Local nonprofit heads to Haiti to offer aid and support
Having only five members hasn’t stopped fledgling humanitarian nonprofit Action Santa Cruz from delivering aid and supplies to a whole arsenal of worthy causes. The small group formed shortly after the 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti in January 2010. On Dec. 9, the group will take flight to Haiti, where its members will embark on a search for the project that will define them.
And if their resolve is tested, Action Santa Cruz has the inspiration they need to fall back on, a Haitian saying which has already carried member Mary Anne Kramer-Urner through one challenging trip to Haiti:
“Piti, piti, zwazo fe nich.”
The saying, which means “little by little, the bird builds its nest,” has become a mantra for the members of Action Santa Cruz. Kramer-Urner says these words motivated her to continue working with amputee victims in spite of the “horrifying” realities of the crisis in Haiti when she was there just eight weeks after the earthquake. “You can only do one thing, for one person at a time,” she says.
For Santa Cruz resident and Haitian citizen Andre Cherer, the Jan. 12 earthquake was a time of fear and anticipation. After much waiting, he finally learned that his family had survived.
But more than 200,000 Haitians were not as lucky.
Although Cherer and his wife, Chelsea George, were desperate to help by traveling to Haiti, they were instructed to wait. They were told that, however well intentioned, the couple would only take up valuable food, resources and sleeping space.
While they waited, Cherer and George were contacted by Josh Brown, a 28-year-old philanthropist and veteran of several relief trips. Brown was inspired by Cherer’s story and wanted to help. Together, the three individuals started Action Santa Cruz.
Eight weeks and three fundraisers later, Cherer and George were able to travel to Haiti with supplies, including Shelter Systems’ geodesic dome tents for Cherer’s extended family. They also brought 10 camping tents donated by people in Santa Cruz.
While Haiti is not Action Santa Cruz’s only focus—the nonprofit has worked in Mexico and hopes to expand internationally—Brown, who serves as director, explains that having a local man with strong ties to Haiti plays a big part in steering the organization’s efforts.
The members say they are inspired to help others because they see the world as an interlinked series of communities, bound by family ties and common experiences. “It’s a family,” says Kramer-Urner. “An extended family.”
The group’s small size and grassroots identity allow Action Santa Cruz to play a more personal role than many other disaster relief organizations.
“My goal is not to raise money and dole it out, my goal is to take people from our community who have the interest and the means and tangible skills that can be translated over to Haiti,” explains Brown.
Instead of pouring money on a problem, they are focused on building connections between communities and developing organic solutions.
This, says Tony Hoffman, a UC Santa Cruz professor of child psychology and Action Santa Cruz member, is what separates Action Santa Cruz from the vast majority of foreign relief organizations.
“The best aid projects are community to community partnerships, or community-based collaborations. Action Santa Cruz is based exactly on those principles of partnership and local projects,” Hoffman says, adding that academic research supports this belief.
Having a Haitian member gives Action Santa Cruz a significant advantage when it comes to understanding how to meet Haitian communities’ needs half way.
“That culturally appropriate exchange is essential,” says Hoffman, who emphasizes the value of Andre Cherer’s guidance and involvement. “The important aspect about it is this is cultural contact, not just blind assistance.”
Sticks and Twigs
While in Haiti this December, Action Santa Cruz will be supporting several projects it evaluated on a previous trip. The first is a refugee camp nutrition project for mothers and infants run by Concern International. The others, Clean Water for Haiti and Waves for Water, are directed at helping end the cholera outbreak by providing inexpensive and long-lasting water filters.
The group will also be focused on finding its own long-term project, one which “fits Santa Cruz and we think Santa Cruz would really like to get behind,” says Brown.
Action Santa Cruz has pinpointed the beach town of Jacmel as the most likely location for its main project. Jacmel is home to about 100,000 people, less than twice the size of the City of Santa Cruz. Jacmel is culturally diverse and, before the earthquake, supported a huge artistic community, a film festival and a legendary carnival celebration.
“We know of a lot of different causes out there that are struggling to get by,” Brown says of Jacmel. He mentions hospitals, a partially shut down university and the “sheer devastation that the earthquake brought upon that town that the media doesn’t really talk about because it’s not Port-Au-Prince.”
But, the members of Action Santa Cruz are quick to add that they won’t be forcing misguided assistance onto a community that hasn’t been allowed to speak for itself.
“You can’t just go in and tell people what you want to do,” Brown says. “It has to be organic. Everyone has to be involved. It needs to be a representation of what the people who are receiving your philanthropy want to see in their community.”
During their trip to Haiti, Action Santa Cruz found it had a lot in common with Nadine Francois’ orphanage for girls ages eight to 18, starting with their shared goal of, well, taking action.
Francois is a Haitian child lawyer who was inspired to establish an orphanage after seeing many young girls abandoned by their families and forced into prostitution in order to support themselves. Francois calls the orphanage “Organization for Young Girls In Action.”
Here, 50 young women are cared for, educated, fed and given vocational training.
“They really want to empower girls,” says Hoffman, the professor of child psychology at UCSC, of the orphanage.
Hoffman believes that Francois has “created an orphanage that healthily reintegrates the kids into Haitian society.”
Action Santa Cruz has already helped Francois’ orphanage by hiring a teacher and providing financial support. Volunteer English teachers are desperately needed. Currently, the orphanage is displaced and $7,000 is needed to clear the rubble from the original building. Action Santa Cruz hopes it can help fund the rebuilding process.
“Nadine is not just doing an orphanage program, she’s doing a community program,” Hoffman explains. “There’s a very fine line between who is an orphan living in orphanage and who is living in the community. Nadine makes no distinction.”
For such a small group of people to tackle the overwhelming task of helping a country ravaged by natural disaster and disease, it takes a deep understanding of the ripple effects of alleviating human suffering.
“You can take one small town, such as Jacmel, and you can put in some energy and help make a sustainable process happen, and if it succeeds, then that will just have far reaching tentacles out to every other place,” says Kramer-Urner. She and the other members of Action Santa Cruz believe that a helping hand and the gift of stability will be paid forward.
“You’re here, you’re making a difference with that one person you just worked with,” Kramer-Urner says. “The point is that we can only do one stick, one twig at a time to build that nest for our global community.”
For that is how, little by little, the bird builds its nest.
Port-Au-Prince, already destabilized by protests against the slow international response to the cholera outbreak, erupted with riots following international allegations of fraud in Haiti’s Nov. 28 presidential elections. Due to safety concerns and the closure of the Port-Au-Prince airport, Action Santa Cruz is temporarily postponing their trip to Haiti.
To learn more, contact Action Santa Cruz at [email protected] or visit actionsantacruz.com, where you can donate via PayPal Action Santa Cruz is also on Facebook.