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The Return to Haiti

As a student, Emily Strasser ’10 had visited the impoverished nation of Haiti as a volunteer with Vassar Haiti Project (VHP). The group has used proceeds from the sale of Haitian artwork and crafts purchased from local craftsmen to support the construction and operation of a school in the village of Chermaitre and, more recently, a medical clinic that will serve several remote villages in the region. Strasser and others continued their work on VHP's latest trip in October. In spite of the nation’s devastating earthquake and cholera epidemic, they found a host of familiar faces and a country battered yet resilient.

Emily Strasser with Yousmika, right, and friend.

The hike up to Chermaitre was more beautiful than I had remembered—the hills thickly green, the air redolent of mango. Four years ago, when I’d been a sophomore at Vassar, our group of nine had sweated our way up the mountain to the rural village in Northwest Haiti hardly knowing what to expect. Of the group, only Andrew Meade, director of international services and Vassar Haiti Project (VHP) co-chair, had visited the village and seen the school the project had built with funds from our Haitian art sales. By contrast, the small group that traveled to Haiti in October—including VHP co-chair Lila Meade, Lanbo Yang ’15, and me—carried folders stuffed with notes from previous trips and detailed questions about our reforestation, education, medical, and water initiatives.

Volunteer Lanbo Yang ’15 playing with a little boy.

When we arrived at the dusty schoolyard in Chermaitre, I found Yousmika almost immediately. Four years ago, when she had been a girl of three, with long blue ribbons in her hair, she’d followed me around, clinging to my clothes and climbing into my lap. Though taller now and without her baby fat, her wide-set eyes and ready smile were unmistakable. Back at Vassar, I’d thought of her as I’d edited press releases, stuffed envelopes, and hung paintings for our VHP art sales. As headlines relentlessly reported devastating news in the country—the rising cost of food, hurricane after hurricane, the earthquake, and the cholera outbreak—I’d worried about her. To see her leading her friends in a rowdy game, I let out a long-held breath. She put her slim arms around my waist and pulled me into the game.

Chermaitre is one village in a country of overwhelming need. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere; more than half of the population lives on less than $1 a day. It’s easy to get lost in those numbers, but VHP has taught us the power of small changes. There’s a Creole saying, “tipa tipa wazo fe nich li,” which means “little by little, the bird builds its nest.” With the help of hundreds of student and community volunteers, the project has funded teachers’ salaries and a school lunch program since 2002, built a seven-room school building completed in 2008, initiated a reforestation program in 2010, expanded villagers’ access to water, and funded several mobile clinics and the building of a permanent clinic.

Haitian medical student and VHP translator, Peter.

Playing with the schoolchildren, meeting the teachers, and watching the women fill their buckets from the tap in the schoolyard makes our work tangible.

“With VHP, you are actively involved with every step of the way, from conception to planning, to talking to our partners in Haiti, to fundraising, to managing and sending those funds to Haiti, to finally visiting the village and seeing how our work has affected the community,” explains Sahara Pradhan ’15, co-director of the education initiative.

As Lila, Lanbo, and I sorted through the school and medical supplies we’d brought with us in an empty classroom, children peeked in at us through the chinks in the cinderblocks. “Kote Cindy?” they asked, “Kote Fiona? Kote Claire?” (“Where is Cindy? Fiona? Claire?”) They inquired about the students on previous trips. To date, more than 30 Vassar students have visited Chermaitre.

“Our work always reminds me that it’s not ‘us and them’; there’s no clear boundary. We’re living in the same world,” reflects Cindy Fung ’14, vice president of outreach.

The children give Lila Meade a group hug in front of their school.

An hour later, we were seated on wooden benches in the dilapidated kindergarten classroom—the one-room building that once served the entire school until the new building was completed in 2008. Eyeing the unsteady walls, we renewed our determination to raise the funds to build a new kindergarten classroom. In a circle of benches around us sat the village leaders, who awaited a meeting to discuss progress on the new clinic.

The biggest point of tension was the placement of the clinic in the village of Fiervil. Its location at the base of the mountain had been chosen for its accessibility to doctors, but one man was angry that the clinic was not in Chermaitre. Pere Jonas, our local contact through the Episcopal Partnership Program, stepped up, explaining that the clinic will be for the people of both Fiervil and Chermaitre, admonishing the man to be charitable. Finally, he proposed a solution: the clinic will be named after both villages. There were murmurs of assent and clapping.

Development work is always complicated and messy. But for Pradhan, thinking through the issues of sustainable development after her trip to Haiti as a freshman led her to choose International Studies as her major. And for Sarah Cheng ‘13, co-president, her work with the Medical Initiative gave her a broader context for thinking about her chosen path of medicine.

Village leaders during a heated meeting about the new medical clinic.

When we hiked down the next day, we finally saw the nearly completed medical clinic with its three rooms, sturdy walls, and a wide front porch. Currently, villagers of Chermaitre have to walk up to 10 hours over rough terrain to reach the closest medical facility. When the clinic is open, it will bring medical care to about 7,000 villagers from Fiervil, Chermaitre, and other surrounding villages.

“Stepping over the threshold of the clinic was the defining moment of the trip for me—to see that our tireless fundraising, always with some uncertainty, really does matter,” reflects Yang.  

Back in Port-au-Prince, we spent the last few days searching for paintings in the street market and several galleries. We were lucky to meet a few of the artists, including Pierre Maxo and Georges Desarmes. Standing in front of a stunning Maxo painting of two midnight black leopards amid lush tropical leaves and fruits, I explained to the artist how we would sell his paintings in New York and send the money back to Chermaitre. It came full circle in that moment.

Tipa tipa.

—Emily Strasser ’10

Photos by Emily Strasser; Strasser portrait by Lanbo Yang ’15