Gripping her warm Starbucks cup, Laura Mawhinney stepped off the plane and entered an entirely different scene than the one she left in sunny Miami.
Despite the short flight, it was as if the White Rock native had entered another world.
Only one word came to mind when Mawhinney, 36, described stepping out of the plane in earthquake-ravaged Haiti in 2010: Chaos.
“You feel like you’ve just entered into a dream. I can’t even properly articulate what it looks like there. It’s like a bomb went off. Worst of all, I’m afraid if you go back in 10 years, it will be the same,” Mawhinney said.
Sitting in her newly opened thrift store – proceeds from which will benefit Haiti relief – it is hard at first to imagine the blonde, bubbly woman in the trenches of a post-disaster country. Even family and friends were skeptical when they heard her plans to go to Haiti in 2010.
“Everyone thought I was crazy. But I saw it on television and I’ve never felt a pull to go anywhere in my life like that. I became obsessed and I would watch it on television every night. Watching them, I knew I could help,” Mawhinney said.
A former nurse, Mawhinney began scouring ways she could lend her medical skills to the relief. Despite finding a group that would help her come to Haiti, Mawhinney admits she knew that she was meant for more than what was initially planned.
“I knew in my heart I wasn’t going to team up with that group, but I did it so my parents would say ‘OK, you’re going somewhere safe,’” she said. “But I had this idea in my head that I was going to work under the UN, and work in a medical tent.”
While preparing for the flight from Miami to Haiti, Mawhinney’s fellow passengers turned out to be two doctors heading to work at a medical tent – an opportunity she knew she had to seize.
She quickly made her move and sat down beside the doctor, explaining her story and her desire to work alongside doctors as a nurse. Despite initial reservations, the doctors eventually agreed to bring Mawhinney – and her friend and fellow nurse, Aaron, with whom she had connected with online –along with them.
“Before I knew it, we were being ushered into their van and then the crazy part happened. My friend, Sarah, who was the co-ordinator of relief efforts at the time, told us that two people had pulled out at the last minute, and of the 36,000 people in this tent city, we were the only nurses,” Mawhinney said. “I got goosebumps.”
Immediately, Mawhinney was thrown into a world full of disease, pain and death. Each day would bring another story of someone who had lost everything, with little hope of getting anything back.
Yet, despite all that had happened, Mawhinney found there was still a light that shone from the people of Haiti.
“They have so much resilience. They find joy in the bleakest of circumstances. While I was there, I saw a wedding. A wedding in the midst of all the chaos. I couldn’t believe it,” she said.
One girl in particular struck a chord for Mawhinney.
Everyday, the little girl, who was no older than 11, came by to visit Mawhinney, who would stock her up with medical supplies for her foot, which was nearly severed after the roof of her house collapsed on her while she was eating breakfast.
On Mawhinney’s last day, she offered the girl adult vitamins for her parents, not knowing that both had perished in the earthquake.
“I hadn’t cried at all, but when I offered the vitamins and she told me both her mother and father had died when the roof collapsed, I couldn’t hold it in any longer. She was the only one who had survived and she had been stuck there for five or six days, with the bodies of her mother, father and grandfather buried around her,” Mawhinney said. “But she was telling me this so calmly and I had to stop because I didn’t want to make it worse for her.
“When we were saying goodbye, she told me she wanted to be a nurse like me, so I gave her my stethoscope.”
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Once she had returned from her trip, Mawhinney found it difficult to make the transition back to a normal life in White Rock, all the while knowing there was still work to be done.
Finally, months after her return, after a series of setbacks, Mawhinney reached her breaking point. Going to the beach by her home, she stepped out onto the sand and experienced a moment of clarity.
“I’m standing there, and everyone always talks about God’s audible voice, but I never understood that, but then I felt the strongest peace come over me and say, ‘That’s OK, because you’re going to open a thrift store,’” Mawhinney said.
Soon after making the announcement to family and friends of her goal, Mawhinney began setting the wheels in motion for her latest endeavour, Project Aftershock, a thrift store benefitting the people of Haiti.
Within a week of her decision, Mawhinney had found a location and donations began pouring in. Even finding the spot for the store was fate, Mawhinney explained.
“I was speaking to the owner of this store on the waterfront by my house and she told me that she was leaving. I called and got the place and the landlord gave me two weeks free rent and then people just starting bring in clothing, my friends started painting and I was visited by this guy – who I call my night angel – who offered to do all the signage and the awning for free.
“Just for it all to fall into place, I know that God’s in it. I’ve never had anything work like that. He never said it was going to be easy, but He’ll provide you with the resources you need,” Mawhinney said.
The store held its grand opening Jan. 5, with Mawhinney’s parents at the helm while she was in Haiti.
Now that she’s back, Mawhinney is once again beginning the process of preparing for her next trip. Partial proceeds from items sold at the store will benefit Haitians in need.
While she admits her next trip is a few months away, Mawhinney is sending out the call to the public for donations, including basic medicines, clothes and medical supplies, such as gauze and bandaids.
“Basic things like Polysporin can save a person’s life,” she said.
“I’m just one person, but I am lucky enough to see the medicine go from my bag to being handed out to the people who need it. That’s a gift.”
Project Aftershock is located at 15545 Marine Dr. For more information on Mawhinney or Project Aftershock, go to www.projectaftershock.org or call 604-536-7283.