The suffering is horrendous. But the spirit of the Haitian people is greater -- and they remain filled with hope.

An earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter Scale struck the Western Hemisphere´s poorest nation on Jan. 12, claiming more than 200,000 lives, with an estimated 300,000 injured and more than 1 million left homeless. In its wake, there has been an outpouring of aid from all over the world. But the need is even greater.

The Franciscan Friars are on the scene, trying to alleviate suffering and keep that hope alive.

On Feb. 8, a group of eight people led by the director of the Capuchin Missionary Association, Fray Elmig Soto Negron, OFM, Cap., left Puerto Rico for Haiti on the ferry from Mayaguez with a donated van filled with food, water, medicine and other relief supplies. In Santo Domingo they joined up with the Capuchin Friars in Mandinga, where the Friars are caring for some 10 people injured in the quake, and crossed the border into Haiti.

The first night was spent in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, scene of the greatest devastation from the quake whose epicenter was located just 25 miles west, near the town of Leogane.

¨The Haitian people are strong, you can see their spirit in Port-au-Prince despite the devastation,¨ said Fray Elmig. ¨Many picked up brooms to sweep the streets, and shovels to clear away the garbage. But the need is so much greater; they scarcely make a dent.¨

The group set out the next day for the enclave of Beraud, to the west, where four Capuchin Friars have a permanent presence and have erected a two-story parish house. The director of the mission, Fray Lori, is Brazilian. Fray Armand, the vicar, is Haitian, as is Fray Prospero, and the fourth member of the tiny community, Fray Bernard, is French.

As they traveled west, the group saw the tent cities that have sprung up around the country, housing entire families. A flattened cardboard box is the floor; the roof a length of cloth held up by sticks. It can only get worse when the rainy season begins.

There were also small makeshift white crosses marking vast mass graves.

And long, long lines of people waiting patiently for food and water.

¨But you could always see a smile,¨ said Fray Elmig. ¨People were friendly, even cordial. It consoled them to see us, to know that they were not alone -- that someone cared about them.¨

When the van arrived in Beraud, the Friars and their helpers unloaded and organized the supplies preparatory to distribution, which would begin in the morning. As a means of control, tickets were passed out to those having family members in Port-au-Prince, the criterion used for distribution of the aid.

More than 300 people received food, water and medicine that day.

The following day, the Friars were joined by the Franciscan Sisters of Leon, an order of nuns that came to the area some 40 years ago from Canada. Most of the sisters are now Haitian.

They traveled to Abacou, on the coast at Les Cayes, where an even tinier Capuchin mission consisting of Fray Francois, from France, and Fray Fernando, from the Dominican Republic, maintain a permanent presence.

More food, water and medicines were unloaded there for distribution.

Back at Beraud, the workers arranged the remaining relief supplies in the van for future distribution .

"We set up a little supermarket in the van, to make it easier to distribute the supplies," said Fray Elmig. "There was more than a week's worth left."

The group then traveled north to cross the border back to Mandinga, in preparation for their return trip by ferry to Puerto Rico, arriving the morning of Feb. 19.

But this won't be a one-time effort for the group from Puerto Rico, that includes Third Order Franciscans Taty, Rafael and Andres, as well as Francisco, Aida, Margarita and Eli.

Fray Elmig said they are setting up a collection center in Utuado, where the goods will be stored in the donated van for future distribution in Haiti.

"The need is so great," he said. "Plans are to return in three weeks to set up a pair of wells, for the Friars and the community there in Abacou, where they have neither water nor electricity. Another urgent need is education -- to build safe schools and provide them with educational materials. We also want to provide some toys for the children who have no classes right now or entertainment of any kind."

Plans also include providing medicines to stock the dispensaries that have been set up.

"We will be able to do all these things thanks to all the generous people in Puerto Rico who have contributed to this effort,"said Fray Elmig.

"The need in Haiti was great before the earthquake but now it is so much greater."

Constanza Arena, Puerto Rico.