August 2, 2013

Volunteer, Shmolunteer: Haiti is Love

Yoga and art

Three years ago, almost to the date, I parted company with Haiti, with a vow to return ‘someday.’

Someday translated into a week-long ‘voluntour’ trip led by Lisa Rueff, from July 22 to 29.

This trip demanded that I defy many boxes, comfort zones and stereotypes that could have prevented this journey from taking place otherwise. To begin, I embarked upon a fundraising effort to garner the necessary funds a mere three weeks before my scheduled departure date. Fundraising for international organizations is one thing.

Asking friends, family and strangers to support me personally is quite a different story! My biggest donation came from a complete stranger with the following note:

“Many years ago, you did an act of kindness that I’ll always remember.”

This reminded me of one of my guiding principles: “Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Further, one never knows how or when kindness will be reciprocated, ten-fold.

Once in Haiti, time as we know it ceases to exist. Seven days later, I feel as though I’ve lived at least nine lives. I’ve had intimate encounters with every possible human emotion: love, hate, anger, fear, shame, joy, passion, guilt; you name it, Haiti made me dive fully into the feeling and expression over this past week.

‘Expression erases suppression; the root cause of depression.’

Work at Angel Wings

Based primarily in Jacmel, a coastal town located in the southern part of Haiti, our activity-filled days were shared between the Jacmel Children’s Center, Angel Wings International medical facility, Art Creation Foundation for Children (ACFFC), Faith and Love orphanage, Haitian dance classes at Bouchard, super fresh organic meals at the beach and creating bonds and friendships amongst like minded souls.

As we parted company, I felt fortified by the new alliances and friendships that we formed.

We worked twice as hard as we played, and laughed three times as much.

Each experience provided us with an opportunity to share, learn, serve and grow. One of the things that I especially admired was how Lisa integrated the essence of reciprocity into all of our activities. For example, when we visited the art school to learn about papier-mâché, a noted art form there, we were taught by the young Haitian artisans.

Universal Empress and papier mache

Another sacred moment was when we visited the Faith and Love orphanage, home to 67 orphans. They had prepared an afternoon of music for us and upon our arrival there, we found them dressed in their ‘Sunday best,’ ready to receive us. Lisa insisted that we return to the hotel and clean ourselves up as a sign of respect to our hosts. No gesture could have been more appropriate.

Throughout my time in Haiti, one of my daily reminders is the power that lives in bearing witness to another. This is the core element of being human! As a committed yogini, this essence brings home the true meaning of the word Namaste; the divine in me honors and sees the divine in you.

It was worthy to note that none of the institutions that we visited and gave of ourselves to were government run or affiliated. I say this to emphasize a point that I aspire to live daily:  We are the change that we’re waiting for!

The Jacmel Children’s Center and the Angel Wings International medical facility were both born out of visions shared by mother and daughter.

Both nurses in the United States for several decades, they were called to return to their native lands and give of themselves.  Mother Bonite and daughter Myrlande for me represented the quintessential matriarchy at work. During peak seasons, the children’s center feeds up to 300 children a day while Angel Wings, due to open its doors on August 13 will be an exclusive children’s clinic, complete with dental facilities.

In addition to beginning our days with breath and movement through the practice of yoga asana, one evening we were treated to a Haitian dance class with live drums.

Haitian dance

Needless to say, I was beyond being in my element.  Our stories live in our bodies, ancestrally and inter-generationally so. Nowhere is this fact more evident than through our movement. Haitian dance reminded me of the Kumina dance done in Jamaica, based upon an Afro-Jamaican religious belief system and practice, reportedly linked to the Central region of Africa.

While language may have tempted the formation of a barrier through sweat, movement and eye contact, we witnessed each other’s stories.

With mixed feelings, I departed Jacmel for Croix-des-Bouquets to see the awesome progress made by the Haitian American Caucus (HAC) there.

When I first visited this compound in early 2010, it was literally a ‘mish-mash’ of bricks, mortar and steel. Since then it has expanded to being a bonafide school that serves close to 300 students when in full session.

Led by Samuel Darguin, a Haitian-American who chose to return home after the devastating earthquake, I remain in humble awe of his strides made and never-ending commitment.

At 24 years old and a ‘frat brat’ to the core, the true meaning of community is something that permeates every fiber of his being.

Universal Empress and roomie

In his words, returning to Haiti when he chose to wasn’t an option, it was a clear and distinct calling. During the last three years, Sam’s unwavering commitment is evident from the apparent growth and improvement witnessed at the HAC compound.

My final moments in Haiti definitely helped to ‘seal the deal’ that I will return to continue to serve and carry out meaningful work.

There is much work to be done, and Haiti serves to provide the world with a shining example of what is truly possible when we remain committed and focused in spite of it all. Signs of devastation from even before the earthquake remain apparent. It is unmistakable the strides that have taken place in such a reasonably short space of time.

As I shared with Dr. Jean, a New York based, Haitian born MD who I met during my final hours in the country, I’m surprised that a film hasn’t yet been made about the Haitian catastrophe.

His response: the people are still recovering from the trauma of their story and therefore aren’t yet emotionally strong enough to share it. Perhaps, in time.

To learn more about the places I spent time in Haiti and how you too can make a difference, please visit:

The Jacmel Children’s Center

Art Creation Foundation for Children

Angel Wings International medical clinic

Faith and Love Orphanage

Haitian American Caucus


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Ed: Catherine Monkman


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