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Sometimes when you travel to the same place over and over again for work, it can feel tedious, but I’ve never felt any sort of monotony when visiting Haiti because every trip is different. There is comfort in the familiar yet excitement in the unknown. My most recent visit to Haiti Projects started out like so many others: A 3:45 am wakeup for an early morning flight out of Washington, D.C., café con leche from my favorite Cuban place at the Miami Airport, a flight that took me over stunning turquoise blue Caribbean waters into an airport whose approach I know so well, and through Port au Prince streets that are so very different from my very first trip in 2012.
We drove through Port au Prince through streets I had traveled on many times, past neighborhoods that I knew to be on the outskirts of the city limits, and kept going. I recognized the market in Leogane and the narrow street that would lead to the riverside home of soapstone carver, Chena Giles. I knew the bridge we crossed was the same one we took to visit the Dam Dam ladies where we sat learning their papier mache craft during my first trip and was the catalyst for my return. I remembered how Leogane was the epicenter of the 2010 earthquake and left a split in the main road through town.
Onwards west we traveled into the lush green countryside. Banana trees in one spot were way too familiar having sat in traffic at that very place waiting to cross a river for hours when a tour bus got stuck in the mud. The bridge spanning the river had been washed away by wind and rain from Hurricane Matthew just two years before but on this day passage was smooth thanks to a brand new structure.
At some point along the road we turned off the familiar path, heading down a dirt road into unknown territory where the landscape glowed thanks to the setting sun.
Golden hour never looked so pretty as it did that day and I was determined to capture it for all posterity as we bumped along the road. Let’s just say taking photos with my hand out the window as our 4 wheel drive dodged potholes while attempting to not lose my phone was a trifecta of challenges I am pleased to say I conquered.
Photos captured, I knew that we were running out of daylight quickly. We had already been in the car for over three hours and the setting sun meant it was going to get dark fast. I had been told Fond des Blancs was very dark at night due to absence of streetlights and solar powered lights and even though we were getting closer to our destination, I wondered exactly how close. I had no idea until, out of the darkness, we pulled up to a soft pink building bathed in light. We had arrived at the new Haiti Projects Community Library.
Haiti Projects is a nonprofit whose mission has always been to empower women in rural Haiti to be self sufficient. Prior to my visit, I was most familiar with the Artisanat, a group of 100 women whose fine embroidery was sold through the Macy’s Heart of Haiti line, but I soon got acquainted with their many other initiatives designed to “empower a woman, raise a family, lift a village.” The new community library elevates Fond des Blancs to new levels.
Photo courtesy of Pierre Valette
Twenty years ago land for the Haiti Projects Community Library was purchased by local community leader, Briel Laveille, and former Haiti Projects’ founder, Sarah Hackett. Outfitted with wifi, computers, equipment, furniture, and lots of books, it serves as home for numerous Haiti Projects programs that will transform education in the region and make the possible real.
Besides the pretty pink color of the building that makes it stand out in an exceptionally colorful country, you’ll notice the openness of the structure. Doorways secured by geometric metalwork that mimic the lines you see in wooden structures en route to Fond des Blancs, close the building after hours but still give it an airy feel. Walk up the steps and through one to an internet café that will quickly make you forget where you are. With a large flatscreen television on the wall, leather couches, and ample seating, the space is a community gathering spot that provides an impressive free wifi connection to anyone who wants to get online.
Photo courtesy of Christian Morris
While the internet café is a spot to relax and gather, the two large rooms on the first floor towards the back of the building serve different purposes. Directly behind the staircase is a multipurpose room. With two projectors and screens on different walls, the room can be flipped and furniture reconfigured to meet different needs. During the week that I was there it was used for the library’s opening ceremonies and as a meeting place for the TechnoClub.
Started in 2014, TechnoClub has introduced youth in Fond des Blancs to computer programming, sound mechanics, sound theory, and components like Raspberry Pis and Arduinos through hands-on learning. Working with experts in the field from around the world, students explore science and technology concepts in an engaging way.
Next door to the multipurpose room is the first Maker Space in Haiti. Power tools like radial arm saws, band saws, and other accessories line the perimeter of the room, available for DIY projects, while massive tool chests and workbenches provide equipment to build, create, and fix. With a 3D printer on the way, TechnoClub participants are likely to be walking back and forth between their space next door and this one to watch as the spools of filament become objects they’ve created themselves.
While the downstairs is abuzz with activity, upstairs is no different. If you visit between the hours of 8-2 pm on any workday the Artisanat is hard at work. Drums of fabric and donated yarn sent in a container from the United States fill the upstairs hallway and spill into the massive second floor patio. As new arrivals are sorted, women working around tables put the finishing touches on embroidered nightgowns, sewing delicate flowers on bodices of nightgowns, snipping strings with tiny scissors and iron them before attaching Haiti Projects tags and putting them in plastic bags to fulfill orders.
Directly above the multipurpose room is another space where Artisanat work. Industrial sewing machines procured from a New York garment manufacturer’s going out of business sale line the exterior wall. At the end of the line is a hot iron atop an ironing board. Freshly pressed nightgowns made of crisp white cotton hang drying, ready to be folded, tagged, and bagged but the group just outside.
When the work day winds to a close, the same space with the sewing machines is used for workshops like those given as part of the Pad Project.
Upon surveying women and girls in the community and discovering that 43% of women didn’t know what menstruation was before they got their first period, Haiti Projects recognized the need to address the menstrual hygiene education and needs of women and girls. Workshops are conducted by Miss Joseph, a Haiti Projects nurse, who also works at their mobile clinic that travels throughout the community to conduct education sessions.
Not only does the Pad Project educate women and girls about menstruation and hygiene but Haiti Projects designed reusable sanitary pads that are made by the Artisanat. Sets of 6 pads are given to girls who come to the workshop for the first time and also distributed by the mobile clinic.
During my time in Fond des Blancs, I sat in on a menstruation education session given to members of the girls’ soccer team. It made me realize that talking about pads, periods, and puberty is giggle inducing and a bit uncomfortable regardless of where in the world you are. More information on the Pad Project in another post soon!
Finally, the library.
While called the Haiti Projects Community Library, the building houses so much more than that but the library space is truly breathtaking and designed to promote literacy in the community.
Bright, open, and filled with bookshelves and books, there are spaces to work, study, and browse for all ages.
A circle of chairs in front of a map reminded me of areas in preschool classrooms where I worked as a graduate student.
I love the attention to detail like the low octagon table surrounded by open square stools. Stools big enough for two little bodies to share are the perfect place to sit with a friend, sharing an open book or coloring side by side. The open space under the stools add more storage space for kids who want to keep supplies and books to read nearby.
While the library building itself is officially open, there is lots of work that Haiti Projects continues to do inside the space and out.
There are plans to have digital devices made available through the library so community members can check them out and use them in the space. So many of you donated digital devices that will be used by Haiti Projects to support many of their initiatives throughout the community. Here’s a look at how the items you sent to me to bring to Haiti Projects will be used:
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Local friends: You are welcome to message me anytime and drop things off or we can arrange for me to come by. I have an ongoing collection of items in my attic to take on my next trip to Haiti!
If you prefer to make a donation, tax deductible donations of any amount are accepted online through the Haiti Projects donation page. If you prefer to shop as a way to give back, the Haiti Projects online store features the gorgeous hand embroidered products by the Artisanat.
It was truly a joy to finally visit Fond des Blancs and become acquainted with the many initiatives that Haiti Projects supports in the community. This post only scratches the surface of what they do and I look forward to sharing more about the Pad Project and beekeepers through additional posts soon.