Volunteering in Haiti
Its our first day in Port-de-Paix(PDP) I'm excited, anxious, not sure how my creole is going to sound and happy that we finally meet the children participating in the workshop! Our team consisted of 7 members and later met by an 8th member in Cap Haïtien. We also had film directors from Denmark documenting our time in Haiti. After going over the agenda for the day we head over to the Salvation Army (Armee Du Salut de Port-de-Paix) they helped us with providing the location and school where we worked with the 30 youths that participated. As we walk into the classroom I feel like we're the Jackson 5 on tour all eyes were on us all the children were quiet and the parents skeptically looked on. Linda introduced us to the class and discussed the history and purpose of the Project Istwa workshops. Project Istwa is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of self-empowerment, awareness and self-expression of Haitian youth through the use of photography. Founded by Linda D. Thélémaque and Fiona Korwin-Pawlowski in 201.
We briefly said hello and where we each came from. It was amazing because we were all energized and fed off each other's energy; the Danish began taking pictures and recording. As we went over consent forms I was amazed at the sizes of the households and the number of siblings each participant had. After the parents signed consent forms, we photographed head shots of the participants, gave out backpacks with folders, pens, and notebooks and we took their group photo. I loved the icebreakers that involved dancing because we got to see the real personality even from the most timid children. Each evening we debriefed on the day and set the agenda for the next day.
On the second day we showed them how to assemble and use their cameras and went over the rules/camera etiquette when using the camera in their communities. We also went on a community walk with the students. I was disgusted as some people in the neighboring community were aggressive and cursed at us with the children around. I noticed after we provided the participating members with their official "Project Istwa Photographer" badge the students started warming up to us and had the sense of "I am somebody". I immediately connected with two children, one was the son of the school director who wanted to go to higher education to make his dad proud but also wanted to be a singer and rapper.
He said to me if he had a son that was big as myself he would name me Big Meech (referring to Rick Ross) and one was this shy girl that became more outspoken as the week progressed and later learned all the girls looked up to her. When we introduced them to the concept of photo voice some stories nearly brought me to tears as I translated them with my partner. One in particular: while going over a picture one of the youths stated that after his mom died all he had was his dad and his sister(that was me at one point) he was ill and nearly died but his dad took care of him and saved his life. He said he wants to go to the university of Miami and become engineer so he can buy a big house for his dad, sister and family.
As we sat with the students we connected with them more than ever. On the fourth day I learned how to cut a fresh coconut from the trees. I was a REAL "island boi" now. The last few days I felt like I was back at work: tasks and deadlines! We worked hard on finalizing translations, printing photos(4x6) for 30 albums, 150 8x10 photos printed and matted, and over 60 black and white 8x10 photos. The morning of day 7 I was exhausted and excited about the students exhibit. The team finalized the workshop certificates, printed & collated the workshop exhibit books. In the afternoon the exhibit was held at Alliance Frances in Port-de-Paix.
Over 90 guests were in attendance including students, parents, friends, & politicians in the community. The parents and students looked on with amazement and joy. There was a brief reception where food and beverages were provided. Later Linda handed out the certificates and albums to the participants and they each received the exhibit booklets! The parents were grateful and wished us many blessings for Project Istwa and future workshops. I was happy and overwhelmed with joy. the looks on the faces were indescribable. I even shed a tear.
As we approached another road trip I was not looking forward to it at all but half the team went on the coach bus (San Souci) and luckily I was on the bus. The ride was a lot more comfortable and we had working AC! We got up at 6am to catch the bus and drove south to Gonaïves and back north to Cap Haïtien (Au cap) the bus zoomed through the towns heavy on the honking horn to those in its path and also to alert oncoming vehicles as we went up and down the mountains with great views and sharp edges. I couldn't help but think how much shorter the trip would be if the roads were paved and if Haiti had tunnels. We got there in 6hrs including the pit stop in Gonaives!
I bunked with the Danish in Cap Haïtien and we bonded as they teached me words in Danish and played some Danish music for me. One of them skyped her Parents and I was speaking to them in Danish, they were impressed. The next morning before breakfast I had access to wifi and found out through Facebook that my aunt passed away after a long battle with cancer. I was in the worst mood my teammates attempted to lift my spirits and I decided to go to the revisit at the Don Bosco in Cap Haïtien from the July 2013 workshop. These boys were from the street and slept in tight rooms.
We took a tour and the director showed us where they learned how to read and write, trades such as woodwork, masonry, sewing and tailoring. We asked what they would like to see more of. I was sad about my aunt and sad to see their arrangements but it was remarkable how they were able to make the best of everything, full of energy, smile and be so welcoming to us. They were the positive energy that I needed for that day. We were scheduled to revisit Fort Liberté but the town was rioting, parents didn't send students to school and for the safety of students and volunteers it was cancelled. The following day we drove back to Port Au Prince.
On our last day we visited Cité de Soliel(city of sun) which was where the very first Project Istwa photo voice workshop took place in 2011. The students held a dance recital for Project Istwa and the community. It was a great program but I couldn't help to think how grown these children seemed as the danced to the Haitian drums and moved the crowd. This experience was truly humbling and opened my eyes on what a beautiful country Haiti is and makes you wonder how beautiful it can be when all the work that needs to be done is completed. 8 strangers came together to give back and had a huge impact on the community and their spirit.
It starts with the youth and us-Project Istwa recognizes that. I regretted that it took me over 20 years to return to Haiti but I also realized timing is everything and I'm excited about returning soon to vacation or help out the communities in any way.