When Lisel Burns, clergy leader emeritus of the Brooklyn Society for- Ethical Culture (BSEC), first visited Haiti in the mid-1990's she knew she was visiting the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. But penury wasn’t the only thing she noticed.
Burns was based in Léogâne, a city of 169,000 located less than 20 miles from the capital city of Port-au-Prince. Fifteen years later Léogâne would become infamous as the epicenter of January’s horrific 7.0 earthquake, a natural disaster that the Red Cross estimates killed more than 30,000 Léogâne residents and leveled between 80 and 90 percent of the city’s buildings.
At the time of her initial visit, however, Burns was struck by the small community’s vibrant energy. “Yes, there were a lot of obvious needs but there were also institutions—markets, community groups, churches, and an infrastructure that held people together,” she begins.
Burns’s trip—part of BSEC’s ongoing support work for Fonkoze USA, a Haitian microfinance bank—was hosted by the NEGES Foundation, a Brooklyn-based organization that was started by Marie Yoleine Gateau-Esposito and James Philemy, immigrants from Haiti who share a commitment to bringing community development, ecological awareness, and improved education to their homeland. The Foundation—NEGES is an acronym: Nest for Educational Growth and Environmental Safety—officially launched in 1998 but by the time the group began, Gateau-Esposito and Philemy had already amassed nearly two decades of experience organizing financial and programmatic support for the impoverished nation.
The two met while working as educators in Crown Heights—Gateau-Esposito was a guidance counselor and Philemy was then a math teacher and is now a public school principal in Queens. Although Philemy came from Cap-Haitien in Haiti’s north and Gateau-Esposito came from Léogâne in the south, the pair quickly realized that they had similar dreams for their country of origin. Together, they developed plans that they hoped would be self-sustaining, with a focus on youth. As Gateau-Esposito recalls, “We asked ourselves, ‘Why can’t we do in Haiti what we do with kids here in Brooklyn?’”
As the two brainstormed, they came up with numerous ideas. “We see protecting the environment as integral to education,” Gateau-Esposito explains. “They are not separate issues. We feel that the best way to begin developing consciousness about the environment is to start teaching children when they are young.”
This notion quickly led to the formation of a summer camp for 50 Léogâne children. Completely financed by the two educators, Gateau-Esposito says that the structure of the two-week camp was developed as a reaction to her own mis-education. “I went to Catholic school and the nuns would make us go out and plant almond trees in front of people’s houses. They never explained it, never told us that they were trying to create shade and protect the environment, so all of us hated the activity. We hated getting our fingers dirty and hated planting,” she says. “I wanted to do things differently, to explain everything so the children would love the activity.”
And they did, she reports. The first summer camp, in 1998, offered kids ages 5 to 12 a chance not only to plant trees, but also to cultivate them; it ran until 2003. By then, Philemy and Gateau-Esposito realized that many of the city’s 182 schools were replicating what NEGES had started and were now sponsoring summer camps of their own.
Switching gears, they began partnering with Volunteers for Peace, GROOTS International, Womanshare, and the Huairou Commission, international organizations that bring people from all corners of the world together to strategize and organize to meet community needs. Several of the groups also run short-term work-camps and coordinate fundraising efforts to aid the world’s poor. All told, their plans included a host of new Léogâne-centered projects—creating a botanical garden, clearing dumped tires from the river, and most significantly, opening a school with a less regimented style of instruction than is typical for local children. Their ideas were lofty: Their school, they hoped, would become a model for educators throughout the country, providing pupils with two meals a day and barring teachers from using corporal punishment when students misbehave.
They intended to develop the school slowly, starting with pre-K and adding one grade each year until, 16 years down the road, they were running an educational institution that offered academic classes and vocational training from pre-school to university level.
“The school presently runs from pre-K to fourth grade,” Philemy boasts before becoming somber. “Since the quake, we’ve had to hold classes in the open air and have had to address the death of more than one-quarter of the 204 students who enrolled last fall. In February we contacted five international organizations and said that we needed big tents to use as classrooms so that we could re-start the program,” he continues. Philemy’s disgust is evident as he reports the response. “Not one group—we asked Samaritan’s Purse, Doctors Without Borders, The Hispanic Red Cross, The U.N., and a Canadian organization—could help us. You hear about international relief efforts but when you’re in Haiti, you don’t get a sense of people receiving any help at all.”
The reality hit Philemy and Gateau-Esposito head-on when they traveled to Haiti in February and found hundreds of desperate people camped out on nine acres of land they had purchased in 2005. “People saw some vacant land and they settled in,” Philemy says. “When we arrived in Léogâne in February there were 594 people. In March we found 716 from 132 families. We got 132 tents for them and said, ‘Okay, we have to establish some sort of structure.’ People from Volunteers for Peace and local Haitian groups helped us do a census so we knew who had moved there. Then, we set up committees for the residents, and with the volunteers, we installed porta-potties and showers. Electricians Without Borders electrified the encampment and solar lamps were donated so every tent got one. We started classes—two hours of instruction per day—for the 156 children staying on the land. We also established rules and asked each person to do at least five hours of work per month to benefit the community—which they named Mon P’tit Village.”
Lisel Burns, representing the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, GROOTS International, and the Huairou Commission, was part of the NEGES team that arrived in Léogâne shortly after the quake. “When we got to the encampment people were already working to formalize a democratic way to live in this post-disaster period,” she says. “Everyone had a role. Little things, like having the children walk around and clean up the camp, became really important. Even a tiny plastic soda cap can hold water where mosquitoes can breed and spread malaria. In the short time I was in Haiti I saw how creating a self-help system can begin to bring back people’s sense of dignity.”
Gateau-Esposito agrees, but admits that Haiti’s problems often seem overwhelming. “At one community meeting I attended I heard people saying, ‘This is my fault. I wasn’t living a good life.’ Many people think Haiti is being punished. They don’t understand that this was a natural disaster. We try to explain what natural disasters are, that they are no one’s fault. We also brought social workers in to train teachers to help their students and neighbors.”
On top of this, there’s also the issue of clean up. Philemy estimates that approximately one-third of Mon P’tit Village’s residents actually have a structure to return to—if the rubble can be cleared away so that the damage can be assessed and fixed. “A few places in Port-au-Prince have been cleared but I can count on my fingers the places that have been cleaned up,” he says. “If we could clear the debris we could start rebuilding. We need dump trucks and back loaders. To clean this up by hand will take forever.” Not surprisingly, non-Haitian companies that have come in and offered to help—for exorbitant fees—particularly disgust Philemy.
Despite all these troubles, Gateau-Esposito, Philemy, Burns, and other volunteers are far from ready to throw in the towel. All feel a moral imperative to do something—anything—to make life in Haiti better for those who remain on the island.
“The horror for me,” Burns concludes, “is that this earthquake could happen four hours away from New York City.” For a moment she sounds exasperated, then catches herself. “How can we tolerate endless suffering and not do something to bring the world’s marginalized people into the circle of care?” she asks. “Awakening the USA’s cultural consciousness is our challenge. If we can meet it, our country may grow into responsible membership in the global community of nations. My dream is that what happened in Haiti will be a 9-11 moment and push people in the U.S. to open their hearts and not be tourists at a disaster. People need to give what they can, not once, but regularly, so that groups like NEGES can make plans and get things done.”
For more information about the NEGES Foundation, go to www.negesfoundation.org. They are particularly in need of help with grant writing, but welcome all contributions. Checks can be sent to NEGES at 365 11th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215. Other groups mentioned: bsec.org; fonkoze.org; huairou.org; groots.org; volunteersforpeace.org.