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Joseph T. Sass, Dinesh John Briganze, Glenda Dickonson, Amanda Dillehay, Devlyn McCreight, Dayna Pizzigoni, Kari A. O'Grady, Ph.D., Joseph Stewart-Sicking, Ed.D.

The Psychosocial Spiritual Experience of U.S. Helpers in Haiti following the 2010 Earthquake

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On January 12th, 2010 an overpowering earthquake hit Haiti and killed more than 230,000 people. Almost immediately after the stifling earthquake took place, helpers of all sorts began coming together to help the communities that were devastated. The purpose of this study is to learn about the psycho-spiritual experience of helpers from the United States. In this study, 13 helpers participated in a semi-structured series of interview questions about their experience before, during, and after returning from Haiti. We hoped to discover what motivated the helpers to volunteer their time in Haiti. Additionally, we aim to explore the spiritual, physical, or emotional challenges that the helpers experienced, and the gifts that they gained from their involvement. We also intend to explore the coping process of the helpers, as being surrounded by debilitated communities can have a traumatic impact on an individual. Furthermore, we wanted to learn about the re-entry experience of the helpers coming back into the United States. Specifically, we want to know which resources were available to the helpers when they returned. Lastly, we are curious as to whether the helpers experienced post-traumatic growth from their experience and whether changes to spirituality occurred.

We used a grounded theory to explore the themes that emerged from the transcribed interviews from the helpers. The insights gained from this study would serve service immersion coordinators, relief teams, and future volunteers to Haiti or other places with extreme poverty and places affects by natural disasters. The study enlightens ways to prepare volunteers, support them, and ease their transition back to the U.S. We believe that another benefit to doing this study is the psychological gain the participants receive from telling their stories. We feel that the helpers, after assisting in a natural disaster, might give us insight into how they grow psychologically, socially, and spiritually. These findings could potentially contribute to the research on the role of spirituality in service immersion experiences and how volunteer teams can help with optimal supports for their psychological and spiritual well-being and growth.

Three major themes emerged from our content analysis of our focused or second-ordering coding. The over-arching themes include psycho-spiritual stressors, psycho-spiritual connections, and psycho-spiritual transformative factors. Psycho-spiritual stressors included jolting experiences of physical discomforts and lack of resources; emotionally draining experiences; shocking experiences of witnessing poverty and devastation from the earthquake; and challenging experiences of helplessness during the earthquake. The psycho-spiritual connections included processes of spiritual grounding, strengthening, uplifting, and communing or relating to others that supported psychological and spiritual health during the trip. Lastly, the transformative factors included themes of spiritual deepening and existential meaning-making. The advice from the helpers to future helpers and motivation for going to Haiti influenced each of these themes. The intensity of the stressors and the depth of the connections were the catalysts for the transformation or impact that the helping experience has on the helpers. The emerging theory suggests that the intensity of “heart-cracking” helping experiences allowed for spiritual growth and existential meaning-making.  

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