October 17, 2011

It didn’t take long after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated the people and infrastructure of Haiti in January 2010 for Jarrett Wilson, a Dallas native, to know that was where he needed to go.

Wilson, a senior in mechanical engineering, desperately tried to go to Haiti on his own accord, but only first responders were being allowed access to the country at the time. He was told that summer 2011 would probably be the first chance he’d be allowed to visit. But that wasn’t good enough for Wilson. He was determined to take his engineering skills and help the Haitians.

Soon after, he heard about a group of students from LSU’s Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM) going to Montrious, a city 70km north of Port-au-Prince. It was the opportunity Wilson had been waiting for.

The group travelled to the secluded community of Canaan that included a school, church, clinic and orphanage. “The first night we got there, seeing all of the people and the damage was almost unreal,” said Wilson. “It took a few days to assess what could be done and where a starting point was.”

Wilson was the only student in the group who had technical experience, which proved to be critical. When the group arrived, the community had immediate electrical needs including a diesel generator that had broken two days before. Wilson wasn’t sure of the exact problem or solution, but he turned to what he had learned throughout his LSU engineering curriculum.

“A lot of what is taught in engineering is problem solving. Analyze the problem. What do we have, and what are we trying to get to? How can we get there?” said Wilson. “That’s when I realized how much of what we learn applies outside the classroom.”

After almost six days working alongside the Haitians, Wilson gained the community’s trust by finding a solution – replacing a capacitor on an inverter board that had been burnt. “Fixing the generator set the stage for me being able to go back,” said Wilson.

Wilson has travelled to Haiti three more times since his trip with the BCM on his own time and with his own money.

“Every time you go, you get new ideas, and it can open new doors,” said Wilson. He spent 14 days over the 2010 Christmas holiday in the same community helping with a water project—building a cistern and water distribution for 120 people. But, he had more up his sleeve.

Wilson took the initiative to propose a new idea he had developed since his first trip. “I proposed that instead of using diesel power, I thought they should use solar power,” said Wilson. “We looked at a cost savings analysis and how much money they could save over the course of a year and what its cost benefit would be. Using solar power will save the community almost $10,000 a year just in fuel and will pay itself off in three to four years.”

Although Wilson was quick in knowing he wanted to go to Haiti, he hasn’t always known exactly what he wanted in life. He took a semester off from school to decide what he wanted to do. During that time, Wilson worked on a farm in Southern Illinois. It was his time at the farm where Wilson gained the knowledge he would need for his ten-day trip over the Mardi Gras holiday.

On his third trip, Wilson split his time between Canaan and Respire Haiti, a nonprofit organization created to empower, educate and encourage orphans and children in Haiti. Wilson helped to teach five farmers in Gressier planting and tilling techniques to maximize the yield in the soil. Together, they planted 200 pounds of corn on 20 acres in hopes of equipping the farmers with the knowledge they needed to become more self-sufficient.

Wilson plans to continue going back to Haiti. “A lot of these partnerships are friendships, where they trust you and you’re on a level with them where you can sit and hang out. It’s not all business.”

Although Wilson has not yet graduated with his engineering degree, the knowledge he learned through his curriculum has proved invaluable to his desire to give back. “I’ve thought about starting a nonprofit engineering organization that provides engineering solutions to impoverished communities by working with nonprofit and mission organizations,” said Wilson.

Wilson’s hands-on problem solving and leadership qualities, among other traits, have exuded the attributes of the “LSU Engineer.” He brought his knowledge, talents and passion to many communities in Haiti who now look to him as an honorary Haitian engineer.

“Engineers at LSU are educated and trained to be creative problem solvers based on the knowledge of facts analyzed through critical thinking. Even as a student, Jarrett has lived up to these attributes, using the considerable breadth of the Mechanical Engineering discipline to benefit suffering Haitian communities,” said Dr. Dimitris Nikitopoulos, department chair, mechanical engineering, LSU. “This, and his volunteer spirit, speak volumes about his ethos as a person and an engineer; transforming lives in the most positive of ways.”

“Friends tell me they want to go over there but aren’t sure they can help” Wilson said. “There is the opportunity to do a lot. You don’t have to have a diploma to apply the skill sets we’ve learned in the classroom to help Haiti.”


This article was published in Baton Rouge's City Social. Click here to read the printed version. For more information, contact Cassie Arceneaux, College of Engineering, carcen6@lsu.edu or (225) 578-0092.

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