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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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VHP in Asian Night Market

On November 7th, the Vassar Haiti Project tabled in the annual Asian Students’ Alliance (ASA) Night Market. The following is a collaborative post from Ruoyu (Lucy) Li, and Thao Nguyen about the preparation and tabling for the event.

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The feeling of making a cuisine from home is unexplainable, especially for me when it comes to making dumplings. Every year during Spring Festival, the most important holiday in China, I’d sit with my entire family around a big table and make tons of dumplings for celebration. And this year, I sat with VHP around a big table and we made hundreds of dumplings for the ASA Night Market. I thought I would feel homesick, but I did not. Instead, I felt at home.

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Dumpling making (like working in VHP) is a collaborative and time-consuming work. On Friday November 6th, we started at 6 p.m. and probably finished around 10 p.m. We made over 350 lovely dumplings. We started by chopping everything in sight into tiny pieces, which was a very stress-relieving activity — highly recommended during the more stressful weeks of the semester. Then we mixed everything together, poured in all kinds of seasonings and then mixed them by hand. A thousand thanks to Kidus, our VP for External Events, who sacrificed his hands for the job! Finally, we got to sit together and make dumplings, and I was surprised to find that everyone had their own way of wrapping dumplings. From this, I learned that there are multiple ways to reach our goals, and making dumplings is no exception. Throughout the night, even though we were all working incredibly hard, there was music, conversation and joy.

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Our effort is not only for the Night Market: the money raised by selling dumplings will go to the Education Initiative to support our school and scholarship program in Haiti. When we speak of supporting education in a developing country, we might think of something serious and tiring, and not a happy dumpling-making party. But helping can actually be achieved by doing something small and with personal joy, like what we did that night. Fabulous people, fabulous food and fabulous purpose.

Lastly, I wanted to extend a big thanks to everyone who helped in making dumplings, and especially to Udbhav Agarwal ‘18, the Director of VHP’s Education Initiative. I would also like to send my thanks to Robyn Cox ‘15, Vassar alumni, for the amazing dumpling recipe!

-Ruoyu Li ’19

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I could not help with dumpling making so I signed up to table during the Night Market. We had dumplings, steamed buns and mini rice balls. The food looked great and tasted even more amazing because of all the love and hard work VHP-ers had put into making them. I was pretty nervous at first because people worked very hard and we had a lot of food to sell. But as soon as the event started and until the very end (2 hours) we were busily selling food to the lines of people in front of VHP’s table. People really enjoyed the food and wanted to support VHP’s work. We even ran out of steamed buns half way through and had to make more for our hungry customers! It was awesome getting to work side by side VHP-ers, talking to more people about the project and increasing VHP’s presence on Vassar campus.

-Thao Nguyen ’18

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How to Stretch A Painting

Vassar Haiti Project holds stretching parties regularly before our sales. During stretching parties, we stretch paintings onto wooden frames, giving them the support necessary for display at art sales. The following is a stretching tutorial from Melanie Lai Wai ’16, our VP for Merchandise.

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A stretching party is a VHP tradition. Several times every semester, after VHP receives a new order of Haitian paintings, we hold a stretching party where members from all initiatives and committees come together to assemble the painting canvases with their wooden frames and produce the beautiful products that our customers see in art sales.

If you are wondering about what goes on behind the scenes of Vassar Haiti Project, this fun tutorial on how to stretch a painting will give you a peek into our internal activities!

>>Step 1

Prepare the work surface that you will be working on. Stretching a painting will involve a lot of staples so we want to make sure that you do not damage your furniture.

Lay out a thick piece of fabric on the table if you are working indoors or if the weather is sunny, simply bring your tools outside in the yard!

>>Step 2

Gather your tools.

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>>Step 3

Paintings are usually shipped to us rolled up like giant Swiss rolls and it is our job to lay them out (stretch them) on wooden frames (a.k.a. “stretchers”)

Pick a painting. Today we will be stretching “Village Talk” by Georges Desarmes.

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>>Step 4

Measure the length and width of your painting and gather four stretchers of the same dimensions as the painting, one for each side. Ours is a 10-inch by 12-inch painting.

 

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>>Step 5

Assemble the stretchers.

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>>Step 6

Center the painting canvas on the stretchers. Holding the canvas firmly on one side of the rectangular frame, staple it.

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>>Step 7

Now flip the painting. We will attempt to staple the opposite side of the canvas. Using the canvas pliers, pull the fabric as much as you can over the stretcher bar and staple it.

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>>Step 8

We can now staple the other sides of the painting. Make sure that the fabric is pulled very tightly before stapling it to the stretcher, otherwise the end result will not have a smooth surface. Staple each side as many times as you think necessary; you are the best judge!

However, if you happen to see that the surface of the painting is still loose after adding a staple, fear not! Remove the staple very carefully with a screw driver (don’t hurt yourself!) and start over.

>>Step 9

After stapling each side of the canvas to the stretcher bars, check to see whether the surface of the painting is tight enough (you should feel it pushing against your fingers when you apply a slight force). If it is to your liking, secure the staples by hammering them in.

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>>Step 10

Now secure the corners.

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>>Step 11

Trim the excess fabric on the sides for a cleaner look.

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>>Step 12

The final step is to add a sticky label at the back of the painting, specifying the name of the painting, the artist, the size of the painting and its price.

Village Talk by Georges Desarmes. To see more of his work, please visit our website

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Voilà! Our painting is ready to be displayed on a wall!

We hope that you have enjoyed this brief tutorial.

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Every year, hundreds of paintings are stretched by VHP volunteers. It is thanks to their dedication and hard work that our art sales look as beautiful as this :

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Please stop by if you are ever in the area!

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Sahara Pradhan ’15, has been heavily involved in VHP since her freshman year. She has served as the Education Initiative Director, the VP for Outreach, and as the Co-President for Fundraising and Development. She recently came back to Vassar to visit us and took this opportunity to help with the preparation for Setauket Sale.
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On October 18th, I met up with a few VHPers at a café in Brooklyn to prepare for a presentation we were going to give in Setauket. We had an incredibly successful weekend sale in Setauket two years ago, hosted by a Vassar College alumnae Jeanine Morelli and her husband Peter. This presentation was for our return to Setauket for the second time, for the upcoming Haitian art sale on the weekend of November 20, 21, and 22.

 I was surprised to get a chance to accompany Andrew, Lila, and our amazing new Vice President for Outreach, Kidus, for this presentation in Setauket.
After a two-hour drive, we arrived at the church and were warmly welcomed by the Morellis once again. It was the church where I had set up the Haitian paintings for sale two years ago.

We gave the presentation to a group of middle school and high school students about our work in Chermaître and in the United States, and talked about Vassar students’ involvements. Then we shared a few pieces of art with the audience.
Lila also conducted a mini “art of the schmooze” workshop, which teaches the art of meeting and talking to new people at art sales – and in life! This workshop aims to help the students develop a sense of confidence and to show them that they are not alone in their fears.

These students will help us spread the word in their community about the Setauket sale, and also help out at the sale itself!

Returning for the first time as a Vassar Haiti Project alum after having been out in the so-called “real world” for several months, I have started to more fully realize the uniqueness and rarity of the depth of my relationships and experience I acquired while being a part of Vassar Haiti Project. Vassar Haiti Project was one of my first homes at Vassar, so returning, even for a short while, was a gift for me.

I was incredibly moved by Jeanine and her community’s hospitality two years ago, and I am sure that with this amazing support we are receiving, the second Setauket sale will also be a great success!
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This past September, the Vassar Haiti Project had our first art sale of the school year! This annual sale, which takes place over Vassar College’s Parents Weekend, normally occurs in April; however, for the 2015-16 school year, Vassar held Parents Weekend in September. For the first time ever, VHP’s “April Sale” took place in September. Read about the sale from the perspective of Udbhav Agarwal ’18, VHP’s Director of Education.

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Everything that could have gone differently did go differently. As we swung open the doors for the 15th Annual Haitian Art Sale of the Vassar Haiti Project, one could sense the mere nervousness that had encompassed each of us. The sale that had happened ritualistically once every year, for the past 14 years, was now happening twice in six months. Almost every other day, someone would call it the “April Sale” only to be quickly reminded, that no- this wasn’t the “April Sale” but the “September Sale”. The Annual Art Auction that had highlighted each of the past “April Sales” was nowhere on our calendar. Invitations and postcards had been timely delivered, but responses and RSVPs were ambiguous. Indeed, as we swung open the doors for our 15th Annual Art Sale we were prepared to expect a no-show and shut them right back.

Our Annual Art Sales are arguably the most important dates in our calendar- a grand albeit painstaking culmination of art, efforts and stories. It takes three days just to set the display right- to dare to recreate the vivacity of Haitian Art in our tiny little base in Vassar College, Poughkeepsie. As the artists and their paintings go up- from the scenic “Twin Animals” series of Joel Gauthier to the downright absurd “Fish Man” collection of Andre Blaise- ornamenting the otherwise unvaried walls of the CCMPR, every column boasts a vision and mystery of its own. A successful sale would give the necessary boost to having a fulfilling year for our partners in Chermaître, Haiti. Indeed, a successful sale is imperative to the success of the Vassar Haiti Project.

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“Every column boasts a vision and mystery of its own”.

Burgeoned by these concerns and many others, the first day of the Sale began with a slow but eventually assuring start. As faces we had just recently bid adieu returned back to the College Center Multi-Purpose Room- confused but nonetheless enthusiastic that the sale was happening twice this year- our team began work with a renewed faith in our mission. By half day, almost everyone was tired- the whole room was occupied and the art had cast its spell. It took us barely a day to realize that the generosity and admiration that our Haitian artworks were able to invoke transcended minor details such as the fact that we had just had a sale a few months ago. Our worries were not worries at all.

Day 2 began with the reappearance of two of our Executive Board members from last year. As Sarah Oliver ‘15 and Ayodele Parker ’15 returned to help with the sale, the gravity and the mere celebration in the room remained unquestioned. Day 2 of sales was going to be the longest most exhausting day of the lot- not only did we open the sale early in the morning but we were also hosting a gala/student presentation on what VHP meant to us and the community. Once again, as each member (old and new) set into motion, and the visitors opened up about the stories and biographies they had carried with themselves through the years- the true essence of VHP became clearer than ever. Here, in our Little Haiti, in the course of three days, people representing five continents, eighteen countries and thirty-five languages would walk through. They would share their stories and we would share ours. And just like that, a world of difference would be celebrated in our tiny little base at Vassar, Poughkeepsie.

By the time the tear down happened on Day 3- the unvaried walls of the CCMPR were restored back to their original blankness and the artists and their artworks were curated and sealed for next year- it had been a much awaited end to a much awaited weekend. Indeed, as we had swung the doors open we were prepared for a no show, but by the end we were astounded by the generosity and passion of our visitors. Our first “April”, sorry, “September Sale” had been successful and we were prepared for an even more successful year.

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The following is an interview conducted with Michaela Coplen, a fellow VHP’er! She shares how her prior experiences led her to the Vassar Haiti Project, along with a poem that she wrote in honor of her trip to Gerin, Haiti.

 
Jenga, by lantern light
for the people of Gerin, Haiti

Nearby mamá learns a tree timber to bend around her body
and girls fill the spaces between their teeth with coconut and smiles.
In the square, a widower wills new life into drying leaves
and a man does business with the shadows of his hands.
Nearby the sun settles itself into a cradle of palm and promises,
and the village boys outrun their own nakedness.
Nearby a dog begs to be heard,
nearby where the bread scarcely rises.
In the distance, a man traverses the mountain trail
as if he hasn’t given up yet;
a dream falls in the jungle and it doesn’t make a sound.
Nearby a donkey negotiates the terms of its surrender,
and a goat looks wistfully at the rope around its neck.
In the dark, an ocean tries to figure out how it feels to be forever;
the waves teach their children to return, return.
Nearby a rain cloud gathers,
bruised and the color of love.
Inside, a woman latches her door against the moon.

I watch as my sisters
build lace out of blocks of wood,
and I learn the regular pattern of absences,
the size of the spaces between,
the things lived without
within this tentative tower,

the sighing, inevitable fall–
the flurry of hands
rebuilding.

1. How did you find yourself in Gerin, Haiti? (…and you may interpret “find yourself” in whatever way you’d like :)).

I was a member of my school’s Model United Nations team, and our mentor believed that it was important to find ways to apply what we learned in MUN to the real world. One way that we did this was through extensive fundraising for an organization called buildOn—a non-profit dedicated to bringing education to every child, in communities around the world. Our school chose to raise money for buildOn’s project to build a school in Gerin, Haiti. Our fundraising was so successful that buildOn invited two students to join them for the first week of the school’s construction—I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of those two.

2. So often, the international development industry portrays poor communities in terms of all the things they lack, which can falsely box them into perpetual inferiority – always developing, but never quite developed. Your poem speaks to this sense of lack (“absences,” “spaces between,” “the things lived without”), but sees more in it than what the international development industry does. Please tell us more about the richness you encountered in Gerin. Did it surprise you?
Gerin is incredibly rich in humanity. While we were working on the construction site, we stayed the nights with host families—I was surprised by how easily they made me feel truly like family. After a long day of work, my host brother would bring a bucket of water up from the river (about an hourlong trip) for me to bathe, and then my host sisters would brush and braid my (and each other’s) hair while I helped my host mother grind corn. As the sun set, we would gather around a table and play Jenga or card games. Lamp oil is expensive, and they had very little, yet they insisted on lighting a lantern every night so that we could prolong our games a little bit longer into the night. The country and the people are beautiful, in all senses of the word. However, something that I tried to avoid in the poem and in my mind was the romanticization of poverty. Haiti and her people are so remarkably resourceful, and rich in their kindness—but still in dire need of things that every human should have: access to fresh water, nutrition, health care, education, etc. What makes the people really rich is the incredible tenacity they have to overcome all of this, and remain so generous in their spirit.

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Michaela and another Carlisle High School student on their trip to Gerin, Haiti, with one of the women on the school board who helped start the building project. The girls in the foreground are students from the village teaching Michaela a hand clapping game

3. I’ve heard you’re hoping to study International Studies and English (creative writing) at Vassar. For me, Jenga, by lantern light captures so well the possibilities for melding the two areas of study. How do you see yourself negotiating the confluences and/or contradictions of the two?

One of my favorite writers, Chimamanda Adichie, gave a speech in which she talked about the “danger of a single story.” The thesis is this: we understand people based on the stories we have heard of and from them. The more stories you hear, the more well-rounded your understanding becomes; the single story, on the other hand, creates a stereotype. In order to better understand each other, what we need is a multitude of stories from a multitude of people. This is where the intersection of International Studies and English is so important. I want to travel and write about the people I encounter and the experiences I have (melding historical and political analysis with more emotional and personal impressions)—but more importantly, I want to find a way to help others share their stories, across languages and borders.

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Michaela and her trip-mate, Aziza Yaropa, with their host family and the BuildOn translator, James Jean Baptiste, outside the host family’s home on their last night. Host mother Luzana Robuste and host father Kesnerd Francois are surrounded by their children Beamie, Berlanda, Beremise, Kouseline, and Mikesley and extended relatives.
4. How have you been involved in the Vassar Haiti Project (VHP) so far?

I’ve been working on VHP’s Women’s Initiative. Right now I’m still getting my feet wet, helping out with research and brainstorming ideas in our meetings. I’m really excited about the progress that the Women’s Co-Op in Chermaitre has made, and I hope to get more involved in the next few years.

5. What first drew you to VHP? And what keeps you coming back, especially while you juggle demanding academic, extra-curricular, and professional obligations?

Leaving Gerin was harder than I thought it would be. The people there had been so kind, and treated me so graciously—I swore then that I would find a way to stay involved with supporting this beautiful country. This was actually a week before I moved into Vassar, and so coming across VHP during freshman orientation seemed like fate. I love that VHP is run by students, and fueled by student energy—the collaborative atmosphere and companionship that keeps me coming back.

 

 

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Jackie Eiting, a long-time friend of Lila and Andrew Meade, was an invaluable participant on the trip to Haiti. She was always looking out for everyone else; always had some new piece of knowledge to share; and even after a long hike, was full of life and more energy than anyone else. We wanted everyone who has been following the events of the trip to also witness Jackie’s wisdom and insight. Below is a short reflection Jackie wrote on her experience. Thank you Jackie for being an inspiration and friend to all on the trip!

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Jackie with Sarah, Siennah, Lan, and Kremena

I really resisted going to Haiti…I just didn’t need to ‘fall in love’ with another ‘third world country’. I kept thinking “really, what could an almost 70 year old woman do in Haiti that would actually make any difference to anybody?!” BUT when Lila said, “Jackie we’re counting on you…you will be the only other non-student (read older person) on this trip” I succumbed! As I was making my reservations it occurred to me that this journey would change my life, one more time….and it didn’t disappoint!

Our first drive through Port Au Prince seemed familiar….Dante’s Descent into Hell came to mind….the rubble, the bumper-car traffic, the stifling heat, and the everywhere chaos hid what was obvious to me 7 days later when we returned. Port au Prince was simply a struggling, amazingly alive city, on the precipice of daily survival.

We stayed that night on the floor of one of our student’s family’s home. Clairiola’s extended family, already squeezed, over flowing into this house, opened their arms and resources to us with unbelievable generosity.

At this point I was making the slow transition from “what AM I doing here?” to “This is Haiti, I am here”.

I realized I came ill prepared in 2 ways however. I had all the stuff for sure; the right clothes, 98% Deet Spray, Malrone etc. But I had not even the simplest of Creole phrases to say “hello, thank you, how are you?” I was essentially a mute with no way to express my overwhelming gratitude for such generosity. Secondly , I didn’t know these beautiful young women who were my traveling companions and clearly much better prepared than me. They were already bonded to each other and Haiti. This however became the most powerful secret sauce of the trip for me, the cherry on the Haiti cake: to meet, get to know and deeply love these special young ‘leaders in the making’.

Watching them work, playing with the children of Chermaitre, climbing up and down the mountain, taking water and soil samples, listening and being deeply moved by the woman of Chermaitre’s heart achingly sad stories, not complaining about the lack of water and being clean, and laughing so hard with and at each other about all the hard circumstances, I became increasingly happier and relieved about the possibility and future of our planet.

Knowing Andrew and Lila for so many years I did know that VHP was a special organization. I do and have always trusted their integrity and ability to make a huge difference in anything that they touch. What attracts me now so powerfully to VHP is the ability to contribute directly to a place, a village, a community, i.e. people, the children of Chermaitre   AND the fact that the VHP experiences leaves an indelible mark on these young students, these truly’ global citizens’ who are transformed by their work in Haiti. Each one of them will never forget this experience and each one will go on to use this experience to keep making a difference in this world.

As some wise person said to me “you get what you resist’… that is true… I got Haiti and I got a life- long commitment to the Vassar Haiti Project! Not a bad deal!

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