By Carlotta Mohamed
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — In the steep remote mountain towns of Masson—a locality between Carrefour and Laboule 12 — and Sarazin— on the outskirts of Morne L’Hopital, a commune of Port-au-Prince—there is no electricity, no running water, nor a sanitation system. Labeled as the “forgotten villages,” living miles away from modernization, parents are unable to provide basic living necessities or send their children to school. That is, until the Love and Serve Haiti (LASH) mission made it possible by cultivating an educational and cultural learning experience for children in Masson and Sarazin and Haitian Americans living in the United States.
LASH is a mobile project spearheaded by Haitian Americans United for Progress (HAUP), a nonprofit based in Queens, NY. The organization supports the schooling of some 670 children in Masson and Sarazin. Prior to the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, LASH was involved in improving the lives of Haitian children and families living in extreme poverty, according to Elsie Saint-Louis, executive director of HAUP.
“In the villages, children go to school barefoot with no sneakers,” said Saint-Louis. “They can’t get uniforms or health care. Some children never had a toothbrush.”
LASH is a transformative experience for young Haitian Americans. They are challenged to affirm their leadership qualities and potential while also anchoring their commitment to community with a year-long service project. In New York City, Saint-Louis keeps folks connected to the students and schools in Haiti, promoting Haitian heritage and events, and ambassadorship of Haiti.
“We bring Haitian-American youth to Haiti to discover the beauty of the country,” said Saint- Louis. “But we also want them to understand what the children’s lives are like. It’s not just about giving money, but sharing gifts, talents, and bringing resources to schools and towns.”
In mid-August, 16 Haitian-American youths will embark on a 10-day mission in Haiti, where they will discover the country, immerse themselves in its culture, and engage in at least two days of service to the children, schools, or towns in Masson and Sarazin.
“It will be a life-changing experience for the 400 youths whom they will meet over two full days of activities,” said Saint-Louis. “For these youths from the villages of Masson and Sarazin, this exchange is the highlight of a two-week long summer camp during which they engage in recreational and education-enhancing activities.”
LASH provides school sponsorships in Haiti, a Community Empowerment Loan Project, and the summer mission. To make sure the children in Haiti reap the benefits of the summer camp, funds are raised to cover meals, transportation, and to compensate teachers and personnel, according to Saint-Louis.
There are also opportunities for families and groups to go on mission trips during winter break in February and a Christmas mission trip.
LASH’s goal is to ensure that children in Masson and Sarazin are sponsored and given the opportunity to obtain an education. Their families receive support as well through the program.
Launched in 2012, the Community Empowerment Loan Project branch of LASH provides very poor families with small loans to invest in their microenterprises, which therefore empowers them to create their own jobs, raise their incomes, build assets, and increase their families’ well being.
Saint-Louis said LASH gives Haitian-American youths a new understanding of what strength, resilience, and sheer power is when people are able to survive in conditions less than ideal.
“I have not traveled with one youth that is not committed to go back and help those children,” said Saint-Louis. “When our youths return, they become ambassadors and have the responsibility to come back and share what they’ve seen and have others engaged.”
Vanessa Jean-Paul, 35, of Parkchester, Bronx, worked at HAUP for several years in the youth program. She became an ambassador after her first LASH mission in 2012, where she was engaged in activities with the children of Haiti.
“They’re extremely resilient, hardworking and determined,” said Jean-Paul. “We did singing, drumming, songwriting, and they even taught us games they played with their friends. They learned from us, and we learned from them. It’s a cultural exchange.”
Jean-Paul, a high school social worker, conducted workshops on self-esteem, sexual and emotional health, hygiene, and other relevant topics for the young adults in the area.
As an ambassador in the states, Jean-Paul continues to ensure that their sponsorship of schools in Haiti is flourishing. Their ultimate goal is to improve the literacy rate in the area.
“It’s a constant effort that has to be made,” said Jean-Paul.
Using numbers from 2015, Haiti’s literacy rate of about 61 percent (64.3 percent for men, 57.3 for women) is far below the 90 percent average literacy rate for Latin American and Caribbean countries.
According to the CIA World Factbook, in areas where the rural population is less educated than the urban population, Haiti faces shortages in educational supplies and qualified teachers.
Gabrielle Jeannot, 20, of Valley Stream, Long Island, feels very privileged to be living in the United States and receiving a paid public education.
“It broke my heart that some kids can’t go to school, and in order for them to get to school, they have to climb mountains with torn sneakers just to get there,” said Jeannot, who made the arduous climb up the mountain with the children of Masson en route to school.
Jeannot went on her first LASH mission at the age of 14, saying the experience was “humbling and eye-opening.” It made her realize there were certain things in life she took for granted like taking a hot or cold shower at any time. Electricity was cut off almost every night during her stay in Haiti.
“It was a mild culture shock,” Jeannot said. “It didn’t scare me because I appreciate traveling and learning about different cultures. The first two to three days, I adjusted to the way they do things.”
After visiting the village of Masson, Jeannot became a sponsor of a 6-year-old Haitian girl named Lovelie, who is now a 16-year-old high school student.
“I met her in person and she was really shy, but after seeing me more than once, the barrier broke and she opened up to me,” said Jeannot. “We started playing soccer together, and she would tell me how much fun she’s having.”
Jeannot and her mother each paid $200 a year to support Lovelie’s education. Their sponsorship provided Lovelie with sneakers, clothes, and one hot meal per day in school
This summer, Jeannot’s 16-year-old brother will be going on the LASH mission. She hopes his visit will be just as insightful and fulfilling as her trip when she went in 2012.
Saint-Louis said LASH has been able to make a huge difference in the lives of the children in Haiti. There is a 100 percent success rate from Masson, and 90 percent of students passing in Sarazin.
“We’re proud of all that we have been able to accomplish in the last 8 years through stubborn determination, our love for Haiti, and commitment to service,” she said. “These villages don’t have anything, and our pride is to be able to go there and educate the children and raise awareness, shedding light on the children of Haiti.”