Block Island-Haiti connection alive and well
During the holiday season, when many of us are puzzling over which gifts to buy for our loved ones, we’re not usually thinking of basics like food, water and shelter or of a means of exercise for disabled children. However, these were exactly the kinds of things on the minds of six island residents who wonder how to deliver the most meaningful services and goods to the people in Haiti still suffering the devastating effects of the 2010 earthquake.
A few years ago, these islanders formed a group calling itself the Block Island Team for Haiti, made up of David Chatowsky, Terri Chmiel, Socha Cohen, David Kane, Jim Rondinone and David Roosa, all of whom were determined to visit the stricken nation.
It was Roosa’s earlier trip to Haiti with Habitat for Humanity and other groups that led him to invite islanders to join him. The Roosa Fund has been largely responsible for underwriting the Haiti projects through the auspices of the Block Island Ecumenical Ministries.
On Thanksgiving Day 2012, the team and four neighbors and friends traveled with Habitat to the village of Santo in the seaside town of Leogane, Haiti. Their assignment was to begin the monumental task of building homes for some of the millions of people made homeless by the quake. At that time, they spent a week — each working with a group of 10 — to build two homes in a project that they all admit has altered their lives irrevocably.
As part of that project, the islanders, along with 600 volunteers from other communities and countries, helped build 100 homes. To date, 300 homes have been completed. Among their co-workers were volunteers from Haven, a group from Ireland, with whom they worked closely to restore the village of Santo, which Cohen pointed out, “was one of the areas hardest hit by the quake.”
The nature of the devastation they saw upon arriving in Haiti left them speechless and touched them in ways they felt had to be channeled into action. In a gathering recently at Cohen’s home, they spoke of their experiences in Haiti and of their plans to continue their commitment, which seems to deepen by the day.
Making a dent
Kane said he had gone on his initial visit believing that their group could make a difference. However, when they first encountered the scale of need in the country, he and most of his fellow travelers were overwhelmed, understanding they could only make a very small dent, if any at all.
However, they realized the importance of doing. They understood that all kinds of efforts and resources were needed, and came away searching for the best way to direct funds and what they should focus on.
In February of this year, several members of the island team went to Dublin for a Haven fund-raiser called “Haiti Week;” it was there they met the director of an orphanage on Île à Vache, Haiti. As a result, in October, Kane, Rondinone and Roosa joined volunteers from Ireland to work on some 40 outstanding construction projects at the orphanage there.
Île à Vache is an island approximately the size of Block Island, but with a full-time population of 11,000 to 12,000 residents. As Roosa explains, the island is without electricity, running water and transportation. Infrastructure on the island includes only an orphanage, a school and a medical center. There are some solar panels, one of which is at the orphanage; there are a few generators.
Furthermore, Roosa adds, “There are no vehicles, except an occasional motorcycle because there are no roads, only paths. All provisions come in boats from the mainland.”
Many of the orphanage employees must walk close to two hours to get to work, and Kane thinks the orphanage is the largest employer on the island. Though there are approximately 60 children who live there, the orphanage feeds close to 300 children a day.
Swimming becomes a lifeline
While working at the orphanage, Kane explains, “We discovered that the kids didn’t have a way to go swimming.” Many of the children had missing or injured limbs. He said it was difficult for the children to access a dock about half a mile away where they could get a boat to take them to a swimming area.
During their stay on Île à Vache, Kane, Rondinone and Roosa helped push some of the children’s wheel chairs to get them to the boat, but the motor ultimately gave out. Learning what swimming meant to the children, Kane explained, “We realized there was nothing so important as allowing these youngsters to swim, at least once a week.” They realized “that the kids hadn’t been off the property for several months,” Kane said. Confined within a stifling environment, he notes, the children had little opportunity to get much exercise. Swimming was very important, especially for those who were unable to use their limbs because, when in the water, they were able to move them.
Clearly emotional when recalling the children, Kane said, “By taking them swimming, it released all their emotions and energy. It allowed those kids with severe physical disabilities to have fun. It was very emotional to look at these kids when we took them swimming. Never did we see anything but a smile on their faces or hear [anything but] a giggle.”
To that end, the team felt that purchasing a motor, with a price tag of $5,000, was one of their priorities. “In the meantime, we have decided to sponsor their swimming two to three times a month, so we are paying a captain to take them to the swimming place, until we’re able to get a motor,” said Kane.
“We’re committed to that boat motor,” said Cohen.
With the islanders all very taken by the children, who range in age from two years to 16, Roosa recalled the indomitable spirit of a young boy working to paint the trim on the orphanage from his wheel chair.
“We feel good about connecting with Île à Vache,” said Cohen, “because it gives us an opportunity to stay connected with the children there.”
Listening to her colleagues’ comments about their direct contact with children, Terri Chmiel notes how different that was from the situation on Santo, where the volunteers remained in a compound separated from the residents by chain-link fencing.
“We’ve had a really exciting year, I think, in setting our goals, and I know I would —we would all want to travel back,” said Chmiel. “Especially to the orphanage in Île à Vache.”
Among the team’s goals was supporting Habitat of Humanity in the construction of 90 kitchen gardens in Santo, which ended in the completion of a 1,200 square-meter nursery. The Block Island Team provided backing for this project, which found itself delayed because Habitat discovered that a serious sanitation problem undermined the progress of the gardens, because running sewage was getting into and contaminating the local soil.
Boots on the ground
Kane’s passion, he said, is “to have boots on the ground,” because most groups that send money “get very little results, perhaps eight cents on the dollar.” He attributes this situation to the high overhead costs and the fact that deliveries of donated goods must be paid for.
They all agreed the most effective approach is to deliver goods directly. Kane says, “We can stay there for $25 a day, including meals; it’s inexpensive to do things there and more meaningful to have volunteers who bring equipment and do the work than simply to send money.”
However, they do acknowledge that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have found it is best to work with locals.
Roosa says, “We had 10 locals working with us, [which] gives them salaries and they are paid at the highest skilled scale.” Cohen adds, “It gives them ownership of the projects.”
Interestingly, at another end of the island, there is a hotel that accommodates some tourists. Roosa anticipates that in the near future “there will be massive changes in Île à Vache — it will have a paved road and it will have an airport” made possible through private investment.
Bringing art to Port-au-Prince
Another of the team’s goals is to bring an art program to children in three schools and two orphanages of Port-au-Prince, a project to be undertaken by local artist Dave Chatowsky. He says with the team’s goals of sustainability, he feels it’s important to improve the health, education and spiritual growth as well as economic development of the people.
As an artist and a missionary, Chatowsky sees his role as promoting improved mental health and well-being. To those ends he will offer courses in the fundamentals of drawing, of painting, of portrait drawing and of painting from observation.
While in Dublin for “Haiti Week,” Chatowsky met Gladys Thomas, the founder of the Foundation for the Children of Haiti, and told her of his work teaching art in Nicaragua for five years, and she invited him to come to Haiti. His program, set to begin in March, should run for a month, but he will evaluate it as he goes along.
He speaks of having been on several missions to Haiti with Roosa, and of his work in Nicaragua, and sees his meeting with Thomas as “a door that opened, and now I have to walk through it.”
Roosa noted that he’s been interested in “taking missionary trips for at least 20 years,” beginning with work in a Native American reservation in Oklahoma and at a hospital in the Dominican Republic. He, too, believes in boots on the ground. “Go there and take care of things,” he says. He loves the work, he adds, because it allows him to “learn about people around the world, learn about the places, but at the same time to do some missionary work.”
Cohen adds that there is one more component to the work of the team, and that is to do community outreach right here on the island. She says that the team is available to island residents “by providing free labor for minor projects.”
Donations may be addressed to the Block Island Ecumenical Ministries-Haiti Fund, Box 734, Block Island, RI 02807. You may specify where your contribution is to go by a notation in the memo section of your check. All donated funds (100 percent) go directly to serve the community. No administrative fees are taken.