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Our Time in Chermaitre

Alan:  I must confess that the climb to Chermaître has been the boogeyman of this entire trip. Since coming to Haiti I have wondered if I will be strong enough to make the climb but all those fears were dispelled by two little Haitian boys named Schneider and Livingston. They were my guides up the mountain, these two little boys, who I outranked in age, in size, in strength, in privilege, were helping me—a complete stranger (sweatin’ like a barn animal / gasping for breath)—up a mountain they so easily climb every week. The boys held my hands and clenched every time I slipped, they made the climb a breeze, so much so, that I arrived first! The people of Chermaître, while they may not have much, have proved themselves to be of the highest orders of humanity. They are kind when they have no reason to be, they are generous when they have every reason to be selfish, and they are effervescently joyful even when it rains for days at a time. As my time here comes to end, I will never forget those little hands that held my own up that rugged mountain. I hope through my continued work with VHP, I can someday, somehow, return the favor.

Sophia: I thought I had conquered the mountain, but it got the best of me. After a wonderful day and debrief on Wednesday night, I got sick shortly after dinner. I spent Thursday being nursed by Lila, Andrew, Jackie, and all of the other trippers. On Friday morning, Dr. Gueslin joined us here and took care of me throughout the day and through last night. Lila brought me many “get well soon” letters from my fellow trippers, from our incredible drivers, from Père Wildaine, each of which made me feel infinitely better. Later in the day, she brought me a letter from the children of the village. This brought me to tears; they barely knew me, and yet they gave their hearts wholly to a stranger, asking about me and hoping that I would be outside to play with them soon. At this point, all I have really seen of Chermaitre is my tent and the bathroom, but what I have heard through the walls and from those who have visited me tells the story of a people who exist in the most generous, open way possible. Today, Saturday, I feel endlessly better and cannot wait to witness and be a part of Chermaitre for myself.

Gabi: Throughout my time in Chermaitre, I have discovered the generosity of the Haitian people. They continuously proved to me that, as Manning shared in one of our debriefings, people here don’t expect anything from you. They are not expecting any form of payment for their actions. They are generous because they want to be. When all of the children of the village and some of the adults, kindly and bravely lugged our large hiking backpacks and suitcases filled with equipment up the mountain for us, without us even asking for the help, they did so because wanted to help make our climb easier. There is an incredible sense of community and love among the people of this village. When we arrived in the village, we were openly received by members of our women’s co-op, smiling at us, giving us hugs and kisses. A couple of days later, we gave out Luci lights to the members of the women’s co-op, something that they hadn’t expected to receive at the end of our meeting with them. However, not every member of the co-op was present in the meeting and, as I was handing out the lights, I was continuously reminded that there were other members who were missing. Receiving those comments made me really happy, because I realized that these women have formed strong bonds with each other. They want to make sure that all of their companions get treated the same way they do. It was truly a beautiful sight. The women were also all genuinely happy and excited to have received the Luci lights because they could now have light at night. Until I had arrived in Haiti, I had not really thought about the fact that many people live without electricity or access to electricity, and suddenly I found myself in a meeting where women were receiving their own personal form of electricity, and expressing interest in receiving solar powered stoves and ovens in order to eventually learn how to make pastries.

Then, when we were painting the preschool classrooms with primer, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by children holding our spare paint brushes and rollers, haphazardly applying paint to the walls. I believe that watching us physically improving their school got them excited, and made them want to help. This also made me very happy because I hope that having participated in bettering their school has made them more excited and proud about their presence in the school buildings. Overall, being in Chermaitre has been an eye-opening experience. In the United States, most interactions function on a system of reciprocity, where the reward is usually a monetary payment. That doesn’t exist here, in a remote village where people have so little to give. Here, people are selfless, they are generous for the sake of being generous, because they feel the desire to help. Additionally, we often take things like electricity and even painted rooms for granted, but things that seem rather insignificant to us can mean the world to someone in Chermaitre. Having a Luci light can enable someone to have more autonomy by allowing students to be able to do their homework when the sun goes down, and parents to be able to comfortably engage in activities around the house. Adding a coat of paint can make a classroom feel like a home.

Sam:  I certainly sometimes feel a discrepancy between those who surround me and myself at Vassar, while I also have felt it in high school and my experiences. I’m a diligent student who has the tendency to focus solely on my studies and academics, while others around me pursue sports, activities, and passions in addition to school. This difference has yielded me a sense that I’m more of an observer and a receiver, and less of an individual who can effect real change or influence in a situation. But this perceived gap or separation between myself and others is starting to be filled by an increasing confidence and a decreasing self-consciousness. Traveling to Haiti has presented opportunities that have instilled in me a sense that I am not always stationary, and that I can indeed enact change.

As a co-representative for the education initiative, the notion of leading the education meetings and acting as the mediator between the secondary school students, the primary school teachers, and VHP is intimidating. I was especially nervous to lead the meeting with the primary school teachers, because despite having already met with the secondary school students, asking the appropriate and necessary questions to the teachers in order to extract the information we needed was crucial. And I went into the meeting cautious but confident; from the meeting’s beginning, I felt rewarded and I was making a meaningful difference: I spoke in French, welcomed the teachers, and throughout Grace and I asked questions that were calculated and critical. At the end, seeing the confirmation of my fellow trippers’ and also of Lila and Andrew’s of a job well done was rewarding, but I also held a personal sense of accomplishment. So far in the trip, I have overcome, in separate circumstances, the stagnation that sometimes invades my thoughts and actions, by acting as a leader and a tripper, who can make a difference and contribute to the overall progress of the group; I have practiced my French and surmounted my fear in speaking with others, while maintaining the attributes with which everyone associates me. I can’t wait to see the opportunities that the rest of the trip will offer for me and my growth as a person.

Sabrina: Haiti has opened my eyes to so many things I have taken for granted and has made me realize how materialistic the world I live in is. I live in a society where there are a few number of helping hands and so many hands holding me back, dragging me down. People will tear me down just to be a step up. But a step up to what? Are we searching for more money, power, friends, happiness? I do not know but I have realized here that there is no purpose besides the one we create. The way to achieve that purpose is understanding who we are and what we represent. The choice is yours to make, to decide if your own self-interests are more important than someone else’s. We can blame situations on people, bad luck or even God in some cases but it is our choices that decide how we react. My fellow trippers have made me realize this and be able to articulate this. These trippers are the most beautiful, generous, and loving people I have met. They remind me that the society we have come from does not designate who we can be. Here, in Haiti, anything is possible because all you have is positive support and unconditional love.

Christine: I cannot imagine being anywhere else right now. Everyone I have met is so open, giving, and full of energy, from my fellow trippers to the people of Chermaitre. Being in such an environment, I can’t help but exude these qualities myself, things that don’t necessarily come naturally to me. My favorite parts of the trip by a longshot have been playing with the kids and getting to know them. I quickly learned I was a little too trusting when I was walking up the mountain and let one of the girls who was helping me hold my headlamp. I have yet to see it resurface. I can’t help but be trusting with these kids though as they’ve shown me so much love and support from the moment I started walking up the mountain. One girl literally, supported my legs as I started to waver on a steep incline on the way up. I thought it only fair to return this favor of support by offering piggy-back rides when we went on a hike the next day, a decision I was not physically equipped for but did anyways, albeit very out of breath.

Over everything, these kids really, for me, represent the core of VHP as they are the new generation. They are growing up in the world that VHP created: their education, the buildings they hold classes in, and the food they eat when at school are all part of the vision that VHP has been able to realize in Chermaitre. They will grow up knowing that they have support from two families, one in the US and one in Chermaitre and through this we can truly be in the partnership that we often discuss.

Udbhav: The days in Chermaître move slowly and surely. Every hour seems like a week, every day like a year. Time is experienced exponentially here. It makes me wonder about things back home…where properties of exponents no longer hold, and each month seems like a day, each year a week. The problems here seem more intense and basic- water cisterns do not have pure water, walking to school takes longer than being in school, governments fail the people, and the people fail to realize their best selves. Regardless, the energy of the people, their fascination with the world around them, and the relative ease with which they smile remains incomparable. Maybe, problems and happiness are unrelated after all. Sociology asks us to understand how successful can a person really be given the social life that they are born into. What can a child of Chermaître really achieve? What does a child of Chermaître want to achieve? Those two are very different questions. Sometimes I am encouraged to go back to life back home in Allahabad, India- where I would be too aloof to be adrift. Maybe people here seem happier because they realize that achieving something is not the same as being happy.

Daniel: “Your thoughts are not real”, Lila Meade (Madame Andre) says frequently. I have been told about the hike up to Chermaître and about the village itself more times than I can remember, but nothing would have prepared me for Wednesday evening’s journey. It was an exciting hike featuring breathtaking views and the kids were everything I need in life right now – joy, full of laughter, and pursuing a purpose (getting up the mountain). After conquering the rough terrain with my peers and fellow trippers, we were greeted by women who expressed pure emotions and kissed us on our cheeks. After this moment and even till now, it has been a flurry of emotions and positivity. Have you ever felt pure without showering for a while? Well, that’s me right now. Pure bliss, pure joy. These are things that envelope my dirty self at the moment.

With little concept of or regard to time, I find myself less burdened with limitations of time that normally surround every activity I do. I am enjoying every meeting with the various initiatives, every hike to visit households and farms, conversations with new friends in my ‘simplified’ Creole and conversational French, the blessed food that refreshes me, interactions with fellow trippers and the STRONG people of Chermaître. I have also witnessed countless moments of selflessness, care and love that have floored me.

What Chermaître and its people has to offer is a view of ‘Mountains beyond Mountains’, an understanding that life as I have known it has more facets than acquisition of material and satisfaction through that or a longing for comfort and protection, a space to feel loved by people who think I am Haitian because of my looks but still smile and embrace me with pure joy after learning about where I’m from and kids to dance with and play hand drums with. As days pass by, I understand more of what VHP does and what my contribution is; this organization partners with people not thought of, people unknown or not focused on even as they keep thriving and being the strong, diligent, committed and hardworking people they are. So I am happy that I can join other VHP volunteers and other villagers and children in Chermaître to draw and paint a better future. Trust me, it looks colorful already and there’s more paint left. Like Alan would say, Bless!!!

Phebe: From these couple of days in Chermaître, the generosity and love of both my fellow VHPers and the people of Chermaître have blown me away. On Wednesday evening, we reached the base of the mountain where we would start the infamous hike. The villagers and children immediately took our large hiking bags for us, while we only had to carry our small backpacks. At first, this did not feel right. I felt that we should be carrying our own things, but quickly I realized, as a little girl grabbed my hand to help guide me up the mountain, that these people wanted to do this. Throughout each day, acts of love and generosity appear everywhere from making us three meals a day to villagers allowing us to see their homes and farms to the smiles of children just as you say hello to them. Even yesterday, as I was recovering from an illness in my tent, all I could hear was laughter and joy echoing from throughout the school. Personally, as a Christian, the people of Chermaître have shown me the way God intends us to treat one another and love everyone. I see this love spreading through all of my fellow trippers, whether they are Christian or not, and know that this group will be able to spread this love back home in the states, where love and kindness are much needed at this point in time.

Lila: Eleven Vassar students are now in love with Chermaitre, its people, children, landscape and raw beauty. Almost 20 of us nestled into our mosquito tents each night, sleeping on the concrete floors of the school rooms, under the most adverse of conditions, including way too much rain, visits of bacteria into our internal systems and too many ‘house visits’ (or should I say ‘tent visits’) from our indefatigable Dr. Gueslin Joassainvil in the middle of the night who rescued us from our own bodies.  But none of this deterred us from falling in love with our friends in Chermaitre, who ran to us as we entered the village, embracing us like family. The children stole our hearts as we sang, jumped rope, played soccer and laughed together. Meeting after meeting, the new trippers learned of our relationship with the people of this village and surrendered to being in love: seeing the dignity of the reforestation director, realizing the passion of the Women’s Cooperative members, watching the hero of our work Père André Wildaine in true form and watching the clinic serve scores of people each day defied any and all of the challenges we faced coming in. Our work is so important and coming here with each visit manifests itself unrelentingly. This group of Vassar students is officially ready to take on anything!

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Up the mountain we go!

The time has finally come! Our group of March trippers is ready to hike up the mountain to Chermaitre. Here are their thoughts as they prepare for another five days of adventure in the rural village.

Andrew:  The group is doing so well, being super supportive of one another and soaking in experience after experience.  Now comes the glorious ascent to Chermaitre!

Sam: I’m already sweating from places I didn’t think could sweat, but at least I don’t have to worry since it’s inevitable.

Grace: Last night I had the best rice… the only problem is I put sugar instead of salt.

Sophia: This is the day we have all been waiting for! Today we hike the mountain to Chermaitre. It’s time to sweat, chat, laugh, and to get through it all together.

Lila: What a privilege it is to be with such an amazing group of students! I am so lucky! Each moment I am always blown away by their passion, energy and commitment to put positive change in our world. Haiti is a great teacher.

Alan: Standing at the base of the mountain, I hope to channel the strength of the Haitian people.

Phebe: The first few days have been incredible. The whole group is full of love and laughter making every moment entertaining and enjoyable. Today we are heading to Chermaitre and it feels surreal that this moment is so close. The Vassar Haiti Project is coming to life each day and I can’t wait to see Chermaitre in order to complete the vision.

Gabi: Days after arriving in Haiti, we have experienced enough sights and sounds for it to feel like we’ve been here for a week instead of three days. It has been overwhelming at times, particularly in the chaotic intensity of street art markets, where all of the artists, vendors and colorful paintings were competing for our attention. Nonetheless, I’ve been having a wonderful time over the past couple of days. It has been educational and inspiring to hold conversations with members of women’s co-ops, and an incredible amount of fun teaching a group of village children how to dance to silly children’s songs. I have loved learning more about the Haitian people, becoming more comfortable with holding a conversation with them in Creole, absorbing the sights of the city, and now, the green landscapes and mountains of rural Haiti.

Manning: It has been only three days but it feels like way more than that. I have been chatting a lot with Lila, Andrew, Jaqueline and our Haitian friends about what the meaning of life is. After all the earth could disappear tomorrow, it would not change the universe in the slightest way. Indeed, life has no meaning, UNTIL you put meaning to it. It could be friends, parents, children, a railroad you build, a company you found… It all depends on you – happiness is a choice. For now, to me, it is about making an impact on those around you. When I hugged every child during this journey, I am only expanding the circle around me to spread my warm disposition to. Altruism is difficult and people always (unfortunately) look for ways to gain something out of it. Perhaps if we find happiness in what we do, that is the best form of altruism in the world. That is what makes VHP wonderful – when happiness is shared, it is doubled.

Sabrina: Being in Haiti has opened my eyes to the untapped beauty of the world. These three days have shown me that happiness is its own entity; it is not linked to money or objects. Happiness is the joy that people you love give you, the laughter that fills the streets, the smiles and bonjours spoken to strangers. People in Haiti may not have much but that does not limit their love and appreciation for life. I am breathless from the welcomes I have received here. Yesterday, we met six kids and I think I speak for all of the trippers when I say we fell in love. I am horrible at speaking Kreyol and French but that did not matter because gestures, facial expressions and emotions are universal. Smiles shared went from nervous to joyous in a matter of minutes. Love and happiness have become shaded from other unimportant things in life. Haiti is allowing me to see this and appreciate everything I have and accept what I don’t have.

Daniel: It’s been two full days of adventure and I love all of it. We were on the road for most of the day and it was an opportunity to bond with fellow trippers and the adults in the car. It was also an opportunity to observe the cities and the landscapes and one thing is constant – Haiti never stops moving; from the number of people on the streets all day to the loud noise of the trucks late at night, there is an energy that every outsider has to tap into. We visited a primary school and a women’s co-op, Peacequilts, yesterday and we heard about the ways the co-op was run and we also interacted with the kids (shout-out to Estelle). The kids danced gracefully, laughed in ways that evoked pure joy and just reminded me of ambition, of dreams, of love for learning and of having an open heart for people. We continued our road trip, the landscape was as beautiful as ever. At VHP’s art sales, I had wondered why there were a lot of landscape paintings, but in a country like this, why won’t one want to recreate the beautiful sunset and lush, green landscape on an easel? We got ice-cream after and then continued our journey, this time along a ‘bibi di bop di bop’/very bumpy road. After arriving at the hotel and getting rest, we are all prepared for our hike up the mountain to Chermaitre. I hope my two workout sessions before the trip really pay off today. I love every single, little, teeny, tiny, inch-size, minute bit of this trip. So, BLESS!

Udbhav: These three days in Haiti have been transformative. There are moments of reflection, of guilt, of apathy, of empathy- and above all- of questioning each and every fabric of my being. The lies that I have told myself about what matters and what doesn’t. The truths that I have sieved along the way. Everything has been stirred up into a state of flux. It’s a re-invigorating feeling -to convince myself of my purpose- and for that I am forever grateful.

Christine: Being in Haiti is non-stop movement and energy. Every day is four days packed into one as we travel across the bumpy roads, flying up and down in the seats of our cars. It’s curious though that even though we’re all exhausted and drained, the smiles can’t leave our faces. We’ve bonded so much as a team through all the crazy adventures and experiences we’ve encountered, which, in turn, just makes us so much stronger and enthusiastic as a group, ready to take on each new challenge. More than anything though, I appreciate how open and inviting everyone­ is to each new experience and person we meet on our journey. I’m so grateful to be a part of the community we’ve built.

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Arriving Haiti!

Vassar Haiti’s Project’s March 2017 trip began on Sunday, with Port-au-Prince as their first stop. This year, Lila and Andrew Meade, the two co-founders of the Project, are accompanied by Jackie Eiting (board member), Manning Wu ’14 (VHP alumna), and ten Vassar students, who cannot wait to share their experiences so far.

Alan: What strikes me most about Port-Au-Prince is the stark difference between what the city actually is and what we, as Americans, have been told about it. If Haiti is in the news, it is almost always negative, it’s death tolls, pictures of devastation, testimonials of the city’s poverty, etc. In reality, Haiti and Port-Au-Prince are more than this. Stepping out of the airport’s customs we were greeted by a band that played the most beautiful music. As we were winding our ways through the busy streets, I was astonished by the endless parade of people selling art, selling food. The beating heart of this city is its citizens, people who are kind, generous and creative. I hope to continue to learn what this great country truly is in the coming days and bring back pieces of its culture to my own.

Christine: From the second I stepped off the plane in Port-au-Prince I felt invigorated. Everywhere we turn there’s a vibrancy, from people performing music on the street to the beautiful, bright colors of the buildings lining the streets. The scenery is breathtakingly beautiful with vast, sloping mountains and tropical palm trees always within view. The people are so welcoming and I already feel at home.

Daniel: “Mwen rele Daniel”. I have said this multiple times since we arrived. The weather is “OOH”. Port-au-Prince is a busy city. Port-au-Prince has beautiful people. Port-au-Prince has a beautiful landscape. The food has been ‘A+’. We were told the trip would not be real till we arrive at Haiti and they was right. There are beautiful palm trees and terraces and the view of the hilly regions where a lot of buildings is so great. I am grateful to be here in person and make tangible memories. My fellow trippers also bring life to this trip and I am glad I came with them. It is interesting and I am sure it will be more interesting. Can’t wait to meet more beautiful people. It’s been thrilling so far.

Gabi: Haiti is as busy as it is vibrant. One of the first things that I noticed when stepping off the plane in Port-au-Prince is the stark contrast between the extremely busy lives that Haitians engage in, noticeable in the crowded streets of the city, and the quiet moments of peaceful greenery spotted in the views off of small terraces. Lila told us that the art that we have grown accustomed to seeing in VHP art sales would come to life during our time in Haiti. I have definitely found this to be true. Not only in the streets, homes, and landscapes of Haiti, but also in the stories that gallery owners have told us about the artists. These stories have put the art that we have been selling over the years in context, enhancing our passion about the artwork and the importance of supporting Haitian artists.

Grace: My first sight of Port-Au-Prince left me in shock. Crumbling buildings, mass poverty, emaciated children and animals roaming the street. Yet, then we turned into this driveway and saw the hotel followed by gallery after gallery. We saw the school children in their crisp and beautiful uniforms. I saw pain and anguish in the art, but also dancing, singing, and pure joy. I was amazed at how the art managed to capture the emotions of the painters, and honored to be surrounded by them. Sometimes I think people see Haiti and get lost in the rubble, the bad stories, the crime rates, the litter and they fail to see the good. They don’t hear the music bursting from the churches. They can’t see the determination and pure will of the people to survive and thrive, despite everything against them whether it be economic, political, social, or verbal. It is because of the determination of the people, the emotion of the art, and the kindness I’ve been shown that I’ve fallen in love with the Haitian culture and people.

Manning: Haiti reminds me a lot of Bolivia, but it is 1000 times poorer. Yet Haitians seem to be content with their lives. We have a saying in China, which says that happiness belongs to those who are satisfied easily. Haitians cannot imagine what life could be otherwise, what they have now is all they know, and I think that lack of comparison is key to their happiness. Having always lived in big cities, I have seen more and I have always wanted more. Nothing seems to be ever enough. I look forward to visiting Chermaitre and transforming my views about how to be happy.

Phebe: So far the energy of both Port-au-Prince and the people has been the most surprising wonder. From musicians in the airport to the chaotic streets, the lively energy encompasses all aspects of Haitian life. Just driving through Port-au-Prince, I have come to admire the chaotic ways of the Haitians and their sense of community as they all pass by and interact throughout the streets.

Sabrina: Haiti is like a wild, passionate love that cannot be copied. Everything is unexpected from people walking in front of cars as they pass by or the random bursts of music and laughter. The people are beautiful with uncontained love and charisma.  I can only hope that I will be able to absorb some of Haiti’s unconditional love and resilience. Port au Prince is slowly being rebuilt to the great city it used to be.

Sam: I have an array of emotions and responses to my first day or two in Haiti. The city of Port-au-Prince is constantly astir, with individuals out exploring, selling items, going to and from school, and assuming the hustle and bustle of everyday life. This creates a consistent energy that permeates all around, and I certainly have felt it in our travels throughout the city so far. Below the surface, everyone with whom I have spoken or exchanged words is kind, responsive, and appreciative, even if I simply say ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ in Creole, words which I’m sure they hear a lot from tourists or foreigners. I can’t wait to travel to Chermaitre and other places and learn more about the country and its people.

Sophia: Port-au-Prince is beautiful, not for its sites or architecture, as other international hubs are, but for its people. Their resilience and kindness creates energy where, in many other locations, there would be none. Their lives are every bit as colorful as those depicted in their vibrant art. I am so excited to learn more about the people of Haiti and to get to know their varying ways of life as we travel around.

Udbhav: Haiti makes me believe in love. There is something about the streets, the smiles from strangers, the sunsets, the art- that has me floored. It’s a city with blemishes of past crises, but above all it is a city of people- one that is lived in and felt through all its nooks and corners. I can’t keep my eyes off of it.

 

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On the evening of February 10 at Vassar College, the Vassar Haiti Project held She Is, a formal gala filled with great performances and delicious food. The event was dedicated to the inspiring women of the world, with proceeds collected to support the Women’s Cooperative in VHP’s partner village, Chermaitre, Haiti. The first Women’s Gala held by Vassar Haiti Project, it was an evening of joy. Despite of an unexpected fire alarm in the middle of the gala, the event was able to continue afterwards.

Here are some quotes from students and members of the Vassar Haiti Project who participated:

 

“The night of the Gala was a special one indeed. It forced us all to confront the realities of the times we were living in, to take it all in, share our pain, our stories, ourselves- and in doing that get closer to our best selves.”   – Udbhav Agarwal ’18

“After the planning and preparation that went into the event, the sight of people gathered in the Villard room, people who shared in the purpose of honoring women and celebrating individual worth, was uplifting. There was support for a vision to make this world better by taking small steps, and all the people in that room were taking steps with VHP.”   – Daniel Elendu ‘19

“That fire alarm didn’t stop us! It was amazing to see so many people come committed to empowering women they have never met or known but understand their importance and irreplaceability in our lives. Thankful for the people who continue to care.”

–Serena Lee ‘18

Stay tuned to our coming events, a Haitian Art Sale in New York City in April and the Art and Soul Reception in May!

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Love Has No Language

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Alex: Lila often told our partners in Haiti that the people of Haiti teach us how to care for the world.  I couldn’t think of a more accurate way to describe how much I learned about both humanity and myself from our experience in Haiti.  There really is no way that I can accurately describe the beauty, vitality, and strength of the people and places we saw and the interactions we had in Haiti.  Never before have I been forced to confront such harsh and juxtaposing extremes.  Unable to stop thinking about our partners in Haiti, I return back to America and Vassar more motivated and focused than ever to make VHP as strong a program as possible.  Thank you to all our partners in Haiti, especially Pere Wildaine, Andrew and Lila, and the 2016 Trippers for making this the experience of a lifetime!

alex

Amaesha: As soon as I arrived in Haiti, I was overwhelmed by the welcoming atmosphere. Whether it was Jina’s unwavering hand as I climbed the mountain or the little girls who braided my hair with such patience and care, I realized that love has no language. Seeing Jina’s face light up as she understood Tic Tac Toe and Mackenson’s face break into a smile as I let him wear my jacket made me realize that the beauty I admired in the surrounding landscapes and Haitian art was the same beauty that I saw everyday in the faces of the different people I interacted with. Having so little but giving so much of themselves, they left permanent marks on my soul. As for my fellow trippers, Lila, Andrew, Pere Wildaine, Quincy, Edson, Benoit & Jimmy, I learned so many important life lessons from these people that I will cherish forever. Every part of our journey helped me see VHP in a new light and helped me to understand myself a little better. As I take part in VHP events, I will continue to visit Haiti in my mind and heart. This is a trip I will remember for years to come.

amsha

Andrew:  

Thank you for living powerfully in the question of who you and VHP are, rather than being stopped by those questions or settling upon one answer.  Thank you for time and time again presencing your higher selves, for coming from love while stepping boldly into the unknown.  Thank you for your incredible willingness to constantly step beyond doubt and outside of your comfort zones.

Thank you for your trust and thank you for tenderly loving and taking care of one another – and for having a blast in so doing!

Thank you also for loving Haiti.

Mwen remen ou anpil.

andrew

Anna: This trip had been a wonderful and inspirational journey. I learned a lot throughout these 10 days about VHP, Haitian culture, and self identity. I had the opportunity to see Haiti in its natural, original form after only being able to visualize it from the words of others. Seeing the different styles of Haitian art, talking to locals with limited Kreyol skills, and forming these new relationships with a culture that is completely different from my own made me treasure every interaction I had; I love Haiti not only for its culture, but because it also constantly tempts us to question, reevaluate and learn the dynamics of life. I know that we are all not the same people after this trip. The experiences in Haiti were mountains beyond mountains. I will treasure these memories dearly, and thank you to everyone for making this trip possible.

anna

Hao: Before this trip, I had a vague impression of Haiti and what VHP is doing in Chermaitre; but the trip visualized everything. Now I come back with 100 reasons to love Haiti: I love the flowing river, the surprises and happiness on children’s faces, the colorful painting strokes, the sound of nature between mountains, and the people passing by, greeting “Bonjour” with shiny smiles. I appreciate everyone who made this trip possible, and became such a precious, transformative, and fun experience in life.

hao

Kidus: I truly believed before this trip that I understood what VHP was and did.

I honestly was completely in the dark about both Chermaitre and our work there. There are a million different cheesy lines and ideas that I could convey to describe our experiences or the people there. I won’t claim to know or really understand a culture or people from a 10 day trip, but I do feel comfortable stating that I met some lovely people, saw some beautiful landscapes, and experienced firsthand the inspirations for the wonderful art I took for granted at our art sales.

I’ve learned that the work we do isn’t perfect, but it has had real, meaningful results for our partners in Chermaitre. I hope to continue this work.

Shoutouts to Andrew and Lila for everything you have done and continue to do; to my fellow trippers for putting up with my philosophical tangents; and Pere Wildaine, Edson, and Quincy for not abandoning us on the side of the road after days of listening to us butcher Creole and asking too many questions.

It was grand.

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Lauren: I don’t know what to do with myself now that I’m not constantly surrounded by 12 of my favorite people at Vassar, and the two who made the entire experience possible, Lila and Andrew.  I don’t think I really believed people when they said I’d be processing the trip for the next six months, but I get it now. I think I’ll be trying to understand everything I saw and learned on this trip for the rest of my life. I don’t know what else I can say about it right now, because I’m still exhausted and emotional and can’t think straight, but I just want to conclude that I would not trade my experiences in Haiti for anything. In ten short-but-so-very-long days, I fell in love with Haiti and its people, and I think they deserve anything we can do to support them and show the world how beautiful, powerful, and admirable they are.  My relationship with VHP, and the world, has been forever changed, and I want to thank Lila, Andrew, my fellow Trippers, Pere Wildaine, Edson, Quincy, Mackenson, Benoit and Jimmy, Nurse Rosenerline, the children of Chermaitre, and everyone else I met or got to know for that. Love you all. [Current music: Only Just a Call Away, by The Struts]

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Lila: The level of team for VHP is now taken to a new level.  This trip stretched us all into the question of (ok everyone, sigh) being and who each of us are individually and collectively in caring for this wild and wonderful world we live in.  Thank you all for the laughs, the tears, and the love that poured out for over 12 days.  I shall never forget the moments of the trip where we were one.  And for our family left behind in Haiti, thank you for teaching me that simplicity is the way.  And last but not least, to Pere Wildaine….why didn’t you vote for “our” car to be #1?  You know we were the best…..

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Lily: Before leaving Haiti, I questioned what it would be like to return. How do I respond to the question, how was your trip? A sentence certainly doesn’t do this experience justice. It wasn’t “good.” This trip has given so much meaning to what VHP does, and my work with the organization. Meeting the villagers of Chermaitre, it makes all of the work we do here real, and makes me so much more determined to do as much as I can. Being on this trip with such an amazing group of people helped me to get so much more out of this experience. They inspired me, and helped me to interpret all of the feelings and experience from this trip. Now that I’m back, I know that I will be relying on them to help me readjust. My priorities have changed so much, and I know that this trip has forever altered my perspective and I couldn’t be more grateful to have been a part of this experience.

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Lucy:

“Does VHP really help the people in Haiti? Why do you love VHP?” I asked Shiqi.

“Ask me the same questions after the trip.” she replied.

And now, I am back from Haiti, sitting in the same dorm and in front of the same computer. Yet I am different and all the questions I asked Shiqi have answers. My ten days in Haiti, accompanied by our wonderful team, Pere Wildaine, Edson, Quincy, people in Chermaitre and more, are thought-provoking and unforgettable. The trip contextualized VHP and Chermaitre. Statistics from the reforestation initiative are no longer numbers, but they contain the villagers’ complaints about the soil, PW’s great vision for the program and lovely coffee sprouts in the seedling plots. “Chermaitre” is no longer a name of a village, but it is the kids who danced and sang for us, the people who smiled and said “Bonjour”, the simple lifestyle of the villagers, as well as the poverty and struggle we witnessed. “Do not romanticize smallness, think BIG!” and the trip will keep inspiring me to work harder and have the determination to make VHP larger and better. I am grateful for being on this life-changing trip!

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Melanie: Sitting behind a big screen in the library, I have no words to describe the complexities of this trip. The questions and thoughts that our experiences in Haiti have generated remain in my mind and heart. I would like to acknowledge the openness and friendliness of the people we met, especially our translator and mentor Pere Wildaine, our drivers Edson and Quincy, as well as the people of Chermaitre who made sure that we came back from our hikes in one piece. They made this trip unforgettable, and I will treasure every moment that we shared together.

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Paarul: I’m back at home, getting ready to go back to Vassar, yet Haiti is continuously in my thoughts. Everywhere I look, I see abundance and I’m reminded of the poverty and simplicity of Haiti. As Zoe says, I’m also left with a whirlwind of emotions as I’m readjusting back into life here – and one of those emotions is determination. I’m determined to help us share and act upon all that we experienced and the love we received in Haiti. With another Munchy Monday around the corner, I’m positive that this trip has called us all into action and I’m excited to see what’s next!  

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Serena: People usually say something is unreal to describe its amazingness. And while I would call Haiti “unreal” because it was incredible in so many ways, Haiti is 100% real. The beauty and brokenness, the joy and suffering, all of it. The people there embracingly loved us without resentment despite our privilege to live worrying over status, success, and power rather than food, shelter, and health. Thankful for all the people who we made relationships with and took us under their wing throughout the trip. Grateful to God for bringing me to Vassar to join this project. I hope that Haiti continues to have hope in the promise of Jesus, and we can continue to love our global neighbors and show a tangible hope.

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Thao: The biggest contrast from the trip for me was the poverty and difficult living conditions versus the strength, love, and hope the people of Haiti continuously surprised me with! The interactions, experiences, and memories from the trip have and will continue to give me the strength and hope to love more, dream bigger, and work harder to be able to help more people and improve our work as the Vassar Haiti Project. I believe that my biggest accomplishment last year was joining VHP, and this year I am most proud and thankful to have had the opportunity to go on this trip with all our brilliant trippers, as well as our incredible “honorary trippers” Pere Wildaine, Quincy and Edson. The trip would not have been as perfect without any of you, mwen sonje ou et Ayiti!!!

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Zoe: Reflecting back on our trip from my familiar dorm room, my mind is full of flashbacks of beautiful scenery, moments shared, and a whirlwind of emotions. What stands out to me the most are the connections and relationships we formed; learning Kreyol, speaking with Edson, Quincy and Pere Wildaine, playing UNO and tic-tac-toe, speaking Spanish with Mackenson, sorting beads and playing in the corner of the clinic with Amaesha and the 3 little boys we met. Equally salient is the extreme juxtaposition we witnessed. While sorting beads and having fun at the clinic, a boy was brought in and lay on cardboard with an IV inserted, nearly unconscious because of Cholera. Driving through Port-au-Prince I was entranced by the vibrant colors and beauty of the city, this was contrasted by rubble and damage still present from the earthquake. We danced, laughed and jump roped with children in the Kindergarten/Community Center building that is still under construction. This location also proved to be the location of intense sorrow when I learned that during a storm some of the cinderblocks the building is made of fell on some children and eventually had mortal consequences. These gut-wrenching, emotional moments lit a fire under me and my fellow trippers. We are now more motivated and determined than ever to raise the funds needed for our initiatives – most notably, funds for completion of the building construction and for the books for our friends in secondary school. I hope everyone will join us in our efforts!

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Melanie Lai Wai ’16, VHP’s VP for Merchandise and representative for the Education Initiative in Haiti, wrote this post about her experience meeting a secondary school student in Chermaitre.

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“Wow! Ho ho ho!”
This morning I met the boy with the cutest laugh in Chermaitre. As I strolled out of a classroom in our primary school, ready for breakfast, I saw him standing in the schoolyard talking to Lila. She immediately ushered the Vassar trippers to introduce themselves to him, as he is one of the students from our brand new secondary school program.
Marckenson is eighteen years old and is the first one out of nine children in his family to attend secondary school. After he finishes his studies, he would like to follow in the footsteps of Pere Wildaine, our partner in Chermaitre, and become a priest. Although communication was hindered by my limited knowledge of Kreyol, he was very patient when explaining his situation and his hopes for the future. His parents both live away from Chermaitre: his father is in Port-de-Paix, his mother is in Gros Morne. For years, his aunt Melanie has been taking care of him and his two younger siblings when they went to primary school. A few years after finishing primary school, he decided to pursue his studies because, as Pere Wildaine explained, he wanted to be the light of his family.

I feel truly inspired by his story. It made me think about my own path and how it had never occurred to me that not going to secondary school was an option. His strength and his perseverance exceed by far that of anyone I know. Marckenson may not have a degree, he may not have seen the wonders of the world, he may not have any material objects to share, but in one day he has become one of the people I respect the most.

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If you would like to help support the secondary school students click here!

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Femme Chermaitre

On March 18th,  the second day that trippers stayed in Chermaitre, we had a meeting with the women co-operative, first with the executive board, and then with the general body. Thao Nguyen, as one of the representatives for the women’s initiative, wrote the following post about her experiences.

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It was a true honor for me to have been able to meet with the amazing women of Femme Chermaitre. Despite their difficult backgrounds and experiences, the women carried themselves with so much pride and strength. This was a surprising and pleasant difference from our previous meetings where the people were more shy and reserved. This meeting was lead by the women. They walked us through the challenges the co-op was facing as well as their vision and hopes to better Femme Chermaitre operations. After discussing among themselves, the women collectively decided on new changes and plans we proposed for the co-op.

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We showed the women our video of Femme Chermaitre with footages from our last year’s meeting with them. We were filled with joy to see their smiles as they saw themselves the way we see them. From a certain point of view, these women have nothing, no riches, for most of them not even decent education. But from our point of view, they are the richest people. Their wealth comes from their pride (in themselves, their children, Chermaitre) as well as their kindness, love and care for the community. These women took responsibility upon themselves to work hard, create a business, support their families and Chermaitre. We’re in awe of their motivation and incredible strength. These beautiful women of Femme Chermaitre inspire and empower us everyday to continue the important work we do with the Vassar Haiti Project and also give us strength and faith to pursue our own dreams of caring for the world.

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First Blog Post From Haiti!

March 13, 2016. 9:31 am.

Reflections From the Plane
Bonjou!
We have now boarded the plane and are eagerly (and sleepily) awaiting take off! The 5 other trippers next to me are all asleep, heads nodding and mouths wide open. We loaded the vans and left Chez Meade around 4:15am this morning, managed to wrestle 26 bags through the airport to be checked (not including our carry-ons) and now have approximately 3.5 hours before we touch down in Port-Au-Prince.
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We are all filled with a swirl of emotions to varying degrees, I would guess predominately mixtures of excitement and apprehension. Whatever we are individually picturing about Haiti, we know that we can count on encountering moments that are unexpected.
Selfie on the plane!

Selfie on the plane!

 

Along with the new language, different landscape, unfamiliar smells and hotter temperatures we know that we will have to adjust to a differently structured schedule and concept of time, particularly coming from a very rigorous and regimented week of midterms. We will try to practice just being and living in the moment.
We also know that we can count on this being an unforgettable trip that will tie us all together for years and years to come. This is evidenced by the wonderful messages that have filled our inboxes both yesterday and today from past trippers (students who have already been to Haiti with VHP). We’ve received e-mails from Nairobi, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam and other places around the globe.
It was exciting to hear other travelers engaging in conversations in Kreyol, we pointed these out to each other and tried to pick up some words that we learned in our lessons. One we definitely recognized was “Ki kote…” which means “where”.
Pack day yesterday was very successful, much less stressful and chaotic than I imagined it would be. We split up into 3 different teams: cooking, packing, and logistics. Even though there were a few hiccups and moments of distress we worked like a well-oiled machine; I was astounded by the attention to detail, intricate inventory sheets and elaborate tape system used to label our luggage. There were moments when people stepped up as leaders and also stepped back, listened to others and played a more supportive role. We felt like we bonded more, struggling together in those hours than we did in the previous months combined.
Our quote book has already been filled with numerous entries and we are looking forward to many more to laugh and bond over. A favorite so far includes:
Andrew: We’ve done this trip so many times now… It’s like when you go on a roller coaster for the first time and you’re going up that incline and you realize you can’t get off, you’re scared. But after the 6th time, you’re not scared anymore.
Lila: I would be.
Stay tuned for more posts! We will be updating as often as possible through out our 10 days (when we have internet connection). You will be seeing posts from every tripper eventually but for now, here is a short update from everyone!
Some comments are from the plane, while others are reflections from the hotel or from the restaurant where we are currently waiting to eat dinner.
Alex: I am SO excited to finally be going to Haiti after months of planning and anticipation!  It is nerve-racking that Haiti will be different from the “Haiti” that I have in my head now, but it is comforting that we will all be discovering the culture together.  We have such an inspiring group of people together, and I couldn’t think of a better family to embark on this journey with!
Amaesha: From the rustic charm of the hotel to the old stories I heard at the art gallery, Haiti has already found a place in my heart. The bonding between the trippers has been so great and I’m looking forward to creating many more memories in this magical place!
Andrew: What a thrill it has been to see Sharona at Galerie Issa, Toni’s son Ti Michel and husband Michel at Galerie Monnin, and Giselle at Comite Artisanal … and through them to give our money to dozens of artists and artisans.  The trip is just beginning, but already I feel home, surrounded by the wonderful sights, smells, and sounds of Haiti.  And this is just day one!!
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Anna: After months of hard work, it is so exciting to be able to begin a new journey in Haiti and spend time learning more about Haitian culture. Looking forward to making great memories! :)
Hao: Looking back to all what we’ve done so far for the trip, from all the Munchy Mondays and fundraising events that bond us to work together, meetings at 7am before all my morning classes, and the long packing day that we just had, it all seems magical and I couldn’t imagine any of these happen without my fellow trippers. I am more than excited for the coming trip and ready to embrace Haiti!
Kidus: Hi, everybody! I’m doing great!
Lauren: I didn’t think I could physically make it through airport security after waking up at 3AM. But we all made it somehow! I’m getting less tired the closer we get to Haiti. Current music: “Coming Down,” Halse
Lila: We’re “Coming Home” to family that many of us have not even met yet.  Such a privilege.  We are ready to create.
Lily: After months of fundraising, meetings, check-ins, and planning, it’s so amazing to finally be on the plane on the way to Haiti. It’s been a long road, or at least it feels that way, and I’m so excited to be sharing this experience with such amazing, dedicated, inspiring people
Lucy: Colors and arts every where! The gallery we visited was every different from i expected. We got to touch the paintings and looked at them really closely. The day was long and tiring, but filled with joy and beauty.
Melanie: I am absolutely thrilled to finally be going to Haiti after having spent all my years at Vassar with VHP. As I am writing this message, we are already on the plane to Port-au-Prince. Yet everything still doesn’t feel real…
Paarul: Memories come flooding back as I land in Haiti and arrive in Port-au-Prince once more after two years. Haiti has changed – you can see it everywhere in the city, via countless posters and overhearing conversations of the new interim president. Yet smaller and arguably more critical aspects of Haiti remain the same, such as the rubble on the sides of the road from the earthquake.. We’re enjoying the bustle and the color of the city, but we’re also gearing up to begin our journey out of PAP and into the beautiful mountains of Chermaitre…such a privilege to be back!
Serena: Grateful for the people I’m with and the people who have been taking care of us thus far. I don’t think I’m prepared for the rest of the trip yet but I know it will be amazing!
Thao: The trip is something special that ties us all together, even though we don’t know all of the past trippers personally they are still sending their love.
I can’t wait to land, but also know that I should savor the moment as it is an important step in our journey – a time to rest, reflect and organize or thoughts for the coming days. I am ecstatic to see how the trip will unfold, judging from the dedication, teamwork, organization, passion (and other admirable characteristics) I have seen displayed from all of my fellow trippers, I am sure it will be inspiring. This of course will not be without critical reflection on our time and the impacts we have in Haiti.
Bisou from Haiti!
Zoe & The Trippers
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Living in the Question

The Vassar Haiti Project and the Vassar Club of Washington DC hosted a sale of Haitian paintings and handcraft at St. Mark’s (Capitol Hill) Episcopal Church on February 5, 6, & 7, 2016.  As the co-founder of VHP, Lila Meade shares her being in the art sale.

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It all starts with one’s word. Jackie Eiting came to Haiti with the Vassar Haiti Project (VHP) last March. When we got back home, she simply declared, “I want to do something for the people of Chermaitre”. And that was it: a simple declaration that probably would have gotten lost in the world of today.

 

But Jackie is a woman of her word and made the impossible happen. Jackie has her own consulting practice specializing in executive coaching, team development and leadership development. She comes up to Vassar and works with the VHP leadership team to coach us in thinking bigger.

 

It took Jackie a few months to find a partner in Washington DC to agree to host an art sale with complete strangers. College students, no less! And from that one little “yes” all things became possible.

 

Kidus Girma’18, Yujie Feng ’17, Andrew and I trekked down to DC and were introduced to our new partners who were (naturally) not sure of what to expect. Maureen Shea and other committed members of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church near the Capitol building showed us the space where we would host the sale. How should we make all this work? We made our promise to have the event be great and we had no idea how that would enfold other than our underlying pure intention that we want to support education in a rural village some 1400 miles from New York.

And then it began.…how would we get people from DC to the sale….how do we get the students to the sale…..how do we get the art to the sale…..where do we stay when we get to DC (we don’t incur hotel expenses if possible)….how many students….how much artwork….? Well, I think you get the idea. The questions never stopped unfolding until the minute we departed some four months later.

 

Judy Lem, Class of 2003 and Chair of the Vassar alumnae club in DC met with us and offered the possibility of having the club support our work in Haiti which she has followed for years. She enrolled the VCDC alum committee and from that moment on, the questions continued: how do share our work with the alums, how do we get them to get our work? how can they assist us during the sale? Well, I think you get the idea again. Months later, before the sale, we realized there were more than 20 alum volunteers and panicked about what would they all do to help us during the sale?

And then there were the VHP student volunteers. So many students wanted to come to DC from Vassar! We had fifteen current VHP students join us, mostly our student leadership. And that’s in addition to the many VHP alums who are now working in DC who came and joined the party. Ready as can be, they juggled class work and job work, heading to our art sale, ready to take the baton and run.

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It seems as though the last fifteen years of our Project’s existence was a dress rehearsal for this art sale. We arrived after 9pm on Thursday night, unloaded the van and wondered who we would all be staying with? Jackie arranged it all and our welcoming hosts showed us to their respective digs. Friday morning: OMG, where do we begin? And the living questions became answers, one at a time.

 

Ti pa ti pa, wazo fe niche li” one of our resonating mantras in Haitian creole, begins to manifest itself. Little by little, the bird builds its nest.

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I wish you could have seen us in action. The team moves seamlessly through each phase of the setup process. Andrew (Meade) orchestrates each step of the way with facility and calm. Team leaders work with alums – complete strangers – as they enter the room and ask, “What can I do?” It’s amazing to see this process and as the day unfolds, we become family. The alumnae poured in to support our work that day and night…many said that they hadn’t been part of Vassar events for a long time and it was great to have them dance with us. Three days later, many connections were made, and we made a lot of money for our programs in Haiti. And we had so much fun. Never to be forgotten.

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We left St. Mark’s that Sunday, all a bit different. Maureen told us that her neighbors were texting photos of all the items they bought to each other, proudly showing off their new paintings. Our students talked to DC residents and alums who work everywhere from the World Bank to the White House and everything in between. Alums ask to be put on our volunteer list. And as we leave, embracing the new friends who were strangers just days before, we wonder, “how can we ever repeat that?”

 

And we remember that it all starts with one’s word.

 

Lila Meade, Co-founder

Vassar Haiti Project

2.29.16

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Back from Setauket Sale

On November 20, 21 and 22,  the Vassar Haiti Project had our second Haitian Art Sale in Setauket, New York.  In the following post, Alexandra Ng ’19 shares her perspective from the art sale.

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As a freshman member of VHP, seeing the sale in action was a transformative experience that introduced me to the strength of the VHP family and meaning behind our various projects.  Each student had a specific role during the day, from host, introducing our various initiatives to customers, to cashier, art wrapper, and usher.  Seeing every member embrace their role and embody the VHP mission as their own was not only impressive, but also beautiful.  I was proud to show off our beautiful paintings and handcrafts to customers and even more excited to learn how many customers attended our art sales annually. With each art sale, the bond among us deepens, and we understand that teamwork and trust are essential for producing a successful event.

 

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After three long days of selling art, little sleep, and interacting with hundreds of customers, we were all physically exhausted, but energized and satisfied by the results of our art sale. The final push came with the “tear down” of the art sale.  I was amazed to see how quickly and efficiently 13 VHP members were able to rapidly transform the room from a vibrant Haitian paradise back to a church multipurpose room.  The spirit and heart of the VHP family was apparent as we loaded our U-Haul van with considerably fewer pieces of art and handcrafts than when we began the trip.   I will never forget the collective sigh of relief we all shared when the room was restored, satisfied with the effort we put into the entire weekend and excited with the new resources we could offer our partners in Chermaitre.

 

The success of this art sale was much due to the efforts of Jeanine and Peter Morelli, members of the St. James Church (and a Vassar alumnus, Jeanine!) who graciously hosted us in their home and ensured we had a never ending buffet of various baked goods.  Their overwhelming hospitality and commitment to making the art sale a success was commendable.  Thank you, Jeanine and Peter, for opening your home, your church, and your hearts to the VHP family!

 

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The sunset on the ride home was simply the perfect ending to a transformative weekend. The sky was illuminated with vibrant pinks, purples, and oranges that rivaled the bright and vivid colors of our Haitian paintings and handcrafts. As Lila and I admired the sunset (everyone else in the car was in a deep sleep), I was overwhelmed with a sense of accomplishment and pride in the success of VHP. I am so grateful to VHP’s members for enthusiastically welcoming me into the the family, and I look forward to many more art sales!

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