With cholera running rampant and violence on the rise, John Peterson's family begged him to cancel his volunteer trip to Haiti.
He insisted on going.
"When somebody's hurt, you don't run away from them. You run to them. And these people are hurt bad," said Peterson, of Elburn, who returned home from Haiti Tuesday night along with his friend Gary Kessler of South Elgin.
The two were part of a Lutheran Church Charities mission that brought supplies and helped children orphaned by the January earthquake.
While fear has prompted some charity volunteers to cancel their trips to Haiti, Peterson said he just took extra precautions to avoid cholera such as drinking only bottled water and making meals out of the beef jerky donated to him by Ream's Meat Market in Elburn.
Peterson didn't see much cholera where he was this past week, but heard horror stories about how fast it was spreading in the northern part of the island. He said conditions in Haiti remain bad, but the stench of dead bodies no longer permeates the air, as it did when he was there in March.
Peterson is already planning a trip back to Haiti with some physician friends.
"There's a definition of sin. And that's not doing what you know is right," he said. "For me, not to go down there, and knowing it's the right thing to do, I couldn't live with myself if I didn't do it."
Suburban residents who visited Haiti this year say it's hard for most people to imagine what it's like in the impoverished Caribbean country. After the devastating earthquake, Haitians are now dealing with a cholera outbreak that, as of Tuesday, has killed nearly 1,000 people and infected nearly 15,000 others, UNICEF reports.
Cholera is a bacterial intestinal infection that causes diarrhea and vomiting, and if not treated immediately, can lead to severe dehydration or death. It's transmitted through contaminated water and food and spreads quickly when there's inadequate water treatment, poor sanitation, and inadequate hygiene a major problem in Haiti, which is awash in garbage, suburban eyewitnesses say.
"The national flower is a plastic bag," Peterson said.
Kerrie Balance, a Geneva mom who was in Haiti in September with the Global Volunteering Network, says it's no surprise cholera is spreading so quickly, given the lack of sanitation.
"You walk down the street, and there are open sewers. Six-foot, eight-foot-wide sewers with garbage and bodily fluids," Balance said. "Everything's just on the street. It's garbage, garbage, garbage everywhere. People bathe and wash clothes in the same river they go to the bathroom in."
Balance says it's upsetting to watch this happen because the Haitian people can't protect themselves. There's simply no clean water or soap to be had.
"The people are scared. They're very religious people, and they think they're being punished ... and they've done nothing wrong," she said. "I just hope people (around the world) don't forget them. I want to help spread the word on how much help they need."
Charitable groups around the suburbs are raising money to help the Haitian people through this latest crisis. Carpentersville-based RestoreHaiti.org is raising money to help schoolchildren. Hoffman Estates-based Bright Hope is taking donations to buy antibiotics and oral rehydration supplies for those infected with cholera. And the Addison-based Lutheran Church Charities is sending over hundreds of water filtration kits, which cost $30 each, to provide clean water to Haitian families.
The crisis has strengthened the resolve of the Lutheran Church Charities volunteers who still are lining up to go to Haiti despite the dangers, President Tim Hetzner said. The volunteers recognize that Haitian people need help more than ever now.
"This is not the time to back out," said Hetzner, of Palatine, who was in Haiti this summer. "This is the time to increase forces to go in, and get them resources they need."
Lutheran Church Charities, through its Bringing Hope to Haiti project, is bring a wide variety of supplies, including plastic shoes, like Crocs, because they can prevent people who might have cuts on their feet from walking in the infected water and sewage that's on the streets.
"You spend a few days in Haiti, you realized how blessed you are here," Hetzner said, adding that even something like a small bar of soap is a luxury there. "This isn't over yet. This is still spreading rapidly."