Though it’s the most impoverished country in the Western Hemisphere, the overall feeling in Haiti is not one of despair, but of busy people who are adapting to their circumstances in a simple sort of survival, explains Luther Auto’s chief financial officer, Barb Hilbert, who visited the country earlier this year with Chief Information Officer Brian Kenny and representatives from Kids Against Hunger.
The trip idea came from a 2011 meeting with Kids Against Hunger representatives as they talked about large meal packing events. David Luther and other leaders got caught up in their vision and passion, Hilbert said.
Just five minutes from the Port-au-Prince airport, the destruction from the 2010 earthquake became apparent, Kenny explained. Rubble and ruin, potholes and trash were scattered, along with carcasses of stripped out cars, as goats and chickens ran around. His eyes were wide open.
They visited an orphanage and school, and noticed the lack of food. For Kenny, the meal packing efforts in Minnesota had connected with reality. “There was one step between somebody having something to eat or starving to death,” he said.
Land mass: 1/8 size of Minn.
Population: 9.8 million
People in poverty: 80%
Paved roadways: 628 miles
Hilbert learned from their guide, Edy Vasser, that he and many others have a deep love for their country, and that education is imperative for Haiti’s future. Vasser has a daughter he hopes to send to the U.S. for schooling before returning to Haiti.
One of the Haitian schools they visited made quite an impression on Kenny. “We got to play with kids, ‘high five’ the kids,” said Kenny. “The part that struck me was that these kids were happy. They’re content. They’re getting an education … and a nice meal. They’re there to learn.”
Homes in the area were behind really high walls, with razor wire or broken bottles on top. But it was the people, not their circumstances that impacted the Luther leaders. Hilbert described beautiful children with perfect white teeth, two infant girls, one reaching out her hand with a big smile. “It gives me goosebumps even now,” she said.
The group traveled to Cité Soleil, Haiti’s poorest city. They visited a school where about 90 children were receiving a hot meal.
Hilbert had done research on the city of tents and tarp shacks, which was deemed the most dangerous place in the world until 2007. It had been run by gangs. Even today, dirty water flowed and a baby lying in the mud was picked up by Vasser and given to its mother.
The visitors met a woman named Julie from Miami who had sold all she had and moved to Haiti with $7,000 to work with children on the street. She developed a business for the Haitians, who make footwear from abandoned tires. Rubber sidewalls are cut off to make into sandals. Another project uses discarded chip bags which are cleaned and crafted into hand bags. Julie teaches them daily living skills and is trying to create work opportunities that can be sustained in her absence, Hilbert said.
Lots of Americans have given much of their lifetimes to assist the Haitian people, and are doing amazing work, she said. An Ohio couple, Gretchen and Bob, have worked there since the 1970s and have a large compound encircled by masonry walls. It’s one of the main distribution centers for Kids Against Hunger food. The facility has come to serve as the town center, with a church and classrooms.