Freeland couple shares stories of relief work in Haiti

Susan and Rocky Knickerbocker encountered countless scenes of destruction during their recent visit to Haiti. - Photo courtesy of Susan Knickerbocker
Susan and Rocky Knickerbocker encountered countless scenes of destruction during their recent visit to Haiti.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of Susan Knickerbocker

A Freeland couple is back from a 10-day visit to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They went to see their missionary daughter and son-in-law, and to help wherever they could.

Susan and Rocky Knickerbocker got a first-hand look at the devastation caused by last month’s earthquake and gained a fuller appreciation of the magnitude of the worldwide relief effort underway in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.

“It’s hard to tell the earthquake damage,” Susan Knickerbocker said Monday. “So much of the country seems just damaged anyway.”

But amid the rubble, she sees hope.

“It’s pretty heartwarming seeing all the countries helping,” she said. “The whole world is there. It could be a new beginning for Haiti.”

Rocky Knickerbocker owns Knickerbocker Heating in Freeland and is chairman of the Freeland Water and Sewer District board. Susan Knickerbocker is the author of the popular “Hometown Heroes” series that runs monthly in the Record.

Both are active in the community and in charitable causes through their church.

They went to the neighboring Dominican Republic to see their daughter and son-in-law, Vanessa and Sean Janssen, both South Whidbey High School graduates who have been living and working there since August.

The Knickerbockers took with them nine large suitcases filled with medical supplies collected on South Whidbey.

The supplies included antibiotic ointments; bandages, gauze and tape; water-purification tablets; diarrhea medication; sterile gloves; soap; and dental floss, toothbrushes and toothpaste.

Donated by Whidbey General Hospital and a number of local residents, the supplies were collected by the local Sister Island Project, a charitable partnership between Whidbey Island and the Dominican Republic.

Others off-island stepped up to help, too.

“Alaska Airlines waived the luggage fee,” Susan Knickerbocker said.

Individual local donors of medical supplies included Dave and Diane Mattens, Mary and Michale Dettrich, Eli Adadow, Victoria Santos, Whidbey General hospital doctors, Kevin and Mary Jane Lungren, Mary and Grady Vaughan, Mary and Frank Taylor, and Richard and Sandie Husom.

The medical supplies were for Dominican hospitals, which are caring for Haitians injured in the earthquake.

During their trip, the Knickerbockers visited Dominican hospitals and trauma centers with their daughter and son-in-law.

Susan Knickerbocker said 80 percent of the patients in Dominican hospitals are Haitian. She told of seeing three children in a single bed, and patients in beds that were wall-to-wall in the halls.

She told of meeting a Haitian man who had gone outside his house to get something as the earthquake struck. His entire family, still inside, was killed.

She told of children missing arms and legs.

“There was story after story like that,” Knickerbocker said.

The couple also accompanied their daughter and son-in-law to the schools where they were teaching English, and to local churches.

They also helped to hand out boxes of toys to poor children in the Dominican Republic under a charitable program called “Samaritan’s Purse.”

As they went about their tasks, the couple soaked up the local atmosphere, especially the loud music.

“They play music to the highest volume possible 24 hours a day,” Susan Knickerbocker said. “They ride around in autos with giant speakers blasting their music, or out of their homes.”

The couple’s one trip to Haiti itself was “a last-minute thing,” Susan Knickerbocker said.

They learned of a church that desperately had been counting on a truckload of food and water, only to have money for the supplies fall through.

The Knickerbockers put up the $5,000 for a truckload of food and water, and to hire a driver, and then went along for the seven-hour ride.

She described how the driver careened through crowded streets, bounced off other vehicles, and plowed through checkpoints guarded by armed men in uniform who the driver said were demanding money which he refused to pay.

“Everything was surreal,” Knickerbocker said. “We weren’t really scared. It was like the Mr. Toad ride at Disneyland.”

They managed to arrive at Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, deliver their supplies, and get a police escort out of town the same night.

Back in Freeland, the couple say they definitely will return to deliver more medical supplies, and they hope to get enough money together to buy another flatbed truckload of food and water.

Knickerbocker said the need in Haiti will continue for some time to come, and she urged everyone to give what they can to charities taking part in the relief effort.

“It was Haiti’s worst disaster in hundreds of years,” she said. “Really, things can only go up.”

“We were fortunate to go,” she added. “Absolutely, we’d go again.”

For more information about Sister Island Project, or to donate, visit To contact Vanessa and Sean Janssen, e-mail

To contact the Knickerbockers, e-mail

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