United Methodist Committee on Relief

In Haiti: Washing Hands for Good Health

Celebrating Global Handwashing Day in Haut Damier

By Dawn Anderson*

October 15, 2013—The music of DJ Don played in the background while children laughed and danced. Hundreds of people queued in two lines waiting patiently for their turn at the kiosks. Health promoters made their way through the crowd distributing flyers featuring descriptive pictures of proper techniques. Bars of soap were distributed to hundreds and hundreds of people eagerly wanting to learn more about the subject at hand.

The event? Global Handwashing Day as celebrated by the residents of Haut Damier, a community located 15 miles north of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. What is Global Handwashing Day? It is an event held each year on this day to spread awareness and provide education about the importance of handwashing for good health. The theme of Global Handwashing Day 2013 is “The power is in your hands,” as everyone can make a difference in maintaining good health by washing their hands.

This year, UMCOR Haiti, in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), held the event as part of the Provision of Integrated Services around New Settlement (PISANS) project. PISANS is an integrated suite of livelihoods, shelter, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs aimed at improving the quality of life for existing residents of Haut Damier and for new occupants of USAID’s housing settlement in the same community.

Global Handwashing Day was originally conceived by its organizers as a day for children and schools, but it is now celebrated by organizations, families, and individuals interested in learning more about the benefits of handwashing and learning proper handwashing techniques. According to the Global Handwashing Day website, more than 200 million people in more than 100 countries around the world participate in handwashing activities.

The joint UMCOR Haiti – USAID event was festive, informative, and fun. Contests, including one featuring a question-and answer-session about the ABC’s of handwashing, rallied the crowd. Prizes were given away to contestants, with one winner, Wilbert Pierre, declaring the day a “success” and one that UMCOR and USAID should “repeat often,” as the health and hygiene messages are needed in the community. Winners of the contests received bags that contained a washcloth, soap, hand gel sanitizers, and wet wipes. Refreshments were also served. In total, more than 1,000 schoolchildren, their parents, and community members attended the four-hour event held at the Reforme Church in the center of Haut Damier.

For Sheila Gustalle, the day’s celebration was nothing short of incredible.

“I haven’t seen so many people get together for something so good in a long, long time,” she said. Gustalle has three children—12, 9, and 2 years old—and they all know how to properly wash their hands because PISANS health promoters use her home to hold neighborhood meetings around sanitation and hygiene issues, including proper handwashing techniques. But that is not all. Sheila said the health promoters also share useful information with the community about broader prevention issues surrounding diseases such as malaria and cholera. “This is so important to the health of our families,” she said.

Not only does handwashing have a profound impact on disease-transmission prevention, it also positively impacts a child’s education. The fewer school days lost to absenteeism because of diarrhea or cholera, the more days children are in the classroom and learning.

“It was an amazing event,” said Marthen Malo, the PISANS coordinator. “It just shows us the community is interested and motivated to learn more about handwashing. They really understand why it is important to all of our lives. I am so pleased with today’s event.”

Dawn Anderson is UMCOR Haiti’s senior grants coordinator and has been with UMCOR since September 2012.

Young children take their turn to practice recently-learned handwashing techniques during the Global Handwashing Day celebration in Haut Damier, Haiti. Photo: Susan Watkins.Young children take their turn to practice recently-learned handwashing techniques during the Global Handwashing Day celebration in Haut Damier, Haiti. Photo: Susan Watkins.