school

Thanksgiving in The EcoVillages

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As we gather with our families and friends to express gratitude for our blessings, a different kind of “thanks” giving emanates from the people of the EcoVillages.  This Haitian version of gratitude is directed towards YOU.

They are thankful for your gift of learning.  You have helped provide the classroom, the workbook, the teacher and the full belly for this child to learn.  And 266 other kids like him.  When we visited in October, parents and children asked us to deliver this message to you.  “Mesi!”

They are thankful for your gift of community. The school has become the center of community life.  People collaborate to raise the food that feeds the kids so they can learn.  “Mesi.”

They are thankful for the gift of optimism.  For people who are rebuilding their lives from the personal devastation of earthquake, from the uncertainty of endless days in tent cities and from the hungry months of drought in their new homes, optimism is an incredible contrast.  Make no mistake.  It has been and still is hard, requiring enormous resilience just to keep going. They have done the backbreaking work required to scratch a living from fallow soil.  They have had to adapt to living among people who were strangers in the beginning.  But now they can see the results.  The EcoVillages are lush with growing food.  Children play with abandon like children are supposed to play.  Parents see the possibility of a more prosperous life where there is something left over after the family has eaten.  They are optimistic that they will control their own destiny soon and that their own efforts will sustain their school. 

They want you to know how they feel about your support:  “Mesi. Mesi anpil.”

On this Thanksgiving as you express your gratitude for the ways others have enriched your life, hear the voices of your unseen friends. You have done a good thing.  Let their Mesi brighten your holiday.

Insights from my first visit to the EcoVillages of Haiti

U.S. Americans tell me, “Haitians are poor.” Haitians tell me, “we aren’t poor, we are happy.” On this, my first trip to Haiti, I have come to believe the truth is dependent on one’s perspective.

Haiti is a land plagued by hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, tropical storms, and waves of cholera.  Records going back to the 1700’s show this, and the inhabitants know more will come. The earthquake of 2010 is probably the worst tragedy most have experienced in their lifetime. The country is still struggling to come back from the severe devastation and loss of life it caused. There is still a lack of infrastructure, paved roads, repaired bridges, unclean drinking water, food shortages, crowding, unsanitary living conditions, health issues, and high unemployment. 

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For Haitians it doesn’t help to dwell on a past that can’t be changed or fear a future that is unknown, yet will inevitably bring more disasters with it. They focus on living in the present: learning what they can each day, understanding it fully, improving what they can – so the future will be better too. 

Getting through hard times is easier if one has support from others. Pooling resources and sharing helps everyone. 60 disparate families that came together after the 2010 earthquake to build a community with the help of an Haitian organization, MPP.  First MPP helped them get shelter and food. The next thing the families fought for was a school for their children. With the help of the Atlanta Partnership for the Haiti EcoVillage School and the UUSC, the villages now have a nationally certified school. Every family works in the school garden so the children have food at school. 

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Now each village is tending goats, growing manioc, goat feed and moringa. They are working together so the village can become self-sustaining and bring in some income from these products. They started learning to sew over a year ago. They make school uniforms for their children and hope to sew them for surrounding schools as well. This is a joint effort of all the EcoVillages. In observing this group I saw them working hard, hours long without a break, yet they laugh and tease one another as well. Small children come to work with their mothers. When the older children come in after school they help take care of their siblings and seem to enjoy playing with them. When I visited the school the children all smiled and laughed and were eager to learn.

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The U.S. seems so different. It is an individualistic society where often suburbanites drive into their garage and walk directly into their house without seeing anyone. When we pass someone in the grocery store, we seldom know or greet one another. We have individual goals – a more prestigious position at work, a better car, a bigger house. We work long hours under great stress to “make it” in our jobs. Many people live alone and are lonely. That is not to say we are unhappy, for we are fortunate in many ways.

In contrast in the EcoVillages of Haiti everyone lives together, works together, and struggles together. The individual depends on the community for spiritual and emotional health. One Haitian, who moved to the U.S. and then came back to live again in Haiti, told me stress in Haiti is different. In the U.S. we are under a lot of pressure to succeed and build a career and to have material possessions. In Haiti happiness is independent of the physical. It is based on family and community.

Haitians are proud, proud of their heritage, proud of their culture, and of what they have accomplished. They need and want the help U.S. Americans are giving them but they do not want to be told what to do and how to manage their affairs. They want the relationship to be one of mutual respect. 

So, are Haitians happy or poor? Happiness seems indeed to be a matter of perspective. Despite meagre physical infrastructure, money, and comforts Haitians are happy for they have what they value most, community and family. We could all learn something from them. I know I have.

Written by Marty Maxwell

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.

 

Planning with Partners

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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.

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.