Over spring break, Vassar Haiti Project (VHP) made their annual trip to Chermaitre, Haiti. The following is a retrospective piece written by members of VHP.
At the many Vassar Haiti Project meetings leading up to the trip, we were often reminded that the people of Haiti teach us how to care for the world. We didn’t understand how this would happen.
But after four months of preparation, which included more team collaboration (you’ve been to Munchy Mondays, right?) than we ever thought possible, countless meetings about getting into physical shape to climb the mountain in Chermaitre, visits to Baldwin for shots and meds and a packing list that never ended, we thought we were ready. We attended planning meeting after planning meeting.
During these meetings many questions big and small surfaced, such as wondering if our presence in Haiti was wanted, if we were doing more harm than good and if our actions were resulting in sustainability.
Over spring break, alongside 26 hiking backpacks, medical supplies and water-testing kits, we brought these larger questions to Haiti, hoping for answers. We wondered too how we would do on the climb up the mountain, how we would respond to the people, what it would be like to be in this land we had been talking about for so long.
Who are we?
The Vassar Haiti Project (VHP) engages students in a life-changing experiential education in global citizenship, fosters sustainable development in Haiti and promotes Haitian art. In addition to the purchase and sale of original Haitian art, VHP’s contributions are guided by five initiatives in the mountain village of Chermaitre: education, health care, reforestation, clean water access and a women’s cooperative.
VHP is a unique, three-way partnership. It is a certified VSA student organization of 70 to 100 volunteers, including about 20 on the executive board. It is a highly mentored, student-centered educational program housed in Vassar’s Office of International Services. And it partners with a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization.
Since inception, VHP has raised $1.2 million, primarily through Haitian art sales both on and off campus. Beginning in 2008, VHP has brought a group of students to Haiti every spring break to purchase Haitian paintings and handcrafts, evaluate initiative status and deepen students’ understanding of Haiti and of the principles and practices of global citizenship.
This year, 13 “trippers,” (shortcut for student trip participants) accompanied VHP founders Andrew and Lila Meade to Haiti for 10 days.
After the day-and-a-half trek to Chermaitre which is tucked in the mountains of northwest Haiti, we saw the school building that VHP founded over eight years ago … There are about 250 students who are now studying math, French, science and social studies as well as learning about hygiene and reforesting the surrounding mountains. And now, some are finally starting secondary school, a brand new program that the students strongly wanted but lacked access in years past.
As the trippers sat next to the eight Secondary School Students in Chermaitre, we looked forward to getting to know them, learning about their favorite subjects and what they want to do when they’re older. It was humbling to see teenagers (16+) who were thrilled to be able to return to school and start seventh grade, in spite of many obstacles.
Melanie Lai Wai ’16 shares about Mackenson Verneus, who is one of eight students. Mackenson is thrilled to be attending the secondary school and hopes to go to college afterwards.
He shared that his goal is to help people, especially those families in difficult situations, economically, socially and educationally. He feels proud to have this opportunity, having been forced to drop out of school three times because his parents simply didn’t have the money.
“I feel truly inspired by his story,” said Melanie. “It made me think about my own path and how it had never occurred to me that not going to secondary school was an option. His strength and his perseverance exceed by far that of anyone I know. Mackenson may not have a degree, he may not have seen the wonders of the world, he may not have any material objects to share, but in one day he has become one of the people I respect the most.”
“On the first day, right after our four-hour flight,” describes Ruoyu Li ’19, “we visited the Issa Gallery in Port-au-Prince. The room was filled with colors and brightness; paintings occupied every wall and table. Besides paintings from galleries, we also purchased artwork off the street directly from local artists. Wandering from shop to shop, we selected and labeled the paintings.”
“We saw the paintings come to life in Haiti,” added Melanie Lai Wai. “The market scenes, the mountains, the fields … In Chermaitre, we met Benoit, a 21-year-old budding artist who also works with the women’s cooperative. As we were hiking together, he pointed to the surrounding scenery, explaining that this was where he came for inspiration. Listening to him speak about his art and experiencing it first-hand was an absolute honor. I have been working with our paintings and handcrafts for almost two years at Vassar College, but through this trip I now truly understood the value of each one of them.”
Amaesha Durazi ’19 said she was instantly in awe of the womens’ grace, resilience and ingenuity. The women of Chermaitre serve as exemplars of modern feminism. Femme Chermaitre is a women’s cooperative formed in March 2012 that includes 35 beautiful and passionate women who “provide a space of solidarity, develop their business-related skills and better their livelihoods.” They make a variety of products like Haitian coffee, jewelry, handcrafts and napkins that VHP sells at our annual art sales.
Thao Nguyen ’18 said that “despite their difficult backgrounds and experiences, the women carried themselves with so much pride and strength. They walked us through the challenges the co-op was facing as well as their vision and hopes to better Femme Chermaitre’s operations.”
Environment: Water and Reforestation
“Does VHP really help the people in Haiti? Why do you love VHP?” asked Ruoyu Li ’19 of a past tripper. “Ask me the same questions after the trip,” Shiqi Lin ’17 patiently replied. Upon returning from Haiti, Ruoyu reflected on our reforestation initiative.
“Statistics from the reforestation initiative are no longer numbers–they represent villagers’ worries about the depleted soil, their great vision for a more abundant future and the currently budding coffee sprouts.”
Lily Elbaum ’16 added, “Getting to visit the reforestation plot in Chermaitre was an amazing experience because it really brought home the work we do here. These reforestation plots represent hope for the future and it was a humbling experience to be able to witness this slow yet critical transformation of Chermaitre’s land.”
Paarul Sinha ’17 spent a day with several volunteers helping our local medical staff run the clinic that VHP built and funds.
“Seeing how the clinic’s obstacles affect patients and their access to healthcare shook me at my core, yet simultaneously reminded me why our partnership is so crucial. Specifically, I am reminded of Carl Henri, a nine-year-old boy with cholera who was brought to the clinic on a stretcher made from an old wooden door. He was semi-conscious, his eyes were fluttering. Due to a lack of supplies, we could not bring him into the clinic for fear of the infection spreading. Instead, the doctor hooked him up to an IV pole outside under the harsh sun. It was about 90°F that day. Ultimately, Carl was driven on a motorcycle to the nearest hospital about an hour away as a family member carried the IV bag above his head so that Carl would continue receiving the drip. As I spoke with Dr. Gueslin that evening, he expressed his disappointment in not being able to provide more for Carl. As the clinic’s medical director, he said much work needs to be done to improve the clinic’s facilities, and I agree. Though the work seems endless at times and the road to sustainability appears daunting, it is moments like these that make it so clear that giving up is just not an option.”
On leaving Haiti
“As we bid our goodbyes, I could feel the heaviness and reluctance in our hearts,” said Durazi. “We didn’t want to leave the spirit of Haiti behind. When Jina, a young girl who attends the primary school, lent me her unwavering hand as I climbed the mountain and her friends braided my hair with such patience, I realized love has no language.”
“I learned so many important life lessons from these people that I will cherish forever. Every part of our journey helped me see VHP in a new light and helped me to understand myself a little better. I will continue to visit Haiti in my mind and heart”
And what of the questions we carried to Haiti, the big ones and the small ones?
Well, we all made it up the mountain. And we were touched deeply by the people, people who have so little and yet give so much of themselves, people who overcome extreme adversity in everyday life, people who are so incredibly dignified, resilient and strong.
We found we could continue to ask the big questions and at the same time be present to Haiti, get in relationship with the people of a village, listen to people share their stories with us. That the big questions, such as the sustainability of our work and the impact of our presence, need not be a barrier to being in action. That somehow living in these big questions is so much more valuable than whatever answers our minds search for along every step of the journey.
The questions will guide our work. And the experiences we will never forget.