The earthquake in Haiti hit hard at the Daughters of Israel nursing home in West Orange, where some 30 percent of the 400-person staff hails from the Caribbean nation.
For some departments, such as housekeeping, up to 80 percent of employees are Haitian.
At a prayer service on Friday morning, three days after the Jan. 12 earthquake, tears fell as staff members hugged, cried, and comforted one another in the home’s chapel.
Immediately after the quake, Rabbi Zvi Karpel, Daughters of Israel Plafsky Family Campus chaplain, began leading impromptu prayer services, provided employees with his personal cell phone number for private counseling, and offered the chapel whenever they might need a space for quiet meditation.
“You get very anxious, and you have sleepless nights. You have a heavy heart because you are not sure what the future holds. It’s hard to deal with,” said Bethie Normil, a registered nurse and supervisor who is originally from Haiti.
She has plenty of family there, including the adoptive father who raised her, two brothers, many cousins, and a nephew who had just returned to Haiti from the United States. At the time of the interview, she had not yet been able to contact anyone in Haiti; later, a sister in Europe confirmed that two brothers and an adoptive brother were all fine. The others, however, remained unaccounted for.
She came to the Friday service “for inner peace and strength,” she said.
Cooks Gauthier, who works in housekeeping, was waiting to hear from his wife and daughters, both in Haiti. He said he could not consider missing work despite his anxiety. “When I come to work, I work in my place. If I stay home it’s not good for me. Stay at home and wait?” He shook his head, glumly.
He hasn’t heard anything so far, but said, “I’m confident they did not die.” If no news is forthcoming, he said, he will go to Port-au-Prince to see what he can discover there himself about the fate of his family.
Supervisors and colleagues at the home now find themselves in the role of crisis counselors. “I had a department head come to me and say, ‘They’re walking around, crying; they are getting word or they’re getting information, not all of it good news, and I don’t know how to comfort them,’” said DOI executive director Susan Grosser.
Grosser views the staff as an extended family. “A job is a job, but you spend so much of your day here, so much of your life here, you become intertwined with everybody; you become part of a family, and you know, we are their family. So we’re here with them as well. It’s just heart wrenching. Every department here has been affected,” she said.
Daughters has become a charitable collection point for the town of West Orange and for the local community. All funds will be sent to the American Red Cross. “People are opening their wallets and leaving cash,” said Renee Glick, DOI’s director of marketing and public relations. “They just want to help.”
The institution, a partner agency of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ, will hold a drive for other goods once the needs are assessed.
Among those at the prayer service was Marie Dimanche, who works in the activities department. Her mother, brother, cousins, niece, uncle — “almost all my family” are in Haiti. She has heard from some of her relatives, “but there’s a part nobody can get through [to]. We tried by phone, try to send e-mail, anything we can find but we cannot find any news about them yet. It is horrible. The only hope we know is that God knows what’s going on.”
And worse, they have heard nothing from her husband’s family. “Nobody calls. We try every day to get in touch with them.”
Like Gauthier, she comes to work anyway. “It’s very difficult to come to work but we are trying to do our best for the residents. At the same time, we are grieving.”
As they began to shuffle out of the sanctuary, clutching tissues, one staff member called to another, “Don’t run out. We are your community. We are all we have to comfort each other.”
Before going to press, NJJN received updates on the status of Daughters staffers’ relatives in Haiti. Marketing director Renee Glick said that Bethie Normil learned that her aunt and adult goddaughter had died, along with the goddaughter’s family. The rest of her immediate family is okay, as is her husband’s family; however, many are now homeless and living in the street. “That’s a big issue now,” she said.
Glick said that Marie Dimanche heard good news about her immediate family, including her mother. But she lost a cousin and two nieces are still missing.
As for Cooks Gauthier, his wife and daughter were located over the weekend, Glick said.