Getting Ahead in Haiti

  Meeting the Jean-Pierre family.

When I was young, I remember hearing stories from my parents about how easy we had it relative to what they had growing up. It was a running joke among kids my age that everyone’s parents walked miles to school in the snow, and it was uphill both ways. Well, the people of Haiti never walk miles in the snow—the country is a sauna—but they certainly have to go to great lengths to try to get ahead in life. Take Lourde Jean-Pierre's family, for example.

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I Thought I Understood Poverty

  On the day we inaugurated the village, we marched in a parade from the entrance of the village to the center of the village where the celebration was

Growing up, I believed my family was poor. My parents struggled to pay the bills. We were often in danger of having power or water turned off, so Disney vacations and name brand clothes were out. My siblings and I were taught very early on the value of a dollar and the importance of hard work, but we were also taught that, through hard work, we could accomplish anything. Mom and Dad were amazing parents, always putting the needs of their family before their own needs and wants.

My mother made sure her daughters were college educated and able to support themselves. I majored in social work and psychology. Following graduation, I got a job as a home visitor in a program supporting new moms with the intent to prevent child abuse and neglect. The vast majority of the families I worked with were living in poverty, something I thought I understood—until I learned my first big lesson on the job: there is a difference between situational poverty and generational poverty.

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Haitian Hospitality

  Livie Antenor and her family. One of her sons (Thank You Food for the Poor polo) was part of the bicycle escort we received on inauguration day.

Just like a lot of Americans, many Haitians like to host gatherings. Livie Antenor, her husband, and their four children (ages 2 to 17) are among them. While Livie’s husband is a simple fisherman and doesn’t have a lot to give, he enjoys having people come to visit them. He told us, “The old house was so leaky. No one ever came to visit us. Now people come to visit. Some come all the way from Cap Haitien. Even people I know in Cap Haitien don’t have a house as nice as this!” he said, beaming with pride.

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A Mother's Struggle

  Talking with the Jean-Pierre family.

There is no shortage of hardship among the people of Haiti. At first, the Jean-Pierre family appeared to be a typical family, living in the same difficult circumstances as the rest of their neighbors. Lawen is the mom of five children by two different dads. Three of her children, ages 5, 8, and 10, live somewhere else with their father. Her youngest children, both boys, live in the house with Lawen and their dad. Their dad is a fisherman. He rents a boat and goes out most days, but he usually only catches small fish in quantities that make it difficult to make a living.

After we learned the basics about their family and toured their home, the discussion appeared to be over. I was ready to leave, but Kate, FFP’s Director of Projects for Haiti, said, “Let’s ask them what they need.” I turned to her with a confused look on my face. We’d discussed what questions we might ask before we left the hotel. I was advised not to ask what anyone needs. The needs are so great that there is no way to meet even a fraction of them. We didn’t want to open that can of worms. Kate looked at me. “It will be fine,” she said. Then she proceeded to ask the question in Creole.

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Innocence Lost

  Meeting Innocent Pierre and her family.

Meeting the Pierre family was heart-breaking. When we started asking questions about the family of five, we learned that four of the family members were siblings. The fifth family member is the daughter of the oldest sibling, Innocent, who is twenty-two. Their mother died when they were young, and their father, who had been sick, died last February.

The Pierre family had been renting a house. After their father’s death, they had nothing and were twenty-two days from being thrown out. Normally, it takes Food for the Poor (FFP) about twenty-eight days to build a house. However, under the circumstances, FFP accelerated the process and finished the house in nineteen days, leaving them three days to move in. The family has a difficult time understanding that the house actually belongs to them. They are just thankful for a place to stay.

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A Little Taste of Haiti

  What's that big tire doing in someone's back yard? My sister, Tricia, and my niece, Ally, check it out.

The day before we left for Haiti, the air conditioner at my house went out. It didn’t take long for the temperature to rise, making it uncomfortable just to hang out let alone to sleep. It was even hotter in Haiti. Fortunately, our hotel had air conditioning, so we could cool down after a long day in the sun. We were thankful, but it wasn’t lost on us that we were spoiled and that most people in Haiti, including the people we were there to help, don’t have conveniences we take for granted--conveniences like air conditioning.

And water. This past week, I was reminded how lucky we are to have running water when the main water line to my house ruptured. I awoke to a loud noise that sounded a bit like my sump pump running. Of course, I was sure it wasn’t my sump pump because it wasn’t raining. When I turned on the water faucet at the bathroom sink and nothing came out, I was baffled. “Could that be my sump pump running after all?” I asked myself.

The sound grew louder as I descended the steps to check it out. Through the bay window on the side of my house, I could see water pouring out of the pipe that comes from the sump pump. “That is my sump pump! What would have had to happen for it to be running?”

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Meet the Senatus Family!

  The Senatus family pictured with me, my niece (Ally), and my sister (Tricia)

“If there are twenty-three families living in the Village of Joy, then I would like to meet twenty-three families,” I told our Food for the Poor (FFP) representative when we planned the trip. “I want to hear their stories,” I explained. I think she thought I was a little nuts for wanting to talk to every family, but the FFP staff went to great lengths to arrange the meetings.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as we approached the first house where the Senatus family lived. To get the conversation going, we asked, “How many people live in the house?” “Eight.” The answer blew me away. These are small 12’x 24’ homes—smaller than a typical two car garage in the US.  Mr. Senatus lives in this small three room house with four children and three granddaughters under the age of five. He lost his wife a year and a half ago. He also lost a daughter recently.

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Inauguration Ceremony

  A heart-felt thank you from a woman who received a home.

Members of the Village of Joy community know how to show their gratitude. In addition to providing us a very warm welcome, they had prepared an entire program to inaugurate the village. There were talks by community leaders, followed by testimonies from two women who had received homes. Each of the women presented us with gifts—small tokens of their appreciation. I knew that the small sum of money spent required a big sacrifice from their families. I accepted the gifts and the hugs that accompanied them, wishing they had not spent the money and recognizing that I was merely a representative for a lot of other people who had helped make that moment possible.

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Inauguration Day!

On Tuesday, June 14th, we planned to attend the official inauguration of the village in the morning and meet with the remaining 15 families in the afternoon. I knew it would be a full day, but, other than that, I didn’t have any particular expectations for how the day would run. That said, if I had had expectations, I think they would have paled compared to what we actually experienced. It blew my mind!

  Our bicycle escort on inauguration day.

As we neared the village, our driver slowed down and rolled down the windows. We were confused. It was hot AND humid. We were running air-conditioning. Why deal with the heat and humidity before we had to? So—at our insistence—the windows went back up. Well…they went back up—until we saw what the fuss was about. In front of us, we were being escorted the rest of the way to the village by a group of about ten teens on bicycles. “That’s sweet,” I said as I watched them ride ahead of our vehicle, not thinking anything more of it.

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Welcome to the Village of Joy

  Vilaj Lajwa means "Village of Joy" in Creole. I named the village in memory of my mom, Joye Mueller. I told her that I wanted to help build a village, and we discussed her joining me on a mission trip. She got sick before we could make it happen, but she was with me in spirit.

As we prepared for our trip to Haiti, I told our Food for the Poor representative that I wanted to meet all twenty-three families that had received homes. I think she thought I was a little crazy, but I thought it was important. I wanted to gather their stories, so I could share them with you—to let you see for yourself the impact you are having in the lives of the poorest of the poor.

We arrived in Haiti on Monday, June 13th. After dropping our bags at the hotel in Cap Haitien, we headed over to the town of Phaeton to see the Village of Joy (the Village of Joy is like a subdivision within the town of Phaeton). That afternoon, we planned to meet with eight of the twenty-three families. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was anxious to get started.

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