PART I. FIRST IMPRESSIONS
I’d been told in advance to prepare myself for arrival into Port Au Prince – that the airport would be my first encounter with mass confusion, utter poverty, crowding throngs of shouting people, chaos, and filth… “Get a firm grasp of your handbag, use the bathroom before you leave the plane, don’t let the hordes of porters that surround you walk off with your suitcases, and be prepared to talk your way through customs while you explain why you have six suitcases filled with hundreds of pairs of new shoes…. If you have to surrender a few, that’s the price you’re asked to pay for being allowed to bring the rest to the children you are here to help.”
I had my money belt on tight with my passport and all other valuables stored safely under my clothes. I was ready to face the crowds but when we stepped off the plane all I could hear were the sounds of a steel drum band playing some sweet island music, the kind you hear when you arrive in the Caribbean for a spring break getaway… ? The airport was beautiful, artwork shone on newly painted walls. The porters, although anxious for a tip, let us handle our own bags. Customs waved us through without so much as a sideways glance at our carts of luggage and I even took a chance at the bathrooms which were clean and surprisingly stacked with toilet paper.
My first impression was different than that of my fellow travelers, our founder Constance Boll who had traveled to Haiti many times was in awe by the restoration of the airport (which we later read in the local newspaper had just had their ribbon cutting ceremony the day before we arrived). This was not the Haiti she remembered and although it had made some big improvements, with the airport, I would soon come to understand more of what she was acquainted to…
When the doors opened to the outside world, I was introduced to the real Haiti. It took us exactly one hour to travel the short distance from the airport to our hotel. I saw not one building over a story tall that was not damaged or completely destroyed, I saw not one square foot of ground that was not littered with garbage, or rubble. I watched in horror as our driver dodged between bodies and brightly painted Tap Taps, with five or six people hanging off the sides, and perhaps as many as twenty people crammed inside. The tops of the cabs were loaded with charcoal, sugar cane, chickens, and sometimes, more people.
This was the capital of the mountain country of Haiti and it was all in destruction as far as the eye could see. When we finally arrived at our hotel we entered through steel gates attached to high stonewalls, guarded by two men with machine guns. I was informed that our hotel location was one block from the eternal flame marking the grave of Papa Doc and the national palace, except there was no longer any palace, nor any flame, only people, masses of them with not a house or restaurant in sight.
Staying in the hotel allowed me to make a smoother transition from the culture I was living amongst in New York City to that of Haiti. Although the food at our restaurant usually took about five times longer to cook than a hungry stomach could handle, for the most part, the hotel was far detached from the current state that Haiti was actually in. However, I slowly became intimate with that state as we took our long trips out into the field.
Our first day was the longest, we headed out of the city to Fond Parisien where we met our founder’s dear old missionary friends, Betty Prophete and her sons Edwin and Theo. The mission base consisted of a hospital, a medical clinic, a school, and the project that we came to check up on, the peanut butter factory – at least the basic foundation of what would soon become a peanut butter factory. The children in the school were beautiful and polite. There were 560 students in total and I was later informed that more than half of them were malnourished. The Prophetes did their best to provide each child at least one meal a day, however, they did not currently have the capacity to give all of them the full-nourishment that would allow them to rise above the state of malnutrition that most were in. They needed a sustainable way to meet the student’s dietary needs and this is why the peanut factory project was conceived.
What we found that was most unique about this project was that it was intended to go above and beyond its basic purpose which was meeting the needs of the malnourished children. The peanut butter factory would create jobs, and boost the economy by involving local farmers and their crops providing them with a place of distribution. Currently the Prophetes were focusing on job creation for women, looking into a program with an organization called ‘Sisters for Sisters’ – not only were women needed for hire in the manufacturing of the peanut butter but also in the selling of the product after its first fruits met the needs of the malnourished school children.
When we approached the factory it was amazing to see its progress, because of a grant gifted by Wellspring the warehouse was able to be fully constructed, minus a few windows and doors and the electricity needed to power the tools. Step one was underway in the process of creating a uniquely innovative and holistic solution to the many challenges that the mission and the country of Haiti were currently facing. It was refreshing to see something new for philanthropy and for Haiti and we were honored to be a part of it. This is when I started taking note of the many areas of hope that were springing up around the country. Most were initiated by committed organizations fighting the good fight for Haiti and its people. It is often easy to feel overwhelmed by the need and destruction you see upon arrival and upon hearing about Haiti in the media, its had a constant struggle layered with poverty, corruption, neglect and then the cherry on the top being the earthquake that hit back in 2010, but when you focus on the progress and the people as individuals, some how that feeling of destitution quickly falls away. You find that you can use it as motivation to bring about great change for such a beautiful country.
TO BE CONTINUED: More from this trip will be coming in the next few weeks….