Bracing for Irma

My brother Sam French and his family have lived near the beach in Puerto Rico for 45 years.  Many hurricanes have passed over.  For the first time, they may face an evacuation order today as Irma bears down. There is fear in PR.  My extended family is full of anxiety for their safety. 

After Puerto Rico, Irma will visit Hispaniola. 

The EcoVillages of the central plateau of Haiti are about to be hit if current projections bear out.  The good news is that the 60 families should be safe in their reinforced concrete homes.  They have a school that opened this week for the new year.  Now, every grade has their own classroom.  The Haiti EcoVillage School Partnership has partnered with them to improve their lives in this way.

The news may not be so good for their livelihoods.  Families live garden-to-mouth from the food they grow in the ½ acre outside their front doors.  Mark Hare describes their gardens as “their grocery store, pantry and refrigerator combined.”

In addition, each village has planted new cash crops of moringa or cassava & peanuts, while 3 villages have built enclosures and bought goats to raise funds to support the school.  Our partnership has funded these cash crops by providing loans through their credit union. 

When hurricane Mathew devastated the western part of Haiti 10 months ago, winds were strong enough in the central plateau to disturb their gardens and make it harder to feed their families.  Irma is on a more direct path.  I can only imagine the fear in Haiti, too.  I feel anxiety for their well-being.

Women.jpg

In April we met all of the women of the EcoVillage households as Jeanine Calia shook hands with each as she passed out gift boxes sent from women in Atlanta.  Everyone of village women is a survivor of the 2010 earthquake (and years in tent cities) that deprived them of everything they had.  Their faces show the strain from living always on the edge. They are tough. They are resilient. They will survive Irma, too.  The unknown is what toll it will take on them.

I invite you, as you go through your day, to think of these friends.  See their faces in your mind. Embrace their fear with them. I admire their toughness, their resilience. I will accompany them as best I can from the comforts of my home.  And, when the storm moves on toward our homeland and we feel the fear and anxiety for ourselves, I will remember them.  I hope you will, too.

Gordon French

Examining the cost of poverty


“I am reluctant to do work in Haiti.  Our congregation's mission project there failed because Haitians would not sustain it.” 

We heard this sentiment expressed at our first meeting in July 2013. We determined at the beginning of this project that this school must be self-sustaining.

Now in our fourth year, we have been successful in almost every way.  We have met our fundraising goals.  We are on track to complete classroom construction next year. The school consistently meets the requirements of the Ministry of Education. We have connected with the families and children, and we hear their passionate gratitude and determination. We have formed strong bonds with our partners at UUSC and MPP.  MPP has been a reliable project manager. We have built loving relationships among members of our three congregations in Atlanta.

Sustainability remains elusive.

Oh, we’ve had a reasonable plan all along.  We will meet the requirements of the Ministry of Education which, by law, is required to pay the teachers.  We know this works because the school we visited at Basin Zim, in a rural area about 10 miles away, has been a “national school” for 30 years.  So, if/when the MOE nationalizes the EcoVillage school, it will have the financing it needs.  But the government of Haiti is short on resources.  It is behind in supporting the schools it has already nationalized, set back by the year-long period when there was no president or functioning government.  Furthermore, the whole process of nationalizing a school is fraught with local politics and cronyism.

The second long-term resource requirement is food, which the government does not subsidize.  Again, there has been a plan.  The school has been assigned a large field where parent volunteers could raise food.  This has worked with a smaller-scale kitchen garden that puts vegetables on the children’s lunch table now.  But this, too, has been plagued by problems of organization and drought and the cost of fencing to provide security--animals and people are hungry.

The underlying problem is clear: The villagers are very poor.  The region they inhabit is very poor. They have few sources of income.  Now that they have shelter and can grow food to feed themselves, they can ask the next question: how do I improve my life for myself and my family?  Sending children to school is part of the answer.  Can they earn income too?

Chavannes and MPP met in an assembly of the villagers after our visit in April.  They proposed options for ways that villagers can both earn income and support the school.  After deliberations, each village agreed to create one or more agribusiness cooperatives, allowing each village to borrow from the EcoVillage credit union based on a business plan developed within the village.  Proceeds from the businesses will be split between people in the villages and the school. Here is what villagers have agreed to.

1. Raise goats.  For the past 3 years the goat program – launched by ACG -- has provided a goat for each family to raise, with the goat belonging to the school.  It has raised some money for the school .  Three villages have agreed to launch full-scale goat production, which includes building an enclosure, consolidating the existing goats and buying more, raising forage, tending the goats, and taking them to market.

2. Cultivate moringa. Every family in the EcoVillages grows their own moringa plants to increase the nutrition of their meals.  Four villages have agreed to farm moringa for the market.  Each will cultivate ½ hectare (about an acre) and MPP will farm an additional 2 hectares.  Parents who live in the community outside the EcoVillages will be offered the opportunity to participate in this project.

3. Cultivate cassava and peanuts.  Recent El Nino drought has raised awareness of the impact of global warming and the need for drought resistant crops.  Cassava (also called manioc) and peanuts are companion crops that are drought resistant. Three villages have committed to raising these crops on community land and all of the villages have expressed some interest.

These projects require a capital investment of $18,730, which is the total amount that will be borrowed by the villagers.  Loans will be repaid in 4 years.  ACG, UUSC and MPP agreed to divert $16,000 earmarked for fencing the school farm.  ACG has agreed to send an additional $2730 to fully fund the projects.  Repayment of the loans will allow the credit union to reinvest in future development.

After the loans are repaid, the projected annual net profit for all the EcoVillage agribusinesses will be about $11,000.  60% of the profits will go to the school and 40% to the 60 families in the villages.

We are encouraged that the villagers – all of whom are parents to school children – have agreed to take on this effort.  It gives them something tangible to do for the future of their families which determines the future of the school. If successful, this step begins to provide a financial foundation for the school. This is the reason that the partners have chosen to fund the effort.

Now, stop for a moment and look at the numbers and what they say about poverty.  Even after 5 years of effort, this plan accounts for about 1/3 of the annual cost for feeding 160 children.  And take home pay for families? An average of $75 per year per family.

In the end, will our school project prove to be unsustainable? If so, it won’t be because the villagers haven’t worked hard and tried their best. It won’t be because we at ACG are not creative enough or persistent enough.  It won’t be because MPP was an unreliable partner or has given up on the people.  It will be because of the intractable poverty.  Poverty: the reason we took on this project in the first place. We were determined to give kids a chance in the face of the poverty. We knew school was the chance to break the cycle of poverty begetting more poverty.  Do these children deserve a chance to break out of this poverty? 

And so, we come full circle.

Should we build a school? Yes.

Should we try to make it sustainable? Yes.

Is success guaranteed? No.

Pray for them and us.  We all need it.

 

Catching up and coming home

We have all arrived safely home. What a rewarding week--filled with challenges, smiles, stories, laughter and sighs too deep for tears. 

Wednesday morning we met with the MPP leadership once again to clarify and contemplate and learn and consider. It was a good meeting. We have great partners and we all are working together for this project to be successful and the school to be sustainable. 

After the meeting we loaded all our gear and made the long trip back to the city. The roads offer great challenges and the trip was not "fun", but we were safe and we arrived intact. In Haiti, this is a triumph!

Thursday morning we reflected on our many varied gifts, how the range of those gifts worked for the good of our tasks, and how we will move forward. How will we answer the question "How was your trip?" Give us time if you ask that question!

And now we are home. It is good to be home. It is good to have hearts filled with the joy of sharing this week with each other and with our dear friends in Haiti. It is good to have minds filled with questions, so many questions. And it is so good to feel the Spirit moving wherever we go. 

  

Some assembly required

On Monday morning we split in two groups. Chris and Pat took the boxed up sewing machine to the community center in Village 1 and reassembled it with expert assistance from the instructor of the sewing class. Mike and Scott were there to observe and document. The last photo shows the presentation to the assembled members of the sewing class.

Notes on Day 2 from David

Well it is officially day 2 of Haiti.   We came in through the busy airport at Port-Au-Prince.   It has been a adventure to say the least.  This whole trip has been like drinking water through a fire hose.  I want to soak in every moment but they are coming fast and furious.   I went to sleep to the locals playing drums on a Friday night and woke up to a beautiful sunrise over the central Haiti.   With the sun grazing the topography with this wonderful warm light.  I shared this moment with my new friend as we both looked at God’s work.

While I have been here, I have not felt more blessed.  It will not be for the reasons a lot of you may be thinking.  I have not felt blessed with worldly possessions but truly blessed with some great people that have come into my life.  If it was not for this trip, I would not have meet some of the uniquely talented people I have ever come in to contact with.  I don’t even know where to start so let us start with first people who brought the idea of the eco-village to me Chris Calia and his wonderful wife Janine.  They have a deep faith in God and passion for service.   There is Mike Thurmond and his wife Loida who are great photographers and always on mission trips all over the world helping others.  There is Scott Grosse whose wisdom, insight and wry sense of humor is always appreciated in Creole and English!  There is  Patrick Murphy who every time I am around him, he shares some amazing story in his life and that adventuring man is amazing!  This passion for life and people is endless.  There is also Kristy Gordon who is my medical buddy and my wise and patient teammate and my partner in our art.  Then there is Mark our interpreter who is so patient with the blancs and has one of the most kind souls.  Then there is Nixon our driver who been driving his vehicle over the rough roads of this area and even getting his truck stuck on our first night trying to get our bags closer to where we are staying.  Then there is last but certainly not least Gordon French and his wife Carolyn.  They have such a deep conviction for the country and people of Haiti.  They are the ones with the vision for brighter future and making a corner of the world better.  Who could ask for more?

So yes I am tired and worn out but I am truly blessed with these people coming in my life.  I know at the end of the week I am going to go back to the love of my life my with Daphne and my great kids Dylan and Dan but I will come back a better person for knowing these people and sharing some time together.

I am looking forward to tomorrow and what it brings.  I am looking forward to worshiping with the people at the Haitian church.  I am looking forward to meeting the people in the eco-village.  I am looking forward to the seeing the ingenuity of the Haitian people.  Their passion for life and love they share with others.  I am looking forward to new experiences tomorrow will bring.

Reflections in flight to Haiti

Reflections during trip to Haiti, April 7, 2017

I’ve been spending time this past week listening to videos and reading about the Haitian Creole (or Kreyol) language. I’ve been memorizing word lists and phrases, hoping to be able to engage people in at least brief convesation. Why? What are my motives? How much is it a desire to connect with people and to show them that I care enough to try to learn their language? To what extent is it a function of my idyll curiosity and hobby of learning to speak a little bit of lots of different languages? Or, is it a matter of showing off my language-learning ability? Can we ever have pure motives, or do we always mix care for others with serving our own sense of self?

 

 

I am grateful for Chris and Gordon, who have organized this trip, and all ten people in our travel group who have committed to this week-long adventure. Jeannine organized the purchase and packing of gift packages for the women and children of the Eco Villages. We look forward to seeing the excitement on the faces of the moms and kids when they open their gift boxes. I also appreciate the folks who packed and figured out how to check large, heavy boxes containing a disassembled pedal-powered sewing machine. I trust that this machine will be put to good use to make school uniforms for the children and also as a source of livelihood for women in the villages.

Sitting alone in row 1, with a view out the window to my left as we fly over Georgia, looking down on the countryside and highways I feel detached. I read, then nap, then read and I listen to music, a video by a West African singer, Sona Jobarteh, and her ensemble playing traditional instruments. I read from the book, The Soloist, by Steven Lopez, and reflected on compassion. Lopez learned to develop compassion and understanding of mental illness and homelessness by befriending a street musician in LA. How can I, how can we, develop compassion and understanding of people in the countryside of Haiti who live their lives so close and yet so far from our privileged lives as affluent white people in Atlanta? Can we connect meaningfully with individuals in Haiti and help to share their stories with friends and family back home?

Scott Grosse

Last minute adjustments

Returning to Haiti conjures memories, images, concerns, excitement. Will the traffic really be worse than in Atlanta right now? Will it rain every day? Will we be able to communicate well enough to inspire children to create? Will the faces be as full of hope and resiliency as I remember? Will we make friends and build bridges? 

Hold us in your hearts as we discover questions and recognize answers and learn new ways of accepting Grace.