little business had started up. Schools were not in session and the normal hustle and bustle of the city was missing. I think the Haitians were still in a state of shock. As a part of World Concern, I was able to see the transition from phase one — meeting the immediate needs of water, food, shelter, and family reunification — to the road ahead of rebuilding lives

I can really tell a difference in the city since March. Much of the rubble has been cleared and there are signs of construction everywhere. Lots of street vendors are out, school children in their uniforms rush to class, and the remaining piles of rubble have become part of the city landscape.

As difficult a time as the people have had, there is little room for prolonged grief as little ones still need to be fed, work must be sought out, and the very real need of adequate housing is reaching a critical stage. We drove by camp after camp of tents, and the tents look like they can’t survive much longer.

The road ahead to sustainable recovery is a long one. Yet, even now I see signs of progress and for these people progress is made one small step at a time. When I was here in March, World Concern’s Cash for Work program was in a pilot stage. A few small groups were clearing the rubble of where they once lived, earning a salary to provide for their families and gaining hope that they would be able to leave the tent camps. Now World Concern employs 2,100 workers. Not only have massive amounts of rubble been cleared but homes have been made habitable and new, safer homes are being built.

Is there more to do? Absolutely! But I am so thankful for what has already been accomplished. When I looked into the eyes of a little boy standing outside of his newly repaired home, I know that there is hope in Haiti. In the middle of all this tragedy hope shines brightly. It takes so many to make this possible and I am profoundly grateful that I can say to these people that despite all the challenges they face, people are praying for them, people are giving to help them, and we will walk with them all the way through to full recovery. Isn’t that what Jesus sent us to do? I am so privileged to represent so many that have given to relieve their suffering. God bless you for your compassion.

Comfort in a box arrives in Uganda

Seattle-based Swaddle Designs donated cozy baby blankets now being distributed in Uganda.
Seattle-based Swaddle Designs donated cozy baby blankets now being distributed in Uganda.

It must feel a little like Christmas morning in Uganda right now as people there unpack a shipping container filled with some of the highest quality clothing and custom flannel baby blankets-stuff that anyone here in the U.S. would love to own. The gifts made the voyage all the way from Seattle, bringing comfort to moms and babies at rural maternity clinics and meeting the needs of children and adults living in refugee camps.

Ten thousand articles of clothing — shirts, pants and more — donated by ExOfficio and worth a quarter million dollars, are being handed out by World Concern through partner agency Pilgrim Uganda to those with the greatest need. Among them are traumatized former child soldiers. Now young adults, these victims are struggling to erase the memories of being forced to kill against their will. With the basic need of new clothes met, they can focus on the healing work at hand.

The baby blankets, made by Seattle-based Swaddle Designs, are coveted by even celebrity moms. These same soft, organic cotton blankets will soon be wrapped around infants in remote bush areas during outreach visits, thanks to this global baby shower. Imagine the looks on the Ugandan moms’ faces when they receive their plush gifts. These blankets are not just about luxury, they’re actually good for babies. Swaddling reminds newborns of being in the womb, prevents over-stimulation and helps them sleep better.

Giving stuff like this feels good, but we only do it if it will not adversely affect local economies. That is the case here, as those we are helping are extremely poor, living in slums after being displaced by war. They simply don’t have money for clothes — and a clean baby blanket is an answer to countless mothers’ prayers.

Don’t you love thinking about donations here making their way from here to the far corners of the world? Such practical ways to spread a little warmth to those in dire need.

Moms and babies will receive blankets at rural clinics in Uganda.
Moms and babies will receive blankets at rural clinics in Uganda.

Cooking up new business in Sudan

This woman is named Awal. She opened a new restaurant and has already seen $30 in profit in 12 days.
This woman is named Awal. She opened a new restaurant and has already seen $30 in profit in 12 days.

This is a story straight from a poor village in South Sudan. World Concern President David Eller is visiting Sudan right now, checking out how we are equipping the local people to learn skills and live better lives.

On Wednesday we drove out to one of our field locations about two hours away on a dirt road.  There were military checkpoints along the way.  At one such stop our Sudan Country Director, Peter Macharia, had to get out and talk for a while before we were allowed to continue.

This is a newly created town with many people settling there that have fled violence in other parts of the state.  Florence is one of our field officers and started working with a women’s group there in December.  They met twice a week for two months to learn skills in cooking, baking, yogurt making, grain grinding, hygiene, life, business and biblical values.

One of the women involved in the group, Arek, was pregnant during the training but she did not want to miss any of it.  She would lay on a mat at the back of the group to listen and learn.  The baby was born between classes and she was at the next class with the baby in her lap.

The group calls themselves Pundak which means doubting the government.  They went to the government for help and received none.  Now that World Concern has come and their situations have changed, they have talked of changing their name.

Each day they bake rolls in a new charcoal oven they bought from profits, which does a better job than the brick oven they used to use.  They sell a bag of ten fresh rolls in the market for $2.  When we arrived they were finishing a batch of rolls.  Nothing like bread fresh from the oven-the rolls were warm and tasty.  They also make 40 liters of yogurt a day to sell in the market.  They have built a restaurant out of tin sheets to start a lunch time business and catering services.

Awal is another group member who has a difficult past. She has five children and her husband has moved to Juba, abandoning the family with no support.  She could only afford to send one child to school so she sent her young son, Aken.  School costs $10 a year plus a $10 uniform and writing materials fee.  Awal said she was very miserable.

After joining the women’s group and receiving training she became the lead baker for the group.  With her share of the group profits (30% of sales) she has been able to care for her family and has sent her older daughter Abuk to school for the first time.

Awal opened a restaurant of her own in the market just 12 days ago.  It is built from wood poles covered in plastic tarps with a hard dirt floor.  There is a cooking area up front and a customer seating area in back where she serves local dishes and fresh bread.  In her first 12 days of operations she has made a $30 profit.  I was very impressed that she knew her profitability.  It is not an easy concept, but she said she was well trained by Florence to keep track of profits.

Awal is a great example of a life being transformed.  She, and others like her, are the reason God has called us to this ministry.

This oven looks a little homely, but works great as a tool this woman uses for her baking business.
This oven looks a little homely, but works great as a tool this woman uses for her baking business.
A woman learning business skills had this baby and was back in the next class because she didn't want to miss out.
A woman learning business skills had this baby and was back in the next class because she didn't want to miss out.
The building in the background is a newly built restaurant, opened by village women.
The building in the background is a newly built restaurant, opened by village women.

Rebuilding Haiti as Hurricane Season Looms

Neighbors in Haiti work for World Concern clearing rubble.
Neighbors in Haiti work for World Concern clearing rubble.

We all have places we’d rather avoid – things we’d rather not look at: the attic filled with rubbish that needs to be purged, that far corner of the yard that’s overgrown with weeds, or the part of the city that makes us cringe, where society’s outcasts sleep on benches.

In Haiti, entire neighborhoods have been left virtually untouched since the earthquake five months ago.

World Concern is now expanding its humanitarian reach into Fort National – one of the hardest hit neighborhoods during the quake – to begin rebuilding and repairing homes. It is one of those neighborhoods yet to see significant aid.

The rubble in this area has been a virtual tomb for hundreds of bodies. As we’re uncovering debris, we see Haitian workers overcome with the sights and smells. Our disaster relief director, Merry Fitzpatrick, says, “they appear almost drunk” as they stagger from the stench.

The pain is far from over here, but we see the importance of moving into the Fort National community. As we make progress, those in homeless camps can return home.

We’ve already helped more than 300 families move back into their newly repaired homes in the nearby Delmas neighborhood. In the meantime, 500 kit homes have arrived in Haiti – and assembly begins in the coming days. After that, we plan to build an additional 500 homes with local materials. Neighbors are working side by side to rebuild their own neighborhoods, providing a sense of tangible recovery.

“Leaders are stepping up into their roles and communities are banding together,” Merry says. “There is evidence of hope all around.”

Yet with all of this progress, the dark cloud of hurricane season looms on the horizon. Haiti was spared from major hurricanes last season, but forecasters, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have predicted a highly active season, which officially began on June 1.

Several major Category 3 or above storms are predicted before the end of hurricane season in November. Nature has created a deadline of its own for our disaster relief experts to move earthquake victims out from under tarps and into or back into homes before hurricane season peaks in August and September.

We are confident, with your help, we can beat this storm season and make sure as many vulnerable families are safe in homes this summer. We won’t seek to avoid this – but instead – take it head on.

Learn more about World Concern and our work in Haiti.

Homes are being built amidst destruction in Port-au-Prince
Homes are being built amidst destruction in Port-au-Prince