Celebrating Success

We all know that education is important and is vital for a country like Haiti where most citizens struggle for the basics in life. But did you know that gathering with others to raise funds for a village school could be so much fun?
An impressive group of more than 200 members and friends of three churches came together in Clarkston to learn about and support the work of an exceptional leader, Chavannes Jean-Baptiste. This extraordinary man responded to the needs of children, including many refugees escaping the horrors of the earthquake, by coordinating the efforts of local Haitians and those far away in the U.S.
As they say, success breeds success. The evening was part celebration of the classrooms that have been built and the improved lives of many children, and of the partnerships which have made this EcoVillage School possible. It was also an opportunity to highlight the needs of the children for further education and to support the teachers dedicated to helping them with the most basic of resources (chalk, paper, pencils). The fundraising portion of the evening was a quick and lively “auction,” with a rewarding end. A quick tally indicated that nearly $30,000 was raised for another year of school for children who are obviously eager to learn.
As a new attendee to the Flavors of Haiti event, I encourage everyone to attend in 2019 and experience a warm evening of collective enthusiasm for strong partnerships, good food served by conscientious youth, the satisfaction of donating to a cause that has been vetted and endorsed, and the very grateful appreciation of those involved with the EcoVillage School.

Across the Divide

 Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, 2005 Goldman Environmental Prize Winner, Islands & Island Nations (Haiti), at a traditional konbit--a communal work day spent building walls to conserve the soil.

The divides are many.

We are the richest nation per capita in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti is the poorest.

We speak English. They speak Kreyol and French.

Our lives are aided (dominated?) by complex, ubiquitous technology.  The EcoVillages don’t even have electricity.

We drive and walk fast.  They walk everywhere at a relaxed amble.

We live in splendid isolation behind the walls of our houses, where most of the faces we see each day are on our devices.  They live interlocked lives with their neighbors, with whom they collect water, raise large families and even share outhouses.

We demand security from police, EMTs, retirement funds, Social Security, warranties, contracts, and armies.  They have no security except for the good will of their neighbors.

We grouse about pot-holes near us.  The nearest paved road to the EcoVillages is 5 miles away.

We shop at Kroger, Publix, Your Dekalb Farmer’s Market, Sprouts, Whole Foods, depending on what specifically we want. Plus, we eat out a lot.  They eat what can grow in their yard gardens. 

We watch AcuWeather forecasts and movement of temperatures during the day.  They pray for a safe hurricane season that doesn’t level their crops.

We are God’s Frozen Chosen, adhering to the rules of the Book of Order, but keenly aware of an elusive God whom we cannot detect with our scientific instruments and whose presence in the world seems confusing.  They are part Catholic, part charismatic, part voodoo, 100% believers that God controls their fate.

We frown a lot. They smile a lot.

I know.  I am going on, but I could keep going.  The differences are many and they are fundamental.

From the beginning of our project to build a school for children who would otherwise not learn to read, we articulated a commitment to bridge that gap, to build relationships.  We intended to know these people, to understand their struggles and their joys.  We decided to learn from their wisdom and to authentically present ourselves so that we could be known to them, too. For 5 years we have dispatched delegations to meet, learn and share. Ask anyone who has been and they will tell you about the life-enriching experience. And our Haitian partners know something more about us, as represented by the child who reaches out to touch our skin to learn if it is real like her own skin.

Last year we exchanged art between the children at the EcoVillage school and our own children.  We said, “Draw a picture about your life.”  The art about their lives has hung on our walls for our children to see.  Our children’s life art hangs on their school walls now. Photos show curious children looking at the others’ images, wondering about their lives.

This year, to bridge the distance, we have invited the founder of the EcoVillages to come to us.  He is a man worth knowing. 

When you meet him you’ll be drawn to the smile, in part because you’ll see that his 70-year-old face has spent a lot of its time smiling. This from a man who has avoided assassination through exile and has spent all of his life living among some of the poorest people on earth. There is wisdom to be learned from someone so courageous.

You will see a man of the world who has traveled to Lima and Durbin to contribute to United Nations conferences on climate change, Paris and San Francisco to receive honors for his work.  Yet he still lives in Papay among the people he spends his life helping. There are insights to be gleaned from someone so broad.

You will hear from a man who has wielded political power as adviser to Haiti’s president, but has never compromised the well-being of his people for personal gain.  Can we ever get too much from people of integrity?

So come meet Chavannes.  Broaden your experience and understanding.

At the same time, let him learn about us through your presence.  You will be one of the people he talks about when he returns to talk to the families in the EcoVillages and the children at the school.  Your presence will help build that bridge of understanding and respect that holds the promise of a better tomorrow for all of God’s people, Haitian and American, rich and poor, smilers and frowners. 

Hear Chavannes at Emory University Candler School of Theology, Thursday, 4/12   5:30-7:30pm

Party Planning

Plans for the 4th Annual Flavors of Haiti are underway! As we prepare for our one fundraising event of the year, we try to consider ways to make the event meaningful, inviting and fun. We want to raise funds, and we want our guests to feel energized and enthusiastic and educated about the impact their support makes.

These critical components of party-planning are also basics in community building. As we have worked to build a school, we have worked to build community in Atlanta with our three-church partnership and to build community with our friends in Haiti.  We are excited, enthusiastic and energized! We celebrate the new friendships, relationships, understandings and potential for the future that these years have provided. 

We invite you to come to the Party! April 15th, 5:30-7:30pm. Meet the person who founded the EcoVillages.  Hear the leader who inspired us to build the school.  Learn about the families who have hope because of the communities that support them.

 

Building from Bricks to Business Development

As we begin our fifth year with our school project, we celebrate the accomplishments and the beautiful school that is central to the lives of the EcoVillages.

We also recognize the impact of the crippling poverty on these families.  They work hard and struggle to find ways to provide income for themselves and for supporting the school.

We realize the key to the future of the school is the ability of the families to become self-sufficient.  We need business-minded friends to share their ideas and expertise with us as we search for ways to support the work of the families.

Gather with others to share food, friendship and your ideas.  Join us to apply what you know to the challenging situation facing the people of the EcoVillages.

Dinner and Brainstorming, Saturday, January 20, 2018, 7:00p-8:30pm

For more info or to RSVP: sowseedsofhope@gmail.com by Jan. 17

Tenacious Tanisha

As Chris and Scott were walking through village 5 with Jean and Michael, we heard music playing on a radio--the first radio we had heard in the EcoVillages. Electric power is not available and batteries are expensive, so few villagers have radios. This radio was connected to a solar panel for power. On this trip Chris had brought six hybrid radios powered by hand cranks and built-in solar panels to give to MPP, one for each of six the EcoVillages. 

We followed the music to a house where a mom and dad were sitting on their front porch with a young girl, Tanisha. Tanisha was sitting in an improvised wheel chair constructed using a bicycle handle and pedals. Her mom explained her daughter Tanisha could not walk because she was severely injured in the January 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince. She was buried in the rubble for 3 days before being rescued. In addition to not being able to walk, Tanisha also appears to be unable to speak. We believe the music playing on the radio was to entertain Tanisha.

tanisha and family.JPG

Tanisha's presence and courage are a constant reminder that every Villager 7 years old and older survived that terrible earthquake. Each person has scars of the trauma, visible or invisible. Each person lost a family member or loved one on that day.

In helping these former city dwellers find ways to recover from the disaster, we are also engaged in humanitarian assistance and in development. With tenacity and courage, we travel together towards hope and brighter futures.

by Scott Grosse and Carolyn French

Report from Day 2

Our second full day in the Central Plateau was our opportunity to visit the EcoVillage school and see the progress that has been made.  The first thing we noticed was the new gate and fence that surrounds the school. 

Upon entering the school yard, we see the 2 new classrooms and a storeroom for the kitchen.  We hear sounds of students reciting their lessons and so we quietly make our way to the school director's office making an effort not to be a disturbance.

The students are in classes from 8am-10am, and this is a good time to interview the school director, Romain Exil.  We learn that the school has 172 students enrolled in grades PreK - 6th grade.  The enrollment breaks down like this:

  • PreK &  Kindergarten - 33 students
  • 1st grade - 34students
  • 2nd grade - 29 students
  • 3rd grade - 23 students
  • 4th grade - 30 students
  • 5th grade - 15 students
  • 6th grade - 8 students

The two new classrooms are being used for the 5th and 6th grades.

We talked about the new video system being installed.  MPP has partnered with an organization which provides instructional video systems to public schools. The organization providing the system has certain requirements, including security, which motivated the construction of the fence around the school yard.  We saw the beginnings of installation of the system which will be run off solar power.

Romain was excited to hear about the book project going on now at our churches in Atlanta.  He asked that the books be printed in the US and transported to the school if there is a way to do that without high shipping costs.  He would like books in both Kreyol and French side-by-side, primarily for beginning readers. 

We discussed the likelihood of 'nationalizing' the school, which means the government will pay the teachers' salaries and possibly other costs.  The director told us that the government has provided some furniture to the school and has conducted on-site inspections.  The director has worked with MPP to create a dossier for the staff and school which will be submitted to the government.  He admits that nationalization is a political process but is hopeful that they can make it happen.

We presented Romain with a framed photo of the students in front of the school taken by David Diener during our April 2017 trip.  He immediately sought out a spot on his office wall to proudly display the photo.  We also delivered colored paper donated by Good Shepherd which was greatly appreciated.

The students break for lunch from 10am - 10:30am eating in shifts in the cafeteria.  This day the kitchen staff has prepared a hot meal of beans.

The lunch break was the perfect time to get an updated photo of the student body standing in front of the school. 

While Chris setup for the photo, Scott interviewed students asking about the hopes and dreams for the future.  It was satisfying to be able to spend a little time interacting with the children.

After the children returned to class, we decided to tour the large garden beyond the school.  We learned that the vegetable garden adjacent to the school is fallow because the ground was too wet to cultivate. We walked through the gap in the fence through which the path to the outhouse goes, then down the hill and up the next hillside to where the fields start. We walked through a field planted with sweet potato vines, then a field newly planted with moringa. We kept walking and came to a field where two men were cultivating. We were told that that land was cultivated by people in village 1. We then walked back toward the school and saw an ox, which we learned belongs to the school. We also walked through fields planted with peas.

It is wonderful to report that everything is noticeably greener and lusher that we observed on previous trips.  More of the land is being cultivated, and there is no evidence that recent hurricanes provided anything other than needed rainfall.

by Chris Calia

Haitian Students Love Math!

Scott Grosse and Jean Lindor interviewed some of the children at the school during the lunch break Wednesday. They asked the students to tell them what their favorite school subject is and what they want to be when they grow up.

 

Dorcelis Chalinda especially likes math.

 

She wants to study to be a medical doctor and take care of children.

 

 

 

 

Bienaime Louisky also likes math best.

He wants to become a civil engineer and build roads throughout Haiti.

 

Other children agreed that their favorite subject is math. Desired occupations listed include nurse, accountant, pilot, and plumber. 

by Scott Grosse

 

 

Enterprising Farmer

Carel Sinfinice lives in village 4. At the end of our visit to the school gardens on day 2 (Wednesday), Carel chased us down to invite us to come see his farm. 

He took us to the Community Center where the floor was covered with recently harvested peanuts.

We also saw wooden beehive boxes presumably used for honey production and pollination of the vegetable garden. Then Carel proudly showed us a mature cassava field that he cultivates. Next to that was a MPP moringa project nursery protected by a fence and roof.

Carel also has built a pig pen where we saw a female and 6 piglets.  He said that he recently sold a pig to pay school fees for his three older children who are attending university.

Carel is married to Annette who works as the Kitchen manager at the EcoVillage school.  They have six children.  Their fortitude proves that people in the villages can provide more than a subsistence living for their families.

 

by Chris Calia

Report from Day 1

Chris Calia and Scott Grosse are representing Atlanta’s EcoVillage School Partnership during meetings in Haiti with our partners, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee and the Peasant Movement of Papay (MPP).  Here’s a brief report on their first day.

They delivered and assembled a sewing machine. This brings the total to 6 machines.

Chris made friends with a fellow wood worker during his last visit.  He delivered some modern tools as a gift.

They watched the children play corn hole using a game donated in 2015.

They witnessed early stages of agricultural projects that we have funded. Proceeds from the projects are earmarked for support of the school. They saw fields of cassava and peanuts as well as goat husbandry projects.

They collected information to guide our book purchases that have been funded by book drives at our churches.

They worked out arrangements for the visit to Atlanta by Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, who will speak with our supporters during our spring fund-raising.

The meetings continue through Wednesday. 

Considering connections

They arrived safely at MPP. "Hillside is nice and green." No access to send further information.

We are cozy in our safe homes with clean, fresh water, abundant power for lights in every space and multiple devices connected and streaming constant information from around our planet.  In Colladere Haiti, it is not so. And yet...

I close my eyes and hear the children laughing, see them running with grins and joyful chatter.  I smell the soil, the flowers, the countryside bursting with vegetation and life.  I know what our delegation to the EcoVillages is sensing: love, acceptance, courage and purposeful drive to embrace the day.

Perhaps we need to daily examine our cozy, connected lives.  Where do you find your purpose? Where is the poverty in your life?

chris, andraal, kids.jpg

Planning with Partners

Scott and Chris.jpg

This week, Oct. 16-20, delegates are gathering from UUSC in Boston and The Haiti EcoVillage School Partners (formerly known as Atlanta Church Group). They are traveling to The EcoVillages to meet with the Executive Team at MPP to discuss plans for the coming year. 

Scott Grosse and Chris Calia, from Atlanta, will be sending news updates and photos as the internet connections allow. 

This time together builds our bonds, enhances our connections and strengthens our goals as we enter our last year of building the classrooms for our school.  

Follow their journey and keep the families and friends of the EcoVillages in your heart and mind.

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.