Haiti relief organization calls for volunteers

By Erika DeLeo
Staff Writer

For some organizations, relief means food, blankets and shelter for the needy. For Kristopher Young, a trailblazing graduate student at Prescott College, it means a rubber tire garden, a tree nursery, and baby goats.

On January 12, 2010 when the poorest country in the western hemisphere was hit with its worst earthquake in two centuries, Young saw an opportunity to help. On March 7, he gave a presentation on his efforts to assist the recovery.

His initiative, PROViDE, is a sustainable disaster relief organization. The acronym stands for Participatory Response Offering Vitality in Devastated Environments; the key word here is “participatory.” PROViDE works with Haitians to find solutions to poverty and environmental degradation.

Beginning this summer, Prescott College will be working with PROViDE to offer internship and independent study opportunities in areas of social entrepreneurship, sustainable small-scale agriculture, reforestation, grassroots innovation, and educational initiatives. “This is an opportunity to [make change] from the bottom up,” Young said.

At the epicenter of the earthquake, 90 percent of buildings were destroyed. Fifteen miles to the east, Port-au-Prince did not fare much better. He recently visited the capital, and Young talked about the state of destruction. “There are still mounds of rubble and pancaked buildings all over the city.”

Young said, “By standing together, using our privilege to aid those with less, working in collaboration, sharing information and with hard work, we will prevail. We will overcome and we will build a better Haiti,” he told the audience, spotted with prospective volunteers. “So, there it is. It’s a leaving train. You’re more than welcome to hop on.”

He expanded on an empowering proverb, a philosophy which guides his organization: “You can give someone a fish, and they’ll eat for a day. You can teach them to fish, and they may eat forever, but if you teach them to take care of the pond, their children’s children will be fed too.”

PROViDE’s main challenges surround the implementation of this proverb. “These people are trying to come together to feed themselves. They’re not thinking about ecological issues so much. How often do we think of ecological sustainability, but forget it has to be feasible in order for it to catch on, to do anything, to sustain itself?”

Young said community meetings are a vital first step for promoting sustainable relief. “Talk to people about your idea, get feedback, get concerns, get comments and start involving them; start giving them that ownership.” He later said, “You can’t force an innovation on people. You have to design it with them, and get them invested. If they use your ideas, great. If they don’t, so be it.”

One of PROViDE’s projects is called Haiti Gardens, a two-acre plot of land in the rural village, Turbe. There, PROViDE holds demonstrations and seminars that teach people to plant and maintain their own gardens.

Garbage disposal in Haiti is a problem, explained Young, because there is no official land for dumping trash. “The garbage truck would pick up the dumpster, take it outside of the city limits somewhere and dump it on the side of the road.” He wants to set up a project called Artiplast, which has factories in Brazil that take refuse plastic and turn it into industrial rope. Fishing is a large industry in Haiti, so Young wants to connect with fishermen to turn garbage into useful rope for their businesses.

During his presentation, he displayed a photo of rubber tire gardens. One woman uses the sidewalls of the tires as soles for sandals. The tread is then used for the gardens, making use of an otherwise problematic piece of waste. “In Haiti, when they riot, they love to burn a lot of tires,” Young said with a look of queasiness.

A community center started by the Haitian American Caucus, Ecole Shalom, is Young’s home base. There, almost 100 primary school students gather each morning for classes. At the school, Young helps with anything he can, including environmental education and agricultural enhancements.

PROViDE also runs a project akin to micro-finance, but instead of lending money, they lend goats. “We buy the goat, give it to the people, and they take care of it. The first offspring goes back to our organization [and is] then redistributed to other people in the community. Once that offspring is given back, the goat belongs to the people.” A veterinarian visits once a month to ensure the goats are cared for properly. Also in progress is a quarter-acre tree nursery will give the community a gazebo, dry-compost toilets, a tool-shed, and a chicken coop.

Young showed a picture he took of the Haitian National Palace a week prior to his talk, which still sits in disrepair since the earthquake. The palace roof appeared ready to slide to the ground. The cause of the mass destruction had as much to do with the state of the infrastructure as with the magnitude of the earthquake. “There are no real building codes there. People build as cheaply and as fast as possible.”

Images of tent cities abounded in media coverage following the disaster. “There was one mandate in the early days of recovery that the Red Cross, along with a few other companies, said, ‘If you’re not living in a tent, we can’t provide you with rations.’ So what do you think happens? People build a bunch of tents so the Red Cross will bring them a bag of beans. In order to get people out of these tent cities, we need to provide them with … health care, food, water and sanitation.”

Young emphasized that the opportunity to work with PROViDE in Haiti will be more than offering aid in a devastated country. The experience will give volunteers an opportunity to work alongside Haitians, to gain insight into their lives and experiences and to change the circumstances together.

“In the media, we always hear about the violence, about the tragedy that is Haiti, but it’s not all that. It’s a beautiful, tropical island with a rich culture and fun-loving, persevering, strong, beautiful people.”

For more information, or to volunteer with PROViDE, visit www.provide4life.org.

This article appeared in the April 2011 print edition of The Raven Review.

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