Since its founding, the project has grown at an astonishing rate. For instance, the project fundraised for the construction and implementation of an elementary school and free lunch program.
This year’s sale will mark 12 years of the project’s diligence and service to a country plagued by social turmoil and natural disaster, but it also marks the personal growth and individual journeys of the people deeply invested and dedicated to the project’s mission. “It’s really made me see what’s important about being a human,” Tamsin Chen ’15, co-director of the project’s education initiative spoke.
The Vassar Haiti Project is both a VSA sponsored and non-profit organization with roots that precede the 12 years it has been in operation. Co-founder Andrew Meade spent some time growing up in Haiti, and graduated from high school in Port-au-Prince in 1977. His wife and co-founder of the organization, Lila Meade, also grew up under Haitian influence. Lila’s mother was raised in Haiti during the ’20s and Creole was spoken within the home. “When we found out that we had Haiti in our shared roots, we knew we had to do something. We just had to figure out exactly what that was going to be,” Andrew Meadesaid.
Soon he worked up the courage to approach his then boss about an initiative that would buy Haitian art, sell it in the Hudson Valley, and return the proceeds to Haiti. Shortly after, the Vassar Haiti project was on its feet, buying art to help fund various initiatives in need of resources and taking Vassar students into the field to experience Haitian life in a way that would inspire better solutions to Haiti’s problems. The experience has changed lives in both Haiti and Poughkeepsie, and the project has evolved into an effective system of observation, partnership, and open discussion.
On a recent mission trip to Haiti, the project decided to form a focus group specifically for women. “Last year we were talking amongst ourselves, and noticed that in our previous visits we talked to only village leaders and teachers who were all male. We wondered what the women’s perspective was on all of this and that’s when we decided to hold the focus group. We went around the room and the women shared the stories of their lives,” Chen explained. After hearing many painful and disheartening stories from the women, the idea for a co-operative that could possibly improve their economic status went into the works.
“The women have asked really powerfully to get marketable skills. They want to do more for their individual families and for their home, we’ve been working with an extremely poor village. Many of the families are farmers and have no income. The women are fired and ready to go,” Andrew Meade explained.
As of now, the goal has been to find out what skills would best sustain the Haitian women given their location and the resources they already have. It is also important that the solution is not seasonally dependent and that they can support themselves throughout the entire year.
Through research and conversation, the project has discovered a few possible leads. One idea is that the women can use natural resources to make products like bar soap and shampoo that can be sold either locally or abroad. Other ideas have circulated and some funds are already in place to get things started. It is only a matter of time before the co-operative will be up and running. “We just keep asking questions and getting clarity until we can go and make things happen,” Andrew Meade explained.
When Chen was just a freshman seeking extracurricular activities to get involved with at Vassar, she probably never guessed she would help a country build schools, a clinic, and a group of women support themselves and create a better future for their families. Similarly, the Meades could not have guessed that their early exposure to Haiti would lead to a life-long project that would grow so much at Vassar.
“Haiti just made a profound impact on all of us. There’s a magic about the place. People just let you in immediately, all the way, in a away that I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world. There’s something about the people, the joy, the resilience, that’s in the average everyday Haitian. It’s amazing in the face of all the stuff you read about and see,” Andrew said.