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Faculty members help Haitian agency serve earthquake’s youngest survivors

By Susan White

This summer, School of Social Work faculty members Mat Despard and Gina Chowa had planned to be developing two projects both hoped could assist in the long-term efforts of building a healthier and more economically stable Haiti. Then the Jan. 12 earthquake hit. The two UNC colleagues have since shifted their priorities and are now focusing their energy and expertise to provide more immediate relief to young survivors in one rural area of the country.

Despard, a clinical assistant professor, and Chowa, an assistant professor, have partnered with Fondation Enfant Jesus (FEJ), an organization that operates a crèche, clean water project, micro-enterprise program and school programs in Lamardelle, a rural farming village about 20 miles east of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Despard, who adopted a little girl from the organization almost two years ago, said the crèche, which is similar to an orphanage, sustained some damage from the quake, but the 70 children living there were uninjured.

Prior to the disaster, he and Chowa were in the process of helping FEJ and its U.S.-based nonprofit, Village of Vision for Haiti Foundation, secure grant funding to establish a health clinic in Lamardelle and to expand the micro-enterprise program for women. But with the quake uprooting or leaving orphaned tens of thousands of Haiti’s children, government officials recently asked that the organizations step in to provide additional shelter and services to the disaster’s youngest victims.

Despard and Chowa are now assisting the Haitian organizations with this call for help. First, the colleagues hope to find and help obtain the funding the groups will need to serve more children. “Gina and I are trying to anticipate what channels of funding there are and where others could be,” Despard said.

They are also spreading the message of other needed expertise, including public health experts who can ensure that accommodations for earthquake refugees have proper sanitation.

“I really want to emphasize that we are following FEJ’s lead because there is so much that we don’t know about Haiti,” Despard said. “We really want to build a partnership and right now, that means just trying to figure out the help FEJ needs, even if it only means sending money and finding more of it.”

Although billions of dollars in donations have been flowing into Haiti since the earthquake struck, a significant portion of this money is designated for the larger U.S.-based nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations working in the country. But getting the Haitian-operated aid organizations the financial support they need is equally important, Chowa said.

“International development organizations need to pay attention to and support smaller nongovernmental organizations like FEJ, because these small NGOs have been working in Haiti with people at the grassroots for a long time and are committed to their people,” she said.

The FEJ, in particular, has a solid reputation for helping children in its care reunite with their parents or find adoptive homes in the United States, Canada and France, Despard said. That reputation is likely one of the main reasons the government turned to the organization for help, especially with a rush of interest from around the world in increasing adoptions from Haiti.

“Part of the reason I think the government is turning to the FEJ is because of their success in ensuring that children don’t have other family to go live with first,” he said. “They are really careful about assessing each child’s situation with their parents.”

The School could potentially offer the organizations additional professional and academic expertise on adoption and foster care, but Despard cautioned that he wants to make sure that any efforts made are in response to specific needs and requests. As someone who has closely followed Haiti’s political, economic and social history, Despard is very sensitive to the country’s challenges and the tradition of other nations, especially the United States, to jump in with money and ideas. (Despard, who writes a blog on nonprofit issues, has written several posts since the earthquake addressing relief efforts and Haiti’s challenges.)

Organizations like the FEJ are rooted in Haiti, employ Haitians and are ultimately linked to the country’s ability to dig its way out of poverty, Chowa said. They are founded on long-term sustainable solutions “that will improve the well-being of Haitians,” she added.

“There is a need … for solutions that address health, education, economic well-being and livelihoods,” she said.

Projects, including the ones the colleagues were originally pursuing before the earthquake, also offer these kinds of promises, Despard and Chowa agreed. The proposals, they said, would enable Haitians to care for each other and work together to rebuild the country’s economy.

The proposed health clinic that Despard was helping to write a grant for would be based on the community-care model pioneered by the humanitarian organization, Partners in Health.

“A cornerstone of their model is they hire local people to act as community health workers and train them to do things like take daily anti-retroviral medications to people where they are living and monitor them to make sure they are taking them correctly,” Despard explained. “They provide outreach to let people know about the clinic that is available and education about different diseases and how to prevent them.”

Chowa’s part of the project focused on educating and training some of Lamardelle’s young single mothers in the business of micro-enterprise. Many of the women are extremely poor and have five or six children, most of whom are malnourished, Chowa said. Her proposal explored the potential of bringing women together with different strengths and talents to operate and own shares in a business, enabling them to fiscally capitalize on their collective efforts.

But Chowa was also interested in how such a business venture and the revenue the women hopefully would earn would affect their children’s health.
“With 5 or 6 children, can you imagine the impact if you just make the mother economically stable? The children can then have health care and money to go to school,” she said.

Despard and Chowa hope that they can eventually pick these projects back up. In the meantime, they’re eager to help the Haitian organizations where they can and expect the School of Social Work’s reach into Haiti to continue.

“I was interested in Haiti before the earthquake,” Despard said. “The questions have always been in my mind …’When might there be opportunities to do research in a way that’s really helpful and not exploitive. The big question is how can we help but embedded in that is being accountable to what the Haitians want.”