Special Recognition for Haiti Rice Distribution

Haiti camp

Catholic Relief Services logisitician, Shannon Oliver, at the Petionville Club camp Photo by Sara A. Fajardo/CRS

By Shannon Oliver

I was in the middle of collecting food vouchers at a massive distribution of World Food Program rice when the three-star general arrived. It was my second week overseeing the delivery of relief supplies to needy Haitian families. I’d been assigned to manage food delivery in the Tabarre region, a large swath of urban sprawl on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

Typically my day begins at 4:30 a.m. when I hop in my car and set out to pick up volunteers and local government officials, who are key elements in any successful distribution. We begin early in order to deliver the food at a time of day when people are calmer, and also to give ourselves sufficient time to hand out vouchers for the following day’s distribution. Throughout the morning, I coordinate with the U.S. military and U.N. peacekeeping troops, who accompany us on these missions to help with such logistics as loading and unloading the food, monitoring for counterfeit vouchers and crowd aggression.

Communicating with the military and the crowd itself is crucial for maintaining order. Even the smallest detail can be a clue as to how a group is responding to the heat, the length of time in line, and people trying to incite the crowd. We send out volunteers to examine the crowd to watch for people who are being aggressive, cutting in line, pleading for coupons, bullying others or trying to steal the food, every crowd has its own personality and you need to know how to work with it. The three things that are essential in preventing a crowd from turning violent are, situational awareness, and social and emotional intelligence. Every day is a new lesson on how to refine our efforts. When we first began it took us 7-8 hours to get food to 9,600 people, now it takes as little as 2½ hours.

Word got out in military circles that our distribution site was running smoothly in comparison to other sites in Port-au-Prince. You have to keep mind that Haiti was poor before the earthquake, people didn’t have lot to begin with and have lost their social safety net—even people that were better off are now struggling. There is just a pervading sense of desperation, loss, and grief, and all of these elements combined make our job of delivering food difficult. The three-star general came and observed our work and reported back to his boss, a four-star general, and encouraged him to come see us in action.

The next morning a huge contingency of high-level military officers arrived at our site. I’d never seen so many stars in my life. There were three star generals, four star generals, one star generals, admirals, colonels, a U.S. ambassador and the head of the Latin American and Caribbean region for USAID. They arrived with a fanfare of flashing lights, and a convoy of black SUVs. They stepped out and spoke to the commander on site. I didn’t realize they were there. I was in the middle of getting ready to check on a rice truck delivery when they started coming towards me, and I was introduced by a captain and major to our visitors. Then General Fraser, approached me and began asking very specific questions about what were doing, how we are doing things, what our needs are, and our long term plans for sustaining the distribution,. Soon others jumped in and started thanking me for my service. Then other generals started asking me questions, it went from four-star, to four-star, to three-star general asking me questions. Once they were done the one-star generals began querying me.

They observed my work for a while, and as they left, General Fraser stopped me and said that they had a tradition in the military of awarding coins for excellence in service. He then he handed me a large heavy coin—the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment award of excellence. He left to be shown more sections of the camp, and I was then approached by another general who also told me the story of the coins. He thanked me for my service and the fine work my team is accomplishing and handed me the U.S. Transportation Command award of excellence.

But it wasn’t over, a third general stepped forward, General Duncan J. McNabb and gave me an award for the U.S. southern command for all the branches of military service. I was amazed by the recognition. This work is challenging and intense, yet extremely meaningful. It’s one of those jobs that you can work 16 hours and still want to get up and do it the next day at 4 a.m. and the weekends, because you’re motivated by the need. Seeing people get the aid they need, it’s instant gratification. For me it’s the most important work happening on the planet right now.

I put the coins in my pocket and continued working. I felt extremely honored but I had to keep working, the needs continue, and I’m willing to work until everyone is served.

Shannon Oliver is a CRS logisitician overseeing distributions in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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One Response to “Special Recognition for Haiti Rice Distribution”

  1. Wilhelminia Roberts Shannon's aunt Alabama Says:

    Keep up the wonderful work. Love you.

    Aunt Wilhelminia

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