02/05/10

A Life-Changing Experience in Haiti

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Since receiving a Rex Foundation Grant in 2006, Project Help Mexico, an extracurricular service club in Nelson, British Columbia, has grown and evolved into a full-time one-semester program dedicated to studying and fostering healthy, vibrant communities.

This semester’s students had just arrived in Haiti last month to help villagers drill a well and build a wall around their goat farm when the earthquake struck and everything changed; as they tried to help the locals, they found the Haitian people working to take care of them. Program founder Don Warthe files this update:


Project Help was begun as a extra-curricular service club, where we made a charitable donation of a house to a homeless Mexican family.  We continued for several years until Project Help became part of a youth group called “Inspiring Youth for Change,” which in turn came out of a course I developed called “Global Perspectives.”  Project Help was the culminating activity for students in this 4 credit course.  We added local community service as well as humanitarian efforts in Mexico, namely food distribution–the students purchased rice and beans, which they distributed to the people who live off the landfill in Tijuana–and providing infrastructure to orphanages in Tijuana.  Locally, we built bus stop shelters, gazeboes, trails and more.

After all of our trips to Tijuana, students commented on how much family and community meant, in spite of the people having little or no money, and that we in Canada could learn much from them.  This gave rise to Quest for Community, a full-time one semester program, worth 16 credits, where the overriding goal is to determine how to establish and maintain healthy, vibrant, resilient, and sustainable communities.  These issues are explored in a meaningful, relevant and real way.  We do this by travelling to various communities–this year we visited the Ktunaxa First Nation, Yasodhara Ashram, UBC, Krestova, and the (notorious) Downtown Eastside in Vancouver.  While in these communities we work on community projects that are decided on by the communties we visit.  We have built community gardens, cleaned parks, harvested, given toy-making and weaving workshops, cleaned highways, painted and renovated buildings, planted gardens, and reclaimed parkland.

The students also do coursework in areas of learning that they are passionate about or need as a pre-requisite for post secondary education.  They are expected to direct their own learning in these areas, by setting goals and milestones and using whatever resources they deem appropriate.  We had students studying History, Mathematics, all the Sciences, English, Fitness Training, and Music Composition.  One student learned how to successfully organize and promote a benefit concert for our projects in Haiti. .

As for our trip to Haiti, the Haitian people requested that we fund a well and help construct a wall around their goat farm. We went to learn about community from the Haitian people and to work with the local people building the walls.  We also were to give toy-making and weaving workshops as well as lessons on hygiene.

The students worked on local community projects to earn the money for the well ($6,500), and partnered with the Kootenay Christian Fellowship and Nelson Daybreak Rotary Club for the funds for the wall ($15,000).

When the earthquake struck we had only been there for 45 minutes.  Needless to say we no longer could do anything we came to do; however over the course of our stay, we came to know the Haitian community in an incredibly intimate way, we built community with those who sought refuge with us, and when we returned home we were welcomed by an incredible community that had, and continues to, rally around the Haitian people, especially those who provided us with food, water, shelter, and safety.  The people at Haiti Arise were gracious and generous and when we left, we promised not to forget them.

An inspiring story, in case you missed it: Once we had survived the initial shock, and had established food, water, and rudimentary shelter, we went to visit the goat farm we were to have worked on, only to find to find it flattened.  On the way the students noticed people throwing rocks at the trees.  When told that they were trying to dislodge mangoes as their only food, the students suggested pooling their money and buying rice for the local people.  They managed to raise $2,500, enough for 4,000 pounds of rice, which they distributed to local families, community kitchens, and orphanages.  The students also began clearing the roads of debris.

After a life-changing week in Haiti, the students returned home to a joyous reception in BC. They will be talking with us about their experiences in the week to come.