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Ben Braun ’16 is one of VHP’s newest volunteers and an active member of the Grant’s Committee. The following is Ben’s perspective on Vassar Project based on his experiences thus far:

     This semester, I am attending Vassar as a visiting student from Georgia Tech. For these four months during which I am here, I am trying to get a taste of all the things I cannot get from a technical school.  Vassar offers so many warm and welcoming clubs, ranging from circus troupes that put on fire shows to contemporary political groups. When I arrived here, I felt as though I was standing in the cereal aisle of a local grocery store.  So many choices, but which one? Which one can I enjoy and get that true “Vassar” experience from?

      I was approached by the Vassar Haiti Project with warm and welcoming arms when I received an invitation to their first informational event. That is not to say that all the other student groups were not of the same inviting nature, but there was something special about VHP (and also, fire scares me). VHP’s positive attitude, diverse goals and witty sense of humor as an organization intrigued me. The latter was exemplified in a get-to-know-you type activity, titled “Speed Dating.” At the event, I learned that VHP is composed of a diverse group of students representing the entirety of the student body. I was impressed how such a varied group could apply facets of a Liberal Arts education with such a genuine and powerful intention.

      VHP’s goals promote art and education while simultaneously striving to improve the lives of the people who live there. Such an endeavor is truly all-encompassing, crossing borders not only in the most physical sense, but also by opening up inter-community and academic dialogues. I look forward to my next few months of getting to know the many members of VHP and participate in such an awesome group!

 

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Sarah Oliver is a senior at Vassar College, majoring in Anthropology and pursuing a future career in medicine. In Vassar Haiti Project, Sarah is currently serving as the President of Internal Operations and is an invaluable member of the organization. She has had the opportunity to go Chermaitre, Haiti twice, during both her freshman and junior year. In the following, Sarah shares a beautiful recollection from one of her trips to Chermaitre.

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A wispy cloud of dust settles behind our truck as we pull up to the base of the mountain. We’ve arrived midmorning because the hike up to Chermaitre will take about two hours and we don’t want to be hiking in the heat of the day. Not that it matters; the sun is already beating down, its sizzling rays hitting our backs, our heads, our arms, our legs and instantaneously transforming into tiny beads of sweat. So much for escaping the heat.

The local Boy and Girl Scouts greet us, singing and clapping, while the older boys and girls grab our bags from the back. I feel so guilty letting others carry my stuff, yet everyone knows that us Americans are too weak to carry our own things up the mountain. Our hearts aren’t strong enough, not conditioned by daily treks up and down to the market or over and around to the stream. The teens load the packs on their heads and backs and take off. The little ones, not yet strong enough to carry things, grab our hands and lead us up the mountain.

The Haitian mountains are strangely beautiful. I want to say cliché things about verdant green peaks, rushing clear waters, and rich chocolately dirt, but that’s simply not true. The mountains I hike through are a different paradise all together. There are fewer trees, due to enormous deforestation, but that clears the way so I can see the faded outline of people hiking to their homes. The rivers are a muddy red, full of erosion, but also full of life as women wash clothes and toddlers bathe and play. The dirt is everywhere, a layer of sepia suede that wraps itself around all things, creating an aura of earthiness.

Haiti is vibrant and buzzing. There is an internal happiness that escapes from inside and explodes into the air, seeping into the artwork that we inevitably bring back. There is such a difference from what I’ve seen in the media of destruction and despair. It reminds me to constantly question what I think I know.

The little girl who is holding my hand has beautiful big brown eyes. There are mint green bows in her braids that perfectly match her school uniform. Although her sandals are slipping off her feet, she keeps her balance on the shifting dirt, managing to help me and my secure hiking boots find bigger rocks to step on. She speaks to me in Creole. I don’t know, M’pa konnen, I say, with a slight frown, wishing I could communicate more. She smiles and squeezes my hand. I smile back. We hike on.

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Andrew and Lila Meade, Carly Ritter ’05, Dr. Dan Katz from the Medical Advisory Board, and Tamsin Chen ’15 are returning tomorrow from their week-long trip in Haiti. We eagerly await their arrival with open arms, and look forward to updates from the school teachers, women’s co-operative, and other partners in Chermaitre!

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Back from Chermaitre!

After four intense, productive, and amazing days in Chermaitre, the trippers are back in Port-au-Prince. Read on for a short update from them!
 
Apart from successfully holding a clinic day in the new Chermaitre-Fervil Clinic and meeting the local medical committee, we also conducted a small-scale census around the village, created a beautiful peace quilt with the women’s cooperative, received the cooperative’s first product – coffee from Chermaitre (!), and performed water and soil tests. Our filmmaker Alex had the chance to capture the beauty of the place and the people. The past four days were both physically and emotionally draining, but we were constantly reenergized by games with the children and inspired by profound conversations with different individuals of Chermaitre.
 
After a long day of traveling, we are back in Port-au-Prince. Last night we got to experience the thrill of art-buying in Galerie Monnin – being around all the beautiful paintings was the best welcome gift anyone could ever ask for! Today, we are visiting the Haiti Design Coop and buying fabric for our women’s cooperative, before heading to Jacmel for the last stretch of our trip.
 
We leave you with a quote from Manno, husband of Sharona from the Galerie Issa: “The people who come here are people who step out of the ordinary.” We are so grateful for everyone who has opened doors for us and given us the opportunity to strive for something extraordinary.
 
(Admin’s note: We are aware that our subscribers might have received a notification for a new post about a sale in New England. We apologize for the false alarm! The post is from 2010 and was reblogged by accident due to the trippers’ spotty internet… We would love to have a sale there some time soon though!)
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13 trippers say bonjou from Port-au-Prince! They are hitting one art gallery today before starting their long drive north. Before heading to Gros Morne (the town closest to Chermaitre), they will be paying a visit to Partner in Health’s University Hospital in Mirebalais. They are spending the night in Gros Morne tonight, and will start the hike up the mountain to Chermaitre tomorrow.

“We can’t believe we’re finally here! After months of planning and fundraising, we’ve finally arrived in Port-au-Prince. As soon as we saw the island from the plane, we knew we were in for an amazing journey. Yesterday was quite an adventure; riding through the streets of Port-au-Prince was unreal. The windows of the car framed striking images of quickly moving people, angry drivers, colorful buildings, and lots of rubble from the 2010 earthquake. After stopping at a small gift shop at Holy Trinity Music School, we checked in to Hotel Oloffson, a stunning old hotel. After resting for a bit, we had a “family dinner” in the Hotel’s cafe. We can’t wait to see what today brings!”

There will be no internet access in the coming few days, but the trippers will be updating us when they get back to a city. We wish them all the best, and look forward to hearing all about their stay in Chermaitre!

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The spring project assessment trip to Haiti is happening in less than 24 hours! 13 VHPers will land in Port-au-Prince before making their way up to Gros Morne, to Chermaitre, and finally to Jacmel. Along the way, they will assist in a clinic day in the newly completed Chermaitre-Fiervil Clinic, and buy Haitian arts and handcrafts in Port-au-Prince.

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March 2013: Last year’s trippers at the clinic!

The longest stay will, of course, be in Chermaitre. The trippers will have a long list of goals this year, including but not limited to: determining how well the water filters we recently installed throughout the village are functioning; testing soil quality to assure good reforestation conditions; taking wellness measurements at Ecole St. Paul; and meeting with the new, 53-member women’s cooperative to solidify plans. Above all, they are excited to finally be able to connect with VHP’s local partners and the people in Chermaitre.

While every trip to Haiti is unique in its own way, this year’s will be especially so thanks to the addition of Alex Camilleri to the trip. Alex, a Vassar alum from Class of 2010, currently works in film. While at Vassar, he helped produce several videos about the Vassar Haiti Project. As part of the team, Alex will be capturing the essence of the trip: the journey of traveling to Chermaitre coupled with the daily interactions with the people there, the struggles that inherently come with the nature of what VHP does, but also the many triumphs. His presence will undoubtedly be invaluable.

There will be limited internet access during the trip, but the trippers send updates whenever possible. Keep checking this blog and our Facebook page to stay in the loop! Before then, check out what trippers have been to this morning…

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February kicked off with a weekend art sale in Setauket, Long Island to raise funds for the final reconstruction stages of Chermaitre’s new kindergarten and community center. Our partnership with the St. James RC Church there was successful beyond our wildest imagination, and we are grateful to have been welcomed so heartily into the community. None of this would have been possible without Jeanine Morelli, a Vassar alum, who first invited VHP to host an event in Setauket. Below, Jeanine reflects on her experience with organizing the art sale.

“I remember sitting in the cold room of the Parish Center at St James Church in early January with Lila, Andrew, Cindy and Tamsin. They had made the two and a half hour drive from Poughkeepsie to see the site for the art sale and meet with me to discuss the planning of the event for the following month. My son, Patrick, a 10th grader joined us after a friend dropped him off so I could drive him home. In retrospect, that unplanned event, was serendipitous as he became an essential part of the team.

Meeting the team for the first time, I was impressed by their seriousness and dedication to this event. They were very professional and experienced. It made me a little nervous to see the investment they were putting into the sale as I was the one responsible for getting the community of  Setauket to attend the event and hoped that VHP would make back their investment. Our meeting ended. Our tasks assigned. It was time to get to work.

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Entanglement by Reynald Joseph

I observed how well the team worked. Work was shared and delegated. I tried to do the same. The banners arrived first. They were beautiful and colorful featuring the Haitian art work, Entanglement by Reynald Joseph. How appropriate! I didn’t know this was the name of the painting but it appropriately foreshadows my entanglement with the beautiful, intelligent, caring, inspiring people of VHP.

I enlisted the junior high school students from our religious education program to help with the event and they did! They distributed 2000 postcards, put flyers in mailboxes, and signed up family members and friends to come, saved coins in their tipa tipa jars (tipa tipa means ‘step by step’ in Creole), baked for the sale, and entertained us with their music during the event.

Meanwhile, the Poughkeepsie team was busy stretching canvases, selecting the art for the sale, determining prices and figuring out the logistics of how to get from Poughkeepsie to Setauket.

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VHP volunteers preparing for painting-stretching in Poughkeepsie

The Friday before the sale, the first group of Vassar volunteers left Poughkeepsie. Their commute on the Long Island Expressway took 5 hours, but my friends arrived in good spirits, not discouraged. Wow, these are special people. I would have understood if they arrived grumpy. They were a little hungry and I’m glad I was prepared with snacks, but no Styrofoam cups this time like our first meeting. Another positive influence this group had on me!

The morning of the sale, another team arrived. At the parish center, the volunteers quietly worked at their stations and I saw the room transform before my eyes. The same stark cold room that we had our first meeting in became a room of warmth and color and beauty and energy.

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The morning before the art sale – volunteers are busy transforming the Parish Center!

Then our guests arrived from the three village community of Setauket, Old Field, and Stony Brook – and they came and came. The guests were fascinated by the beautiful art and handcrafts make by the Haitian artists. Some people ran into old friends. On the second day of the sale, a woman from the community approached me. She came the first day after seeing the banners. She said that while she was there, she had a moment that was overwhelming. She looked around the room and saw the beautiful colors and art work, heard the beautiful music from our Setauket student volunteers, saw these energetic, friendly, helpful college students… It was a moment that spoke to her and stayed with her and nagged at her, and the next day she came back for more and bought another painting. Her story gave me pause because I knew what she was describing.

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After tearing down the sale, Cindy Fung ’14, Lila Meade, Jeanine Morelli, and Andrew Meade share a moment of celebration.

The art sale is not just a fundraiser. For me it was a life event. An experience that taught me that 30 years after graduating from Vassar that I am still part of that extended community. During those weeks that I was busily preparing for the event, I thought that I would be happy when it was over, but no. I was sad when I had to say good bye to my new friends. By giving my time, I felt connected to something bigger than myself. VHP has created something that connects all of us. The poor of Haiti and the affluent of Setauket. The young and the old. Those with gifted talents and those who are inspired by those gifts. Those who are involved with a church and those who are not.

I still don’t know if I can put a name to it. What was that moment that the woman described? Was it the knowledge that we are all connected? Was it love? Was it hope? Was it God’s presence? I am not sure, but it lingers with me. Like the boats and the sails in Reynald Joseph’s Entanglement, I have been caught in those fishermen’s nets, and the boats tossed me around a bit, but like the fishermen on those boats, I am at peace and will always be so grateful to be connected to the people of my community, the people of VHP, the people of Chermaitre, and all of God’s creations.”

Photos from our weekend in Setauket can be viewed in our Facebook album here.

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Below, an update from VHP president Tamsin Chen about our organization’s most recent trip to Haiti, undertaken by Andrew and Lily Meade.

“What a start to 2014!

In January, Vassar Haiti Project (VHP) Co-Chair Andrew Meade, and his daughter, Lily Meade, met with our partners in Haiti to continue to strengthen our relationship with the village of Chermaitre.

We’ve collaborated with the people of Chermaitre for about thirteen years now, but like all relationships, it is a collaboration that requires continuous attention and care. Andrew and Lily’s trip to Haiti illustrated this more clearly than ever: VHP’s priority this January was not to check off boxes or crunch numbers, but to go back to basics and nurture this relationship. “Tande pa di konprann pou sa” in Haitian Creole means “To listen is not to understand,” and the January trip certainly served to solidify our commitment to deeper mutual understanding.

At the same time, the trip also paved the way for our fourteen-strong team going to Haiti in about a month’s time!

The priest-in-charge, Pere Soner, and the school director of Ecole St. Paul de Chermaitre, Msye Clairvoix, confirmed that the nineteen water filters provided by Pure Water for the World are currently in use. Towards the end of 2013, Pure Water for the World conducted in-depth training with heads of households and teachers from Chermaitre, and we are all hopeful this will translate to cleaner water for roughly 500 members of the village! In March, we intend to run some water tests to measure the efficacy of the filters.

The lunch program is still going strong, providing hot meals to the 304 students at Ecole St. Paul. In addition, we are conducting a survey with the schoolteachers to better understand their teaching practices and find out how best to support them so they can reach their fullest potential as educations.

Andrew and Lily also had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate a whopping seven baptisms and two weddings in Chermaitre over a single weekend! Working daily as we do across complex linguistic, cultural, and geographic borders, perhaps what translates most seamlessly are simply the joy and love of life.

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One of four multi-village choirs participates in the baptism festivities. The villages of Molas, Fiervil, Chermaitre, and Treille were all represented.

Lily made the climb up the mountain despite a case of tonsillitis severe enough that a doctor advised against it. Our partner Pere Soner looked after her with great kindness, and praised her courage during the baptismal church service. “Lily was for us an inspiration,” he said later. “She was so courageous!”

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Wedding in progress!

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The wedding celebrants prepare to process down the mountain trail…

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A very impressive wedding procession indeed!

“Sharing the journey with my daughter Lily was unforgettable.” said Andrew. “She grew up with VHP all around her, and to have her finally have the chance to connect all our art sales and activities with the actual experience of Haiti was just wonderful.” Lily exclaimed to her mother Lila upon return that Chermaitre “was the most beautiful place [she] had ever been, and [she] had been to a great many places!” Lily looks forward with great anticipation to her next trip.”

We cannot thank Lily and Andrew enough for their tireless work on the trip, and for carrying the rest of the VHP team in spirit along the way.

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Thanksgiving Sale

On Nov. 25-26, VHP hosted its annual, on-campus Thanksgiving Sale. Below, VP for Activities LeeAnne Taylor ’15 muses about the sale’s connections to Vassar community life.

“For each of the past several years, VHP members have spent the last few days of November putting on the Thanksgiving Sale. This sale takes place in the College Center; instead of the usual sights, passersby are met with big tables bursting with vibrant Haitian handcrafts. This is what is beautiful about the Thanksgiving sale to me– it exists within the everyday lives of the Vassar community. While we were still setting up on the first morning, a Vassar employee began excitedly looking through the displays, telling us which items she’d gotten in years past and what she wanted to find this time. VHP’s relationship with the Vassar community is so important to what we do, and the Thanksgiving Sale is a really nice way to be reminded of the presence we have here at home.

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LeeAnne ’15, left, with Jenna ’16, a fellow volunteer. 11.7.13.

The sale is also a rare chance to draw unexpecting students, employees, and visitors into the wonderful world of VHP, and it never gets old to watch someone new learn for the first time what VHP does. Even knowing that the sale was put on by the Vassar Haiti Project, many times someone would pause as they were picking out their purchases to ask who had made all these beautiful pieces. And they would begin to hear about a world of Haitian artists, spring break trips, and a village called Chermaitre. As breaks from school are a prime time for high school students to tour colleges, we got to talk to more than one prospective student visiting Vassar. As my fellow VHP-ers and I told them what we were doing and helped them pick out their favorite handcraft to bring back home, I could almost see in their faces the moment when they began to realize the kinds of things they could be a part of soon.

All in all, it was another successful Thanksgiving Sale that will make our yearly trip to Haiti possible, due to the hard work and unfailingly cheerful participation of so many people. From sorting through mountains of crafts in the days prior to pick out the perfect pieces to baking cookies to sell alongside them to staffing the tables all day long, the help of many caring hands made this great event a success. In true VHP tradition.”

– LeeAnne

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Water Initiative Update

James Landreth generously updates us on the activities of the Water Initiative, of which he is the director. 

“This year, the Water Initiative has been excited to move forward on two major projects. Our committee has four awesome, dedicated members this year–Simeon Busano, Teddy Stanescu, Zheng Bian, and myself. In addition to our own work we are hoping to work more closely with Grants this year to look for alternative sources of funding.

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James at Haiti Cherie, 10.4.13.

This Fall we’ve sent down the materials for round one of our Pilot Project which includes testing a new set of portable filters. We’re currently in contact with Chermaitre to monitor whether or not these filters work well and to see if we should make them a part of our future plans there. In addition to this project, we’ve been working with several local Rotary groups to try and raise funding for an expansion of our cistern as well as for a permanent filtration system. In between presentations and dialogues with these Rotary groups, who will be helping us to raise funds, the Water Committee has been researching the pros and cons of different filtration systems that have been used under similar conditions in the past. We hope to establish a solid groundwork for our plans before semester’s end, and look forward to starting the next phase of our work when we return after break. We’re lucky to have had such an awesome year thus far :-)”

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