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Volunteer counts her blessings, heads for Haiti


Johanna L. Olson is deferring her ambitions for a year to volunteer in the Refugee Disaster Program at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor.

"I have had so much luck and so much devotion throughout my life," said Ms. Olson, 23, a Wautoma, Wis., resident who moved to the Carroll County town in September to work at the center. "It is time to focus on something greater than me."

An art historian and a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., she has found that "entering the volunteer world is a precarious existence."

That existence could be a little shakier during the next two weeks. She is leaving Carroll County's smallest town today for Haiti, where she will be part of a 32-member delegation of election observers.

On June 25, the Caribbean nation -- holding its first democratic election in five years and the second in its history -- will choose about 2,000 local and national officials.

The delegation, sponsored by Witness for Peace and other human rights organizations, will provide a presence in Haiti before and during the election, and will summarize its findings.

"The delegation will monitor the election," Ms. Olson said. "Our objective is to be a presence, to make sure no political intimidation or violence occurs in the voting areas."

Kim and Liz Porter, the husband-and-wife team leading the Haiti delegation, have coordinated the effort from Miami. They will travel with Ms. Olson.

"This is an extremely critical parliamentary election," said Ms. Porter in a telephone interview. "Those elected will have a gigantic role, and will likely set the tone for the remainder of [President Jean-Bertrand] Aristide's term. Whoever is elected will have a major role in carrying out the new wave."

The volunteer monitors will study Haitian election laws, protocol and procedures, political trends and recent developments during two-day orientation in Port-au-Prince. Then they will separate into groups, accompanied by translators, and travel to the country's isolated towns.

"I know conditions will be extreme, with no running water or electricity," Ms. Olson said. "This will be the Third World like I have not experienced, and nothing can prepare you for poverty on this scale."

She said she has "my Haitian history down. I studied. I know the acronyms and what the groups stand for."

A fair democratic election will mean a fair, stable Haiti, Ms. Porter said.

"If some of the old guard gets back in through intimidation, it could spell trouble for democracy," she said. "If the vote is tainted in any way, there will not be credibility in the outcome."

Humbling experience

The volunteers will be posted at village polling stations to make sure the process runs smoothly, she said.

"This is critical and it is humbling to be part of it," Ms. Olson said.

To assist voters, the ballots have photographs of candidates and symbols of the party each one represents.

Although much of the country's population is illiterate, Haitians "really keep up with political events," said Ms. Porter. "The Haitians are astute political analysts. The average citizen knows the candidate and the stance. The voters understand the issues and implications."

The delegation will observe the vote count, which will take place twice -- once at the polling places and again at the departmental level. The delegates also may transport the ballots to the Haitian capital.

"The observers may turn in complaints, but they have no authority to act on them," Ms. Porter said. "Their job is to discern the general atmosphere."

Ms. Olson will be assigned to Jeremie, a city in southern Haiti where the races are hotly contested, said Ms. Porter.

"Jeremie has had a lot of political difficulties," Ms. Porter said.

Despite Haiti's history of violence, the delegation has little to fear for its safety, said Ms. Porter, who has made three trips to the country.

"I have never experienced any fear for myself," she said. "The Haitians are a warm and overwhelmingly kind people."

Poverty, desolation and hope

Ms. Olson said she is expecting a peaceful setting and a vibrant culture.

"I know there will be poverty and desolation, but also hope," she said. "These people are on the verge, wondering could it work and will it last."

She is more nervous about becoming ill and slowing down the delegation. She is packing preventive medicine, iodine tablets for the water and lots of insect repellent.

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