This week marks the six month anniversary of the earthquake that devastated Haiti on January 12. Haiti was the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere before the quake struck at the heart of the nation’s already crumbling infrastructure and killed 200,000 people (17 percent of Haiti’s workforce) and left 1.3 million homeless. As Care2′s Ann Pietrangelo wrote the other day, although the situation remains grim, there are some signs of hope.
Much of the humanitarian relief has come from organizations that were already on the ground and operating before the earthquake struck — powerhouses including Doctors Without Borders and Partners in Health, as well as UNICEF, the World Food Programme, and Oxfam among others.
But there are smaller organizations out there as well, supplying much needed assistance in equally powerful ways. Take the non-profit La Nouvelle Vie Haiti, part of the International Association for Human Values, or IAHV — a humanitarian and educational NGO that’s been working with communities in Haiti and elsewhere around the world since 1997.
“The objective of La Nouvelle Vie Haiti is to develop young adults within Haiti to be able to empower the community to provide trauma relief as well as provide solutions for sustainable community development,” explains Uma Viswanathan, the program’s director. “The first step is really to address the trauma, not just from the earthquake, but from a lifetime of poverty.”
La Nouvelle Vie’s mission is three-fold, to provide trauma relief and empowerment, life skills training, and community-driven development through food security and waste-management projects. And it all starts with yoga, meditation, and the breath.
“The breath actually allows us to de-link the trauma from the experience and let it go,” Viswanthan says as she explains a core philosophy of her program. “For youth leaders, it’s giving them the ability to understand themselves a lot better, to really be able to see their own patterns, their doubts, their fears, all of the things that are holding them back. Once we are able to bring a community out of that state, only then can we come up with solutions.”
Viswanathan, a 31-year-old Harvard graduate, was studying to become a clinical psychologist, but felt something was missing. She took a workshop offered by IAHV’s sister organization, The Art of Living Foundation, and everything clicked into place. “It really seemed to combine my interest in using spirituality and techniques of meditation and yoga, and also doing humanitarian work,” she says. Viswanathan left her doctoral program and started working at IAHV five years ago.
“There are about three million people in the world who have learned this practice and who have been touched by these programs in some way,” Viswanathan claims. “We really reach out to every sector of society whether you’re talking about Haiti, or prisoners, or elementary school children.”
IAHV has provided post-disaster relief all over the world, ranging from the South Asian Tsunami, to Hurricane Katrina, to Kosovo, to Iraq. IAHV first went to Haiti in 2007 with its Youth Leadership Training Program to work with communities on sustainability projects such as permaculture, a system of sustainable agriculture (the word was invented by two Australian ecologists, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, as a contraction of the words “permanent” and “agriculture”).
About 70 youth leaders were trained and working on permaculture projects when the earthquake hit. “We knew we needed to scale up fast and get people involved,” Viswanathan recalls, “so we came up with the idea of the Youth Corps. “
With 70 percent of the Haitian population under the age of 30, young people are integral to rebuilding the country, but widespread lack of education makes it difficult for their voices to be heard. La Nouvelle Vie hopes to change that with a new, two-year program that Viswanathan compares to the Peace Corps in terms of its focus on full time service to the community. But La Nouvelle Vie hopes to take it one step further – and aid Haiti’s impoverished communities and reconstruction efforts through income generating activities from its permaculture projects, including planting food gardens and teaching people to grow their own food, and vermicomposting.
“What we’re really looking to be doing through the Youth Corps is to develop these Haitian young adults as social entrepreneurs, as leaders whose commitment is not simply to accumulate experience and wealth for themselves but to constantly be in that frame of mind of community service. We’re developing that through a core ethical framework — they’re coming from a place of human values as they are developing as leaders,” Viswanthan tells me. “As they start to do the permaculture projects and we start to introduce different renewable technologies we will start to train them in actually running revenue-generating enterprises.”
Viswanathan is also hoping that La Nouvelle Vie will serve as an outlet for other aid organizations that may have ideas for renewable energy and other business projects, but no mechanism with which to implement them.
“We’re filling a unique place there because we’re developing a distributed model serving about 500,000 people, so they’re going to have tremendous access to train the community to use different technologies,” she explains.
As it stands today, La Nouvelle Vie has trained 350 youth leaders. About 100 are teaching basic workshops to over 1,000 people in five regions throughout the country. They’ve also set up 3 gardens in orphanages and schools and have taught more than 200 children how to grow their own food. As La Nouvelle Vie gears up to the next level and gets its funding in place, it will select 20 youth leaders to serve in its first full time class of the Youth Corps.
“What we’re really doing is creating leaders out of the communities. Without this opportunity our youth leaders would not have the ability, or the skill set to really have a voice in what is happening with the reconstruction,” Viswanathan says. “So what we’re doing is creating a bridge between the people who are making the decisions right now, and with the communities through the Youth Corps.”
Even as La Nouvelle Vie continues to stake a real presence for itself in Haiti’s communities, educating a new generation, and working towards the country’s reconstruction and renewal, Viswanathan does not want to stop there.
“I would love to see 10 years from now our program directors train new program directors in Haiti and then start traveling with me and setting this up in other areas to have an international team of people from different communities who really understand how to take care of communities and give them the tools to be able to rejuvenate themselves,” she says.
If you want to see some of the work La Nouvelle Vie and its youth leaders are doing, take a look at this video:
For more information on what’s going on in Haiti right now, read Ann Pietrangelo’s post Six Months After the Quake: Haiti Needs All the Help it Can Get
You can also read my post about Partners in Health: Heal Haiti. Heal the World
photo credit: La Nouvelle Vie Haiti