Vassar Stories

To Haiti, with Love

Every Spring Break, assistant dean Andrew Meade and his wife, Lila Meade, lead about a dozen students on a trip to Haiti. They always begin the journey in the capital city of Port au Prince and then venture out into the countryside, delivering medical supplies to a clinic Vassar established and visiting an elementary school the college has been supporting for more than a decade.

Vassar students displaying some of the artwork they purchased for re-sale in the U.S.

While part of the itinerary is always the same, members of the Vassar Haiti Project also visit new sites on every trip. And when they return, they invariably observe that they have been transformed by the journey. “It is hard to articulate the experience,” says Melanie Lai Wai ’16, a mathematics and Chinese double major from Mauritius.  “We all experienced many emotions while we were there. We saw extreme poverty and sadness but also enormous joy.”

Meade and the students began the trip in the capital city of Port au Prince, purchasing works of art and handmade crafts from local galleries and from the artists themselves. Members of the Vassar Haiti Project re-sell the art and crafts at Vassar and other venues in the United States to fund the college’s ongoing work in Haiti. “We needed to buy a lot of art on this trip because we had particularly successful sales recently in Washington, DC, and in Sag Harbor, NY,” Meade says.

After three days in Port au Prince, the students visited Croix de Bouquets, a small community where artists create large iron sculptures. They purchased several of them and arranged to have them shipped back to Vassar for re-sale. From there, they made the trek in the Gros Morne region to Chermaitre, the site of the clinic that Vassar has established.

Students watch a demonstration by an iron sculptor in Croix de Bouquets.

While they were at the clinic, two men arrived, carrying a nine-year-old boy on a wooden door.  The boy was suffering from cholera and was extremely dehydrated, Meade says. The boy was given fluids intravenously, and Meade and the clinic’s staff arranged for him to be transported to a hospital about 20 miles away. “That was a powerful experience for all of us, seeing someone in such distress and watching as he was helped at the clinic,” Meade recalls. “Had the clinic not been there, the boy almost certainly would have died.”

Paarul Sinha ’17, the only student on the trip who had been to Haiti previously, said the incident at the clinic had demonstrated to her that “the facilities there are providing tangible and much needed care, but, clearly, more needs to be done through our partnership to ensure the clinic is fully equipped to care for all of its patients.”

From the clinic, the students trekked up a steep mountain to the school where more than 250 children attend first- through sixth-grade classes. The Vassar Haiti Project has also recently funded a water filtration system at the school, which many villagers travel to and rely on for clean water.

The students also checked the progress of one of the Haiti Project’s more recent initiatives, a reforestation project that provides incentives to farmers who plant cedar, oak, and fruit trees on their land to help retain prevent soil erosion. About 500 families are taking part in the planting of more than 13,000 seedlings through an $8,000 grant, Meade says. He notes that the project embodies one of the principal goals of the Haiti Project: “It’s good to observe, but sooner or later you have to take tangible action but only as a partner. Buy-in is key; we are their guests, not their bosses.”

Playing a game with some of the children at the school in the village of Chermaitre

The final stop on the trip was the budding tourist community of Hinche, where the students toured waterfalls and caves that still contain etchings of the indigenous people who were slaughtered when the French invaded the island nearly 400 years ago. Meade says the government is hoping to spur an eco-tourism trade in the community.

Ruoyu Li ’19, of Beijing, who joined the Haiti Project shortly after she enrolled last fall, says the trip spurred her to continue the work that is being done. “Seeing what Vassar has built so far was inspiring,” Li says, “but it also instilled in me the understanding that there is so much more that has not been done and that we still have to do.”

Sinha says her second trip to Haiti , as well as other work she has done for the Haiti Project, has been gratifying. “This trip was transformative for all of us, and we have returned to Vassar committed to using our experiences to spur positive and sustainable change for the people of Chermaitre,” she says. “We are optimistic and motivated about the future.”

--Larry Hertz

Posted Tuesday, April 26, 2016