Leah Gernetzke
Finding hope in Haiti

Published on The Fuller Center for Housing‘s website

A melody sung by strong female voices floats through the air of the construction site, cutting through the humid, skin-clinging air that blankets Gressier, Haiti.

The voices float down to the edge of the palm tree-lined property, accented by the sloshing of water in buckets that are passed by the women, who form a long, continuous line while they sing Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” Children clap and dance along to the tune.

“I left my home in Georgia,” they belt out in unison.

Indeed, each of these 10 women have left their homes and lives in the U.S. for a week-long trip to Haiti with The Fuller Center for Housing, an international non-profit dedicated to eliminating poverty housing. I’m along with them to document their experience.

The group was first introduced to Haiti with a van ride from the airport to the hotel, an endeavor not intended for the fainthearted. Cars and vans pack the roadways here, brave cyclists wend their way in and out of traffic, bustling pedestrians make mad dashes here and there, and all fight for space where there is none. Car horns blare, music plays, people fling lyrical Creole phrases through the air. Bold splashes of color on ubiquitous hand-painted signs, corner vendors filled with bric-a-brac, and women carrying baskets of ripe fruit match the unceasing cacophony.

To travel these crowded streets also means to be introduced to the glaring face of poverty. The pervasive, acrid stench of garbage burning assaults the senses immediately after stepping off the plane, indicative of the fact that the country has no trash-disposal system in place. Corrugated metal shacks line the roads, and children walk barefoot through the streets. Tears of compassion formed in the eyes of many of the group members, tears that would be present off and on throughout the week.

This group is not your typical American volunteer group. Almost everyone is an African-American woman, and their diverse professions range from a math professor to a pastor to several businesswomen who own and run companies – and at the head of them all is HGTV host Kimberly Lacy.

“Not many African-American women are in the service field,” said Beverly Black, director of donor development for The Fuller Center for Housing and co-leader of the trip. Several months ago, she and Lacy decided to change that.

Though the women all come from different professional backgrounds, each of their brief pilgrimages here stems from a common desire and purpose – to help the Haitian people attain the basic human right of raising their families in a safe environment.

“I look at these women and they are mothers, just like I am, and they want exactly what I want for my children – they want them to be happy and healthy and successful,” said trip member Renee Concilla. “Maybe their ideas of success are different than what we feel back in America, but nevertheless, it is success.”

The bedrock of success is the home, which is why the buckets full of water these women carry on the worksite will mix with gravel and cement to form concrete, which will form bricks that will form a house, in which, upon its completion, Fito and Kerline Jacques and their three children – Ansyto (age 14), Yuleusi (age 5) and Yunaica (age 3) – will live.

The January 2010 earthquake completely destroyed the Jacques’ house in Carrefour. Since the evening of the disaster, the family hasn’t had a permanent place to sleep at night. They currently reside semi-nomadically in the Grace Village refugee camp.

Fito earns some income through maintenance and grounds work. He’s also part of a start-up group of entrepreneurs who jointly own a small backyard chicken farm through the Haiti Empowerment Program. Kerline adds to the family’s income through a small business she runs in the camp.

To walk through the refugee camp that Fito and Kerline share with approximately 12,000 other families is to shake hands with poverty. Children with runny noses play with handmade toys in the spaces between windowless, tarp-covered shacks. Flies buzz incessantly. Pregnant women, their bellies swollen beneath their dresses, carry buckets and baskets on their heads.

Their stories represent life for the Haitian people, many of whom struggle to find and keep work and feed their children on a daily basis.

“Eighty percent of Haitians are basically on survival mode … What you see on the news is basically true,” said Jonny Jeune, director of Grace Fuller Center, an umbrella organization of one of The Fuller Center’s main partner organizations in Haiti, Grace International, a Haitian-run organization that strives to address social issues in the country. The organization oversees and manages 270 churches, 65 schools, 3 orphanages, a medical clinic, a hospital and a home for elderly widows.

The holistic approach

Grace International and Grace Fuller Center are in it for the long haul, so to speak. That is, they strive to find long-term solutions rather than easy, feel-good fixes – An arduous task when faced with a steady stream of everyday problems.

The overuse of charcoal, piled in buckets throughout the refugee camp, is one such example in which a long-term solution is needed. Haitians use charcoal as a cheap way to cook food. But in less than 20 years, 50 percent of the trees have been cut down for firewood and charcoal production. This creates an inefficient cycle that ultimately creates destruction on a long-term scale – Deforestation causes erosion of the topsoil, which ruins healthy, sustainable agriculture for farmers and makes the country even more dependent on exports from other countries.

“We need to provide solutions and alternatives. You can’t just tell a poor man not to get coal; you have to provide alternatives to coal,” Jeune said.

In partnership with Project Gaia, another non-profit in Haiti, Grace International is working to provide such an alternative by exploring installation of an ethanol distillery and cook stoves for the families in Fuller Center homes.

This energy-sourcing problem is just one of many, but it’s a reminder to keep a broader, holistic perspective in mind – the homes that the Fuller Center and their teams will construct are for people with multifaceted needs, living in a country with complex problems.

That’s why the overarching vision from the Grace International – Fuller Center partnership is summarized in a plan called the “rural sustainable community project,” which aims to ensure that the communities are ecologically, economically, and socially healthy and sustainable for generations to come. Here, the hope is that survivors can be restored back to not only normal, but also abundant and healthy living.

Building communities

This particular seven-acre plot in Gressier, located near the epicenter of the earthquake in Leogane and Port-Au-Prince, will eventually be filled with approximately 30 duplexes that will house a community of 60 families like the Jacques family. Each duplex costs about $3000 and are earthquake and hurricane resistant.

“Our focus is building communities,” Jeune says. “We want to empower people, to give them opportunities and provide ways they can help themselves.”

That means making them partners in this vision, rather than recipients.

“There’s a lot of need, but you’ve got a spirited people here who don’t want a hand out, they want a hand up,” Black says. “We have a lot of resources back at home that can help get them on the way. We need to be prayerful and mindful of everything we can do to bring this mission to the forefront.”

Providing a hand up instead of a hand out is the model upon which The Grace Fuller Center is building homes. Each homeowner must contribute sweat equity hours. As such, Fito and Jacques spent many long hours toiling in the sun with this group of American women and the hired Haitian labor force on site.

“They’re not asking you to do all of the work. Just give them assistance and then they will help themselves, because they are strong people, and they are proud people,” Truesdale observes. “What we are doing, what this organization is doing, is to just give a helping hand.”

The Haitians are used to the manual labor – but they’re not used to the ebullient singing that partially anesthetizes the workers to the hot sun and hard work. For every task, these women have a new song, and their repertoire is vast.

The nearby villagers are always coming out to stare at this unusually rambunctious group. Faint smiles grace their faces, and though they’re not always familiar with the tunes, they pick up the rhythms quickly.

Building relationships

Breaking down language and cultural barriers, and building relationships with people – whether through song or work – are among the main reasons these women traveled to Haiti.

“When the earthquake hit in 2010, I gave what I could to the American Red Cross,” said Gloria Peaden, a trip member and entrepreneur from New Orleans. “But I felt in my heart that that wasn’t enough, that I could do more.”

“I wanted to know that my hands touched or helped a person, that I directly helped some people here in Haiti,” agreed trip member and Kennesaw State mathematics professor Nikita Patterson. “It’s been very uplifting, it’s been very fulfilling. I’ve never done a lot of work with my hands, so it’s actually been fun to get out here and sweat and work hard, and help these people build a home that they will have – A permanent home to live in.”

In their mission to build relationships in addition to homes, the women were also eager to spend a day off the construction site mid-week to help a group of women cook at the Lord’s Kitchen, a program run by Grace International that distributes rice and beans to the hungry children in the surrounding refugee camp community.

The kitchen where they cook is a covered outdoor area in which women in colorful skirts and shirts pace back forth in well-worn shoes, standing over blackened and dented pots and pans that smell like supper. Their fingers search for stones in piles of black bean splits that come from a white mesh bag labeled “Peak Nutritional Power House. High fiber, low sodium.” They pluck stems off greens, knead bread, stir rice, and sing and talk while preparing nourishment for the almost 500 children who will soon pass through the kitchen’s gates.

The Fuller Center’s group sits with the women, mimicking the comforting repetition of movements passed through the ages. They also sing, laugh, and talk. In this kitchen, they’re not business people or professionals or whoever they are in the States – they’re simply people providing food for children, and that shared humanity – and womanhood – creates a distinctly communal feel that transcends external differences.

After a few hours of cooking, the gate to the tent community, located approximately 14 feet from the kitchen, opens. Children come pouring through under the watch of a security guard. Each child carries a tin container or a plastic bucket, and the women stand ready to dole out portions to these small, hungry warriors of poverty.

But they’re utterly unprepared for the way the children pour out of the gates, the way they’re herded through the line, the soft-spoken “merci” they whisper upon receiving food, and the way they totter back to the dilapidated shack they call home in a tent camp of 12,000 families.

Most of all, they’re not prepared for when the food runs out, when the gates close on reaching hands with empty containers and innocent faces, and the thumping noises of fists against metal as they beg to be fed just a cup of rice and beans.

After the group finishes cleaning in the kitchen, they head back across the yard, steeped in a stunned silence that speaks volumes on the treachery of a world that lets children go hungry.

Finding hope

Through the week, the people demonstrate an ironclad resilience to hardship, the kind that this degree of heartbreaking poverty inevitably breeds. And in no one is this strength more apparent than in the smallest citizens.

“When you look into the eyes of these children, you see the hope of Haiti. They laugh louder and heartier than any child I’ve been around,” Black said. “Their spirits are so real and so raw. You can’t help but want to share their love and their innocence. The children have been a highlight of this trip.”

Indeed, though these children and their parents may be economically impoverished, they are extremely – almost bafflingly – affluent in community, love, and faith. This is the currency on which their lives are run.

“We in America, we talk about the poverty they live in, but we don’t understand it. This is a community, this is what they know. They go day by day, and that’s what they’re used to,” Kimberly Lacy said. “What I love most about what I’ve experienced here is just the community environment that they live in. They are all family, whether they’re related by blood or not. They don’t have broken spirits. They’re hard workers, and you can get a lot of strength knowing that they carry on.“

So although the headlines in the news about Haiti might be true, and though their grinding, tangible needs make that truth apparent – it’s only part of the truth. The other part is under-reported – the other side of hardship.

Hardship is part of the human condition. By experiencing it, people find compassion and empathy. Out of it, strength and hope are born. The same hope that makes flowers curl around barbed wire fences, lends light to both Haitian and American faces, and gives reason to paint colorful signs that decorate the sides of buildings and buses here. It’s in the songs, the meals, and the work that this volunteer group shared with Haitians, and in the connections they formed as women and as people.

As long as the response to hardship is action instead of apathy or Pollyanna-ish optimism, this hope will continue. And although the black and white desperation engendered from the headlines in the news cannot necessarily be replaced, it can always be matched by this pulsating hope that always, always pushes through the cold ground of hardship.

These Fuller Center houses, the hands and hearts that helped build them, and most of all the people who live in them, will long stand as testament to that.

(Originally published on The Fuller Center for Housing‘s website)