A group of local women have teamed up to make a difference in Haiti, simply by putting their sewing skills to work.

Peg Weber of Cottage Grove met Jennifer Weitzel, founder of the nonprofit organization Health Ministries for Haiti at Edgewood College, where Weitzel is a professor. When Weber learned that Weitzel and her students had been volunteering their time in Haiti, Weber wanted to get involved.

Weber first traveled with Health Ministries for Haiti two years ago, and the group left on Monday for another weeklong trip. When Weber found out she would be traveling again, she recruited some friends to help her make a difference.

Because there are no paper or plastic bags in Haiti, when women in Haiti deliver babies, they are sent home with diapers and other supplies but they do not have any way to carry these items.

“We thought, ‘Well, what could we do that would be environmentally friendly and helpful?’” said Weitzel.

That’s where Weber stepped in, recruiting friends from the area to sew bags to take to the clinic and orphanage in Haiti. Judy Johnson of Deerfield was one of these women.

“I just want to help, and I’ve got time on my hands,” said Johnson, who had previously worked with Weber to sew dresses for young girls in Haiti.

“When Peggy was talking about you going to . . . Haiti, I thought, OK – we did all those bags, people could donate their time to sew, or fabric, or money to buy fabric,” she said.

Weber received a donation of fabric and spread the material around to several women who then went to work sewing bags. Other people made monetary donations, which were used to purchase items such as diapers, wipes and baby shampoo.

Sylvia Hughes of Cottage Grove helped sew bags, and Cottage Grove resident Joann Kessler and her daughters sewed dresses. One of Kessler’s daughters also collected Crocs to take to the children at the orphanage.

“Peggy’s energy touches every life around her, and I’m honored to be a part of her journey to Haiti,” said Karen Benoy of Cottage Grove. “If one of my bags brings a smile to a new mother, my goal is accomplished.”

Weber is one of a group of 10 people who are currently in Haiti helping at the school of nursing. The group will help make Haiti more self-sustainable by giving guest lectures at the school, and they will also spend a lot of time at the orphanage putting floride varnish on the children's teeth because they have no dental care in that area.

“It’s great to be able to touch the third world,” said Weber. “And the thing that I like is that we know it’s going to go right to the people. There’s not a third person in between; I mean, we are hand-delivering this stuff.”

Founding Health Ministries for Haiti

Weitzel founded Health Ministries for Haiti in 2007, after traveling to Haiti for the first time in 2005. She traveled with a group out of Baraboo, and around the same time, her sister adopted a child from a Haitian orphanage.

“How I ended up starting my own nonprofit, if I’m being really honest about that, it was out of certainly a passion for the work,” said Weitzel, a public health nurse. “The idea of running a nonprofit to help in a developing country was really driven by a lot of, sort of first-world arrogance and ignorance.

“I really had no idea what I was getting into, but through partnership with the Haitian organization, now our approach is much more collaborative, much more thoughtful – same amount of passion – I just feel like the partnership has made all the difference, because you really need to support the on-the-ground institutions.”

When Weitzel began traveling to Haiti, she was teaching undergraduate nursing students at Edgewood College. She taught students in their last semester of the nursing program, and because they often had time between graduating and beginning a job, some of the students began traveling with her.

She shared that some of these students have gone to Haiti with her multiple times and some of them are even on the Health Ministries for Haiti board now.

“This year and last year are the first two years since that earthquake that we’re actually able to kind of get back on track with some of our long-term goals and what the clinic and orphanage were wanting to do,” Weitzel said. “But, especially for the clinic side of things, it’s really been recovering since the earthquake.”

This month marks the sixth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, and Weitzel, who was in Haiti when the earthquake occurred, said the country has struggled to recover since then. While the work the organization has done in Haiti has at times seemed to be one step forward, three steps back, Weitzel is optimistic.

“I feel like now we’re in a place where we’re sort of out of that recovery mode and re-focusing on building systems again,” she said. “So, the school of nursing – we’re educating nurses at this clinic, we’re finishing construction on a brand new clinic facility where moms will be able to deliver their babies safely.”

Weitzel, Weber and the rest of their group will return from their Haiti trip Monday, but their work does not end then. Weitzel typically travels to the country twice a year, and the organization is always looking for donations and volunteers.

More information about the work Health Ministries for Haiti does, including information about donating to the organization, is available at www.healthministriesforhaiti.org. The organization is also active on Facebook at www.facebook.com/HMHaiti.

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