You might have heard the buzz, seen some posters or been to one of their events already—the Vassar Haiti Project (VHP) is everywhere.
From Vassar’s own campus to the greater Poughkeepsie community to the mountain village of Chermaitre in northern Haiti, this student-run group has had a significant impact since it was founded in 2001. According to its official website, Vassar Haiti Project was created after 9/11 when Andrew and Lila Meade decided that it was time to do something positive for our world. Since then, VHP has flourished, creating new initiatives and reaching its goals at an astonishing pace.
Co-President Kidus Girma ’18 has been involved with the organization since his first year at Vassar and now acts as one of four leaders of different initiatives.
He explained VHP’s three-part mission: “The first part is the partnership with Chermaitre. We do that through five different initiatives— water, health, reforestation, a women’s cooperative and education. The second part of the mission is partnering with Haitian artists and artisans, so we do a lot of our fundraising through Haitian art and handcrafts. The last part is student development, so our executive board is student-run. Stateside, there’s a lot of students involved in positions of leadership.”
To realize its mission, the organization takes two trips a year to Chermaitre in order to work with the people on site. One of them takes place during spring break when a group of 10 students embark on the journey abroad.
Girma described the org’s process in each initiative in Chermaitre: “The program started with education, so there’s a primary school composed of about currently 260 students. With reforestation we’re at about 60,000 trees. The women’s cooperative is the latest initiative[…]And so, that’s in the process of increasing their economic security. That ranges from them growing and roasting coffee to creating crafts like earrings and such.”
To actually fund the various initiatives in the village of Chermaitre, VHP must coordinate several fundraisers and events throughout the year. One of these is the sixth annual Art and Soul Gala, which is set to take place on March 1 at 4 p.m. in
the Alumnae House.
Girma further acknowledged that one of the biggest challenges that VHP faces as a nonprofit organization is funding. He remarked, “Sometimes people aren’t eager to give a lot [of] money, so it’s a way of finding a process that makes sense. And for us that’s been a combination of the arts and handcrafts that we sell, as well as grants.”
It appears that people are more inclined to donate money to a good cause if they are also buying something in the process.
Gabriela Mandeville ’19 has also been involved with VHP since her first year and now directs its Health Initiative. As one of the team members responsible for organizing the event, she talked about the Gala in detail, specifying the purpose and structure of the event: “Art and Soul is how we fund the medical clinic in Haiti for the whole year, so all of the money from the Gala goes to that. This is solely a health initiative event.”
She went on, “During the event, we have an art sale among speeches and performances. We’re also catered by Twisted Soul, which is nice!”
Girma elaborated how the medical clinic in Chermaitre came to be: “The clinic was built about three years ago through previous Art and Souls. The way it came about was the community stated they were relatively far from the closest hospital, and needed better access to medical care, so we made it a goal. In 2016, the clinic saw around 3000 patients.”
Proceeds from the single event manage to cover a wide range of the clinic’s expenses, including the salaries of one part-time doctor and two full-time nurses, as well as regular medication and equipment. The far-reaching impact that the organization has had is staggering.
Mandeville discussed the weeks leading up to the event, saying, “It’s a lot of meetings, and it really kind of becomes a dance between all of the different committees. The Health Initiative meets every week, and we’ve been going through a to-do list of things we need to knock out one by one—seemingly small things, but everything needs to be ironed out before the event starts.”
Many of the students in leadership positions agreed that the extensive planning was worth it, however. Co-President Serena Lee ’18, a part of the organization since her first year, explained that she is most excited to hear Paul Farmer speak at the Gala. She stated, “The event is usually in May, but this year it got pushed up to March because we found out that Paul Farmer was coming! So, we had to start planning a lot earlier in the fall.”
When it isn’t time to plan large-scale events like the Art and Soul Gala, however, VHP focuses on its long-term goals. Mandeville explained, “The things that we are able to do take time. It takes time for things to come to fruition, which is a good thing. We want to make sure that we’re communicating well.”
Lee agreed, “There’s this huge separation between us in the U.S. and the people in Haiti, and we try to be very conscious of that. This is why we make trips to Haiti to really listen and learn, and to make sure that their needs come first and their voices come first.”
Speaking to VHP’s long-term goals, Mandeville noted, “The health committee’s goal is to build a lab! That’s where we’re going. We built a clinic in 2014 and staff[ed] it, and [are] now following several comments from the medical staff at the clinic about how patients deal with getting lab exams done…it’s really hard for them to get to the hospital to get these exams done. So, we’re hoping to build on site at the clinic.”
Girma elaborated on VHP’s vision, saying, “Our overarching goal is sustainability, which is a bit of a buzzword. But it is what we’re aimed for—sustainability in the sense of the community being actors in their own lives. Making decisions for themselves, and finding ways of being partners and making that more applicable and realistic.”
Lee concluded, “My favorite part of the group is being able to work alongside people who are just as passionate about it. I feel like the org really works because it’s full of relationships, including our relationships with our partners in Haiti.”
From the Meade’s humble ambition to affect positive change, an internationally impactful organization was born. It shows that you really can change the world, or at least a part of it.
The Vassar Haiti Project’s student leaders encourage anyone interested to contact them at [email protected], or to attend a committee meeting. This semester, VHP’s Health Initiative meets every Sunday at 3 p.m.