The world around Yangshen Nerestant was literally crumbling.
With the audacity of David in a face-off with Goliath, the 16-year-old’s response to the 2010 magnitude 7.0 earthquake that pummeled her homeland of Haiti was not to scramble for her personal safety, but to selflessly search for a place to volunteer with relief workers.
With a name that means “nourishing life” in Chinese, Yangshen’s compassion to help others is no surprise. Her mom may have thought she was simply naming her daughter after an Asian actress, but the seemingly prophetic name could account for why today Yangshen is more than 1,500 miles away from home studying to be a nurse at Nyack College.
Her story stretches across many miles and several years. It was in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake that the Nyack sophomore met Heather Butcher, resident director of Nyack’s Christie Hall. After such an emotionally traumatic experience, “Yang” as she is affectionately known, was in need of nurturing herself. Heather’s innate heart for mentoring was the heaven sent gift destined to bless the young woman’s life.
A 2011 alumna of Nyack College, Heather was part of a team of relief workers from Infinity Bible Church in the Bronx that went to Haiti with water, clothing and medical supplies. The church went under the banner, “One Life Mission Disaster Relief Team.” One team led by Alliance
Theological Seminary (ATS) 2012 alumnus, Dimas Salaberrios, was on the ground five days after the earthquake. ATS alumnus (’11) Al Taylor, who led Heather’s team that included two doctors, arrived one week later.
Though the Nerestant home suffered collapsed walls, they were not as badly affected as the thousands of Port au Prince residents who experienced total loss of property and physical injury. With her mother’s permission, Yang was determined to find a way to volunteer and managed to get transportation to a hospital nearly forty minutes away from her home. There she encountered the Infinity teams. When it was discovered that she could speak English, they enlisted her to serve as a translator to facilitate their communication with people in need of medical attention. It was the first time she’d ever taken on such a task. Learning English by watching American movies proved to be more than entertainment. She demonstrated her commitment by working long hours sometimes spending 12- hour days with the U.S. teams.
Asked why she took Yang under her wing, Heather explains, “It was a ‘God thing.’ My calling is to walk alongside young people, empower and uplift…whatever I can do to help them be successful. If God causes our paths to cross, it’s for a reason greater than me.”
She was also impressed by Yang’s desire to help her country and make a difference in other people’s lives—in particular to be a voice to the voiceless in need of better healthcare. The overwhelming needs of the Haitian people pierced Heather’s heart, too. “Only when you go to Haiti can you truly see how much help is needed.”
Before Heather was aware that Yang would be interested in becoming an agent of change in Haiti, the teen’s destiny was already in motion. In 2010, Nyack/ATS President Michael G. Scales announced an institutional mandate that established a $1 million scholarship fund for Haitian students displaced by the earthquake. Over a 4-5 year period, ten full-tuition undergraduate and 10 full-tuition seminary scholarships were established for students with a desire to be part of a new generation of leadership interested in rebuilding the battered Caribbean nation.
In 2016, Yang was more assertive about pursuing an American education. She contacted Heather, who encouraged her to look at the Nyack website. Then director of admissions, Dan Bailey, assisted Yang with the process of registration for preadmission TOEFL testing. Success on the tests was not immediate, but her perseverance never waned. With the hands-on guidance of the admissions director, Yang enrolled in a two-week test prep course, which ultimately led to her acceptance and enrollment at Nyack.
The investment of Yang’s “American mom” has not ended now that she is securely on the road to earning her Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Heather continues to walk alongside her “daughter” as she processes the current political upheaval and destructive protesting in the streets of Haiti as the people call for the resignation of the nation’s president.
In the face of the natural disaster of the earthquake or the tsunami of political unrest that persists today, Yangshen Nerestant has the assurance of a helping hand and open heart in Heather Butcher. With confident expectation, Heather declares, “Yang and I will one day return together to Haiti to minister. And she will take her nursing skills she received by studying at Nyack. She is determined!”