Org spotlight: Zooming in on Vassar Haiti Project

Screenshot from VHP Zoom meeting. Courtesy of Eilif Ronning ’20

Eilif Ronning ’20 and Annika Rowland ’19 set up their Zoom cameras from their respective hometowns of Sandefjord, Norway and Hanover, Massachusetts. The two are on the executive board of Vassar Haiti Project (VHP), an organization dedicated to the sustainable development of Chermaitre, a mountainous village in Northwest Haiti. 

The Vassar Haiti Project was founded by Andrew and Lila Meade in 2001, who both have deep ties to Haiti. Andrew spent time living in Haiti as a teen where his father worked for the Foreign Service at the US Embassy, while Lila’s mother lived there as a child. Andrew’s idea for the Haiti Project came to fruition at Vassar, where he started a job 1999 as Assistant Dean to the College and has worked ever since. After 9/11, Andrew envisioned the Vassar Haiti Project as a means to foster positive change in the world.

“Living and attending school in Haiti in the 1970’s gave me the opportunity to get to know the land, the people and their glorious art. Despite the poverty, the political turmoil, the environmental devastation, and lack for years of any kind of governmental infrastructure, the dignity and spirit of the Haitian people remains powerfully strong, vibrant and free,” Andrew explained on the official Vassar Haiti Project website.

The project is rooted in the sale of Hatian Art in the U.S, which is acquired through decades long partnerships with Haitian art galleries and artists. 

“It [the art] shows a very different narrative of Haiti,” Ronning highlighted. “It is augmenting the voices of artists to tell their own story and show their own vision of Haiti compared to common media narratives, which is displayed in a very particular light.” 

Since then, the Vassar Haiti Project has expanded its initiatives to promote public health, environmental sustainability, female financial independence and education both in Haiti and about Haiti to the Vassar community. 

For the first time in its 19 years of operation, Vassar Haiti Project members must plunge into their spring semester work from homes all over the globe, instead of gathering in the cozy nook of Main’s old bookstore. A secure Wi-Fi network, Zoom and the ability to strategize during a global pandemic are their tools to stay on schedule. 

“A big part of VHP is the fact that we are a tight knit community,” Ronning said. As co-president, Ronning spends at least three hours a week working with their fellow members of the executive board. “We spend hours and hours together. And that’s gone now. How do we move that atmosphere and that same support network online?” 

Like original co-founder Andrew Meade, Ronning provides an international perspective to the execution of club operations. Growing up in Ethiopia and South Africa, Ronning was exposed to non-profit and community service work from a young age.  “A lot of [these services] were done in a way I didn’t feel was right,” Ronning explained. Ronning found that projects tended to be short-lived, and witnessed community service leaders who assumed the needs of those being serviced without asking what those needs were. 

The Vassar Haiti Project, however, matched Ronning’s vision of community service. Ronning was attracted to the Vassar Haiti Project’s guiding principles of collaboration and communication both within the club itself and with their partners in Haiti.

“We focus a lot on community leadership and that goes both ways,” Ronning emphasized. “It’s both assessing the community needs of the people in Chermaitre and what they want and also leaving it up to students to propose things and bring that to the community and have it be a dialogue.”  

Rowland, the Health Initiative Director of Vassar Haiti Project, indicated that she joined the club for many of the same reasons. 

“I was really struck by the long lasting partnership that the Vassar Haiti Project had established and how much change they were being able to complete with the people in Haiti over such a short period of time,” she explained. 

As Health Initiative Director, one of Rowland’s primary responsibilities is developing strategies for fundraising and further development of the Vassar Haiti Project’s medical clinic in Fiervil (a community within Chermaitre located at the base of the mountain where Chermaitre sits). The Fiervil-Chermaitre clinic was built in 2013 using funds from Vassar Haiti Project’s art sales. It services 46 villages in the area, providing accessible healthcare to over a thousand people. 

Typically, the Vassar Haiti Project’s annual spring Art & Soul Gala finances the supplies and medications for the clinic for an entire year. However, this year, the event had to be canceled due to distance learning. “The loss of that event is quite devastating,” Ronning noted. 

Securing requisite funds for the clinic is at the top of Vassar Haiti Project’s agenda. Rowland and Ronning are grateful that the Vassar Haiti Project has still received money from sponsors, and that ticket-buyers have not asked for a refund. The club members are alternatively pursuing an online fundraiser to meet their goals. 

Besides fundraising, the organization is also continuing to expand the clinic’s efficiency by analyzing clinic reports via Zoom with the Vassar Haiti Project’s Health Initiative student group. The students use the reports to assess which illnesses are most common and collaborate with the medical professionals working in the clinic to consider which treatments would be most effective. 

Public health is of particular concern with the spread of COVID-19. Without widespread access to testing in Haiti, Rowland and Ronning cannot be certain whether COVID-19 has affected Chermaitre residents. Further, political strife in the region and the pandemic make it more difficult for the primary clinic doctor, Dr. Gueslin Joassainvil, to make his usual twice a month trip from Port-au-Prince to Fiervil. Since there is no electricity in Chermaitre, Vassar Haiti Project relies on their partners who live in less rural areas, like Dr. Gueslin, for updates about the region. Full-time local nurses continue to operate the clinic.

“As far as we know we haven’t seen any symptoms to indicate Corona. It [Fiervil] is quite isolated,”  Ronning noted. 

Another task the Student Health Initiative is undertaking during distance learning is installing electricity in the clinic, which the medical staff has identified as a vital need. Electricity would allow for refrigeration, which could be used to store vaccines and therefore reduce the spread of common diseases. Rowland and the other students in the Health Initiative are working (also via Zoom) on a grant for a solar powered lab. 

These solar-powered labs reflect Vassar Haiti Project’s philosophy of sustainability. Other sustainable projects Vassar Haiti Project touts is its reforestation initiative, for which the club has received multiple grants. Their goal is to eventually plant 100,000 trees in Haiti. To fund continued reforestation, Vassar Haiti Project members are in the midst of developing a sustainable Haitian coffee initiative. They are hoping to get this coffee Food and Drug Administration approved, and are meeting via Zoom with organizations in Haiti that already export their coffee to the U.S.

The near future for the Vassar Haiti Project remains ambiguous. Usually, select club members travel to Sag Harbor, New York over the summer to sell Haitian Art. It is unclear whether this event will be possible, but their website continues to be open for online sales. Additionally, the club is still purchasing art from Haitian painters and handcraft distribution centers. 

While Ronning, Rowland and the club membership continue to propel VHP forward, they are conscious of student needs during this tumultuous and uncertain time. 

“I think the biggest challenge in moving online is recognizing that we have made a commitment to work with this community,” Ronning explained, “and despite all the turmoil that’s going on, we still need to honor that commitment and at the same time respect everyone with what we’re working with and the situations that they’re in at the moment.”

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