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.

Why We Won’t Give Up On Haiti

A Haitian grandmother outside her tent.
A Haitian grandmother sits outside her tent, where she lives with nine other people.

It’s been six months. To me, it doesn’t seem that long since January 12. I know we’ve made progress in the recovery. But to Haitians still in need, the last six months probably have seemed like an eternity.

As someone who has visited the country a few times, before and after the quake, I am not surprised Haiti remains a mess. For homeless Haitians, they have no choice but to deal with it.

Last time I was there, I sat with a grandmother in an obliterated neighborhood who smiled, touched my hand – and reassured me – when describing her life in a tent with nine other people. She showed me how they prop up their tent on rocks during thunderstorms to allow rainwater to race underneath.

Let me step back and look at what life was like pre-quake. Before the earthquake, the fragile people – and the government – were surviving on a thread. This is a place that was enduring a food crisis, where the poorest people ate mud pies, just to feel like they were eating SOMETHING. Even then, Port-au-Prince looked a like a disaster zone.

For years, the lack of basic services and infrastructure – imagine city roads only passable by 4×4 because of rocks and ruts – and the astounding poverty (80% of the population) formed a framework of instability. Still, when I visited a year prior, the UN security force, MINUSTAH, was both tolerated by locals and was providing a baseline of stability. And amazingly, Haiti WAS slowly improving.

Countries teetering on the edge of failure, though, cannot handle something like a massive earthquake. Something of that scale would likely strain even solid governments. The quake seemed to push Haiti’s government off of the radar. It is easy to see why: nearly all of the government offices, including the presidential palace, still are in ruins.

But , here is the net effect: Right now, it is up to the desperately poor to pick up the pieces and continue on. These are people who make, on average, $1.25 or less a day, like the grandma in the tent. These are people who lost their homes, livelihoods and family members. THANKFULLY, the poor are not alone, as agencies like World Concern are providing critical assistance to rebuild.

I also know this to be true: Corruption and inefficiency remain in Haiti. I’ve heard first-hand stories about how the relief is not getting done quickly enough because of powerful people who want to control the flow of supplies – and get a cut from aid organizations. Add this to a crippled infrastructure and general complications with an enormous international response, and you have a mammoth ship with many captains that is difficult to steer.

Still, I get agitated when I hear people say that the U.S. should essentially write off Haiti. I often see comments like these in response to news stories about Haiti. The logic is, “Why don’t we spend that money here. It’s just going to waste over there.”

So – what should we do about it? What is the right thing to do about it?

I can tell you one thing for certain, that if we simply decide to look away, to say it is a lost cause, people will die. Haitians do not have the resources. Plain and simple. Thankfully, many compassionate people have decided that providing this aid is the right thing to do, even if it is complicated.

What do we value? To me, we have a responsibility – as people who are able – to save lives. In a situation like this, an epic humanitarian crisis, we must have the interest of the most vulnerable in mind, not an unwillingness to work in or with a country that has failed its people.

Though progress is slow, we are rebuilding lives. For its part, World Concern is using the money pledged to rebuild in productive ways. We have provided aid to 100,000 people in the form of some sort of relief supplies or services. We have rebuilt nearly 600 homes and are ready to assemble 500 “home kits.” And, we are restarting small businesses through grants, which total about $150,000 to date.

Without a doubt, Haiti has one of the most messed up governments in the world. And, by World Concern’s estimates, the recovery time needed to rebuild has gone from 3-5 years, to 20.

I wish people could sit with a grandma in Haiti as I have. It makes it so much more real. Instead of reciting the figure that 2 million people are directly affected by the quake, it is much more helpful to recall the individual people we are fighting for. The grandmother, who touches your hand in her miserable situation and prays and believes that she will get through this pain.

Despite Haiti’s troubles, that kind grandma, through no fault of her own, lives in Haiti – and just needs to go to bed at night knowing she won’t be washed away in the storm.

Read more about what we’re doing now in this Reuters article.

Learn more and join our response.

Help Wanted: Darfur Refugees Find Work

Chad refugee
Mohammed, a 21-year-old refugee from Darfur, works in World Concern's Cash for Work program.

Stone by stone, 21-year-old Mohammed builds back a bit of his dignity. The tall, lean young man works with several hundred other refugees in 100 degree heat in Eastern Chad, picking up rocks, and dropping them into rows.

He joins other men, and many women wearing bright traditional dresses, to build these low rock walls on hillsides to reduce erosion.

The task: simple and exhausting. The outcome: dignity and freedom.

What I saw today was amazing. Darfur war refugees had an opportunity to work.

“This I like,” Mohammed tells me in English. “I buy clothes. I eat. It’s for my family.”

Mohammed left his home in Darfur, Sudan, seven years ago. He says Janjaweed rebels killed his father and many other family members, shooting rocket propelled grenades into his village.

Since he fled, he’s been living near Goz Beida, Chad. He’s in one of several camps here. In spite of his current life, he does not want to return to Sudan. All told, more than 400,000 people are refugees or   internally displaced in Chad.

Because Mohammed and thousands of others are not at home, they have seen that finding work is an incredible challenge. Because they can’t work, they can’t provide for their families beyond what they are given.

World Concern’s program, called Cash For Work, allows them to earn an income, giving them some financial freedom again, while also improving their environment.

The low walls, called bunds, slow the rain runoff down hillsides. This encourages water to soak into the ground, raising the water table. Within a year, it will be a good place for farming and a better place to drill a well.

The influx of refugees has exacted a toll on the local environment, as they have torn down trees to burn for firewood. The rock walls – and tree replanting – are helping to heal the land.

For Mohammed, he treasures each opportunity to earn money. He enjoys learning, and says he likes America. His future remains uncertain, but he now has more of a chance to direct it on his own terms.

Learn more and take action:

Repairing broken walls—healing broken lives

Carle in Haiti
Carle in front of his home of 29 years, which was recently repaired by World Concern.

At first glance, this photo could be looked over quickly as one of the many that come through my inbox or are stored in our overflowing archives of photos from Haiti taken since January 12. But this one came with a story, and it really puts a face and a name on the long term effects of this disaster.

Carle is just one man among the millions who have had their lives rocked by trauma. He and his wife have lived in this house for 29 years. They raised all seven of their children here. Their home was recently repaired by World Concern through our donors’ contributions. It turns out, this essential act provided the foundation for stability he desperately needed.

Carle was working down the road when the earthquake hit. As buildings crumbled around him, he started running towards home. His house was severely damaged, but still standing. His neighbors’ home had collapsed, trapping its occupants inside. Carle worked frantically to rescue his neighbors, but by the time he was able to reach them, most of them had died. The memory of their corpses led to post traumatic stress, which Carle attempted to quell by drinking.

Having his roof replaced and cracked walls repaired not only provided practical help, it helped soothe his emotional wounds and was the starting point for his healing.

Carle told our staff members in Haiti that he hopes God would bless his children with work and that God would continue to move in his country. He also wanted to thank everyone, from the donors to the laborers who helped him remove the rubble from this home and brought, “help from above.”

“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3

Like Doublemint Gum, Except Bad

It is too common for children to see child labor in Chad. The country has an overall literacy rate of 26%.

You know the old commercials for Doublemint gum? Two unusually beautiful twin sisters or brothers pop out from behind a cabana, or do a spread-eagle on a ski slope, grinning with their white teeth and minty fresh breath? Double your pleasure, double your fun? I had a realization like that today, except less minty.

So I’m in Chad right now. Some have called it the “Dead Heart of Africa.” Don’t read into it, other than it’s in the middle of Africa. I’m in Ndjamena, the capitol, and will catch a UN flight in the morning to World Concern’s project area in refugee camps on the far eastern part of the country, near Sudan. That’s where the Darfur war has been going on.

I’ve been researching some basic data on the country to prepare for this trip, and I found:

  • One in 10 children die before the age of five here.
  • 62% of people are in extreme poverty, making less than $1.25 a day
  • Only one in four people can read and write

Pretty mind-boggling stuff, right? And then I realized that where we’re working, these figures are generous.

Jane Gunningham, who helped start our humanitarian relief work in eastern Chad, tells me illiteracy there is more than double the country average. She said:

“Literacy in the eastern zone is about 10%. Virtually no women are literate in the east.”

And as for incomes, also worse than the country average. But perhaps the most startling, is that instead of one in 10 children dying before the age of five, it’s one in five kids. Double the number of child deaths.

Really? I wish it was not true. It’s tough enough here. It’s no wonder, though. Introduce a war that impacts families already living on the edge, sending 400,000 refugees or displaced people to camp within Chad, and it should be no surprise these figures are far worse.

There is a ray of hope, though, as I prepare to fly out in the morning to see the camps. Jane says the work we’re doing, is making a real and noticeable difference. Whether it is help with farming, with temporary employment doing community service, or it is in small savings and loan groups – these small interventions bring big results.

“The whole economy across the board is struggling to get by,” Jane told me. “It takes only a small input to increase a family’s survivability.”

I’m looking forward to seeing first-hand how this is working.

Learn more and take action:

Documenting Darfur War Refugees

World Concern's Derek Sciba is traveling to Chad to visit refugee camps.

Ever since I have worked at World Concern, I have seen the photos and heard the stories about Goz Beida. It’s a small town in Eastern Chad that grew from about 5,000 people to 70,000 people as the Darfur War and associated conflicts. It’s dirty, overcrowded – and the only safe haven thousands of families have experienced since they were chased from their homes by crazy gun-wielding maniacs. They’ve left their farms, they’ve seen their homes and communities burned, they’ve lost loved ones in the violence. Now – they are camping. Camping from now until who-knows-when. Their lives have become upended, and they are trying to see a future in chaos.

World Concern supports these refugees and displaced people with humanitarian aid in a variety of ways. In general, we help ensure thousands of them don’t die from health epidemics and empower them to make money so that they can buy food and provide for their families with dignity.

So that’s why I have the privilege in traveling there right now. Over the next couple of weeks, I will be meeting those who we serve, and seeing the ways their lives have changed since they left their homes. My job is to document what we do in photos and video.

Please let me know what questions you would like answered, as I would love to be your eyes and ears there in the camps.

– Derek Sciba

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.

Kenyan Villagers Start New Community Bank

These women are saving for their future at a World Concern-sponsored credit union in Kenya.
These women are saving for their future at a World Concern-sponsored credit union in Kenya.

I just received an amazing email from the president of World Concern, David Eller. He’s in Africa. You know the idea of giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish? Well, we’ve trained fishermen in Kenya. Actually – bankers and businesspeople.

We started community credit unions several years ago … and the people who we’ve helped have taken the concepts they’ve learned and started their own new credit union. The idea of saving and getting loans has been a new concept for many of the people we serve. But when they “get it,” they can save to pay for school fees, have money to last them through a drought, and also get loans to start and expand businesses.

They are able to better provide for themselves and take control of their own destiny. Sustainable development. This is cool stuff.

Anyway, here is what Dave wrote:

One of the Village Credit Unions (Financial Service Associations) that World Concern launched in rural Kiritiri, Kenya is reproducing itself. World Concern has set up seven village credit unions in rural parts of Kenya with the goal of each of them becoming self sustaining. It is a program that is working with six of the seven making a profit for their community shareholders last year.

In an exciting development one of the more remote and successful credit unions decided to open a branch office in the neighboring district. They are using the profits from their first location to expand into the new district.

They realized that 250 of their 770 share holders were coming a great distance from the neighboring district Kivaa just to access financial services the credit union provided. The shareholder board of directors decided that they should open a branch in Kivaa to provide the financial services that are not available.

On their own they have found and remodeled a location for the credit union Kivaa office. Then they started selling additional shares in the credit union with 40 new members joining the first day. From our experience with credit unions that is an amazing one day of share selling. The new community is very excited and the home credit union is affirmed in the need for this branch. As part of setting up the new location have requested that World Concern provide a safe and training for the branch manager and cashier.

This example of community ownership and reaching out for new opportunities shows that there is a complete grasp of the concepts of meeting their own needs from resources within the community.

This information came from our Kenya Economic Development Manager Winnie Ghachuri. We were talking in her office here in Nairobi, Kenya on the first day of my Africa visit. Winnie has many years of experience with humanitarian aid and economic development programs. She is very excited to see this community driven developmental step taking place.

World Concern started planting Financial Service Associations in 2004. This savings based community model of economic development has brought beneficial financial services to remote areas of Kenya. The program has also been launched in our program areas in South Sudan. Two more locations have been identified and will be started in the second half of this year.