Overcoming Haiti’s Earthquake: A Social Work Graduate’s Story
(Written by Nick Thompson, edited and posted by Caity Paynich)
Social workers wear many hats. Each day has a different story, and typically the roles change frequently in order to best help the client. The underlying factor is to always help those in need. Chris Nungester, a 2000 alumna with a degree in social work, put on a hat many social workers do not have the chance to wear: the hat of one of those clients in need.
Nungester is a survivor of the epic earthquake that shattered the entire country of Haiti in January of 2010, claiming the lives of over 200,000 people and affecting over three million. After her graduation from UF and from The Ohio State University in 2001 with a masters in social work, Nungester and her husband, Hal, moved to Haiti to open H.I.S. (Haitian Interdenominational Shelter) Home for Children.
Nungester first traveled to Haiti after a Haiti seminar class at Findlay and an Oilers Serving Abroad trip. She had the opportunity to visit the country, engage with the people, and speak with social workers in Haiti, developing a connection that made her want to come back and help immediately. “My first time in Haiti I saw the extreme poverty we all hear about, yet balanced with that poverty was hope, a hope for a future where children could grow up in a better life than what their parents went through,” Nungester said. “I knew at that point, my calling was to help these people in need.”
With a budget of 10,000 dollars, they opened up the shelter with a mission to help parents in Haiti care for their children or care for children in need of parents. “Our goal is to not take kids away from their families but to provide services so those kids can stay with their families,” Nungester said.
After the earthquake struck in 2010, with the lives of 122 orphans in her shelter at risk, Nungester had to evacuate the country immediately with 80 adoptive children. Packaging of resources, documentation of children, coordination of flights to the United States, and corresponding with active adopting families, Nungester relied on the service of other social workers around the world to survive. “We needed help immediately, and I became a client of a social worker,” Nungester said. “I had the opportunity to experience social work, to rely on the trust and assistance of someone else, from the other side of the table from what I had been trained to do.”
Nungester attributes her success in the social work field in Haiti to the skills and techniques learned in her time at The University of Findlay. She explained that her professors were constantly challenging her to think past her initial inclination on every situation. “A crucial lesson that I learned at UF was the ability to think of the right questions and search within myself for the right answers,” Nungester said. “This not only allowed us to survive the earthquake, but also to remain a successful and impactful service to the people of Haiti.”
In the field of social work, knowing all the answers is not usually the case. Nungester explained each day comes with new challenges that are unexpected, and the proper way to handle that situation is extremely unique, especially in Haiti.
“To stay within the confines of the code of ethics of social work, in a country that has the reputation of the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and the most corrupt country in the world, it is an extremely difficult place to practice social work,” Nungester said. Yet the many obstacles that Nungester continues to overcome during her time in Haiti are all worth it and encourage her to remain practicing in the field.
“The earthquake is something I would never want to experience again. However, I would never want to trade what I have learned and the amazing people that I have had the opportunity to help or who have helped me in order to survive the environment of living in Haiti,” Nungester said. “It is truly a place where I can make an everlasting change in a person’s life, which makes every battle worth fighting.”
Hear more from Nungester: