VHP celebrates womanhood, nonprofit work with gala

Women in the Vassar Haiti Project’s sister village of Chermaitre, Haiti make jewlery and napkins (pictured above). The VHP works to benefit education and infrastructure in Chermaitre. / Courtesy of Benoit

On Friday, Feb. 10, the Vassar Haiti Project (VHP) will host She Is: A Gala in Honor of Women. Cofounder of VHP Lila Meade proudly explained, “A collaboration of the entire VHP leadership has birthed this wonderful event . . . all of us working together for a cause that is so important to us.”

“She Is” will take place in the Villard Room from 7 p.m.–11 p.m. Tickets are $8 in advance, or $10 at the door. The event will commence with a delicious dinner, including vegetarian and vegan options, and guests can enjoy a series of performances by Vass Shakers, the Barefoot Monkeys, Ujima and many more throughout the night, later to be followed by an open dance floor. Additionally, VHP will provide a photo booth, and photographers will be on hand to capture the event.

The proceeds from the event will go to the Women’s Cooperative in Chermaitre, Haiti, VHP’s partner village. The org planned the gala with the intent of raising awareness within Vassar’s campus of VHP’s initiatives in Haiti, as well as the goal of funding a program focused on improving women’s education. VHP member Keira Congo ’20 explained, “The gala is specially dedicated to the women in Haiti and the money we raise will help fund the most recent project of purchasing education materials for the women whose desire is to be literate in Creole and French.”

Lila Meade and her husband Andrew Meade, who is also the Director of International Students, initially founded the Project with the goal of funding a rural school’s lunch and education program in Chermaitre. Over the years, they have facilitated the construction of a school and a clinic, and a women’s cooperative center, which will double as a church, is in the process of being built. They have also planted more than 14,000 trees, and worked to bring purified water to Chermaitre.

The gala had been in the works for a long time before it was made public to the rest of the student body. Lila Meade remarked in an email, “[Health Initiative Director] Clairiola Etienne ’18 has been dreaming about this for a year, wanting to empower the women of Chermaitre who work together in a cooperative in the rural mountains of Haiti.” Co-President of Haiti Operations Shiqi Lin ’17 elucidated, “[This] came out of the idea that Vassar students need to have a fun and inspiring space to develop meaningful relationships while appreciating women in the world. Our executive board was very excited to continue this commitment this year and thankfully every piece is put into place now.”

Although the event was planned far in advance of the election, Lin believes that it is particularly valuable in the present moment: “For us, given the current political climate, especially after the hostile speech and policies targeted towards women, migrants and racial minorities, we believe this event also plays an important role in raising social awareness on campus. After all, celebrating the feminine with care and happiness is the very way we want to respond to hostility against women.”

VHP created the event with the women of Chermaitre in mind. Congo, who is also involved in the planning of the gala, recalled fondly, “I was immediately drawn to the mission of the project that aims to achieve progress and development in the livelihood of the people in the village in Haiti. Before organizing the gala, we watched a recent video of the women in Haiti singing and dancing in joy during a visit by the co-founders. It was a special moment to me . . . I am humbled to be part of a family that seeks to encourage limitless possibilities and experiences by contributing to the improvement of the lives of people in Haiti.”

Meade spoke of their time in Chermaitre, explaining, “When we go to Haiti, we meet these wonderful women (about 35) who are actively seeking out ways to financially improve their lives. These women often have many children and no formal means of income to help feed and care for them.”

Although the Project continually strives to assist the Chermaitre community, it is equally important to them not to intrude on the vibrant culture of the village. Lin perfectly captured the careful balance that VHP seeks to achieve, explaining in an email, “By connecting Chermaitre with various international nonprofits based in the United States and providing necessary fundings for improving social infrastructure in Chermaitre, our goal is to promote self-sustainability of Chermaitre without interfering with the social dynamics there.

According to their website, in addition to the Women’s Initiative, VHP is also working toward more widespread medical access and education, water purification and reforestation. The nonprofit has also continued to focus on promoting local arts, which was part of the founders’ original purpose.

VHP hopes that “She Is” will revitalize the Project’s commitment to social equality, empowerment and justice which Lin identifies as a core element of the org. They welcome all Vassar students to attend, and has also invited guests from Bard, Marist and West Point. The Vassar Haiti Project looks forward to celebrating the various roles of women around the world with the College community. Meade added, “We have many initiatives to support and need the energy and care that Vassar students can share with us towards reaching our goals.”

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