September 2, 2010 in Washington Voices

Counselor finds Haitians resilient in face of disaster

Valerie Putnam

The devastating 7.0 earthquake that shook Haiti on Jan. 12 took the lives of thousands and left millions homeless. What most saw through the eyes of the media, North Side resident and counselor Rick Kienholz experienced first hand during two trips this year to the region helping survivors cope.

“I was deeply touched by their amazing stories,” Kienholz, 62, said. He is executive director and founder of Northwest Family Advocates, a counseling ministry to youth and families at risk. “The resiliency and strength I saw, along with the deep abiding faith they had, was impressive.”

Kienholz’s call to Haiti began in February when he was recruited by friend and Children of the Nations International founder, Chris Clark, to work with the medical personnel caring for the survivors. The group is committed to a single vision, raising children who transform nations.

Before committing, Kienholz had to raise enough money to cover travel expenses as well as the difference of income while he was away from his business. He quickly raised enough money through the generosity of friends and family. And on March 3, he left for 10 days in Haiti.

Arriving seven weeks after the earthquake, Kienholz learned his assignment had changed from dealing with immediate trauma to helping 10 Haitian children deal with their injuries and loss. The children were housed at a clinic at the Children of the Nations compound in Barahona, Dominican Republic. Many of the children he saw received amputations because they were unable to receive immediate medical attention.

“I couldn’t believe the bravery I saw in those kids,” Kienholz said. “Their stories are inspiring.”

One of the children Kienholz worked with was the “happiest kid you ever met,” he said. Marcellus, 8, had the top of his right foot crushed. The injury became so infected that when he finally got into surgery the doctors needed to remove the leg to prevent further infection.

Kevin, 12, had his right leg crushed when his house collapsed. The doctors amputated it between the hip and knee. The amputation wasn’t clean, and he developed a secondary infection. Kienholz watched as this young boy daily removed the gauze from inside his stump, clean it with antiseptic ointment, then replace it with fresh gauze.

“He would hold his stump and scream but wouldn’t move a muscle,” Kienholz said “I was totally blown away.”

During his trip home, Kienholz received an e-mail from the group asking if he would consider returning to Haiti in April. This time he would lead a team of counselors working with survivors as well as conduct a three-day seminar in Port-au-Prince.

Upon returning to Spokane he learned he had enough resources to make the second trip. On April 7, he left for Haiti for another 10 days.

For this second trip, he was assigned to a field hospital on the grounds of Love a Child Orphanage. Children of the Nations, in conjunction with Harvard Health Initiative, was staffing the hospital to care for 278 survivors.

Working in extreme temperatures and primitive conditions, Kienholz put in 10- to 12-hour days. His meals consisted of mainly rice and beans and he slept in a one-man tent.

“It was unbearable,” Kienholz said of the heat. “My wife sent a small battery-operated fan with a spritzer, which was a lifesaver for me.”

Throughout the trip Kienholz estimates he worked with more than 200 people while at field hospital, individually and in groups.

After several days working on site, he and three other volunteers traveled to Port-au-Prince to conduct a seminar teaching coping skills for dealing with grief, depression and trauma. The event was attended by an estimated 300 professionals who displayed an overwhelming gratitude at the conclusion.

“Everyone stood up saying ‘Thank you for coming,’ ” Kienholz said. “It was very humbling.”

Each instructor was presented a gift. Kienholz received a 15-inch mahogany statue of a woman carrying a basket on her head that he displays in his office.

“A young woman presented this to me,” he said. “And said ‘I want you to take this and remember the burden we are carrying.’ ”

Kienholz says he’ll never forget that burden or what he experienced.

“It made me more appreciative of what I have,” Kienholz said. “I hold things a lot looser than I did before.”

Finding a deep love for the people, he intends to make two more trips to the region later this year. If we have the means, and the opportunity,” Kienholz said on returning. “What could keep us from going?”

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