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Life Arts    H3'ed 1/28/10

OpEdNews Talks with Gigi Pomerantz, founder of YOUTHAITI

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Welcome to OpEdNews, Gigi. The spotlight has been on Haiti since their horrific earthquake January 12th. You have been involved over there since way before this catastrophe. Tell us about that.

Gigi in Duchity last September

Hi, Joan. I first went to Haiti in February, 2006, on a medical mission with a Catholic church group out of Naperville, IL. I am a Nurse Practitioner and have always been interested in going on a developing world mission; this was the first time. I had no idea what to expect, other than it would change me somehow; I had no idea how much!

After seeing the devastating effects of lack of prevention, lack of sanitation and clean water, as a Nurse Practitioner, I wanted to do something different than just a medical mission. I read about this method of sanitation in a book published by the Hesperian Foundation called Sanitation and Cleanliness for a Healthy Environment. I began conversations (in French) with some local people in this rural mountain village where we served, and we decided to try to build a composting toilet.

There are some other folks in Haiti doing similar work, and we hooked up with them to learn about what they were doing. Then, we got started! Over the past four years, we have built a youth organization in this village, that is reaching out far beyond its own borders, and a non-profit organization based in Milwaukee to fund the work. We have built five public dry-composting toilets and 60 household Arborloos. We have begun a program of hygiene education in schools, the market place and with village groups, and engaged a local agronomist to teach sustainable farming methods and establish gardens near our toilets.

Talk about starting from the bottom up. I want to know more about the youth organization that you built.

When I first thought of doing some work in the village, I knew that I couldn't do it alone. I asked the parish priest to recommend someone to work with. He directed me to Franci Polyte, an up-and-coming young leader in the community. Franci then put together a group of youth aged 15 - 30, mostly high school students and teachers to help launch a project to build a toilet. We started with 25 youths, and now have almost 70 from this one village. They have raised the age requirement to 18, and when kids turn 18, they call me and ask to join! I tell them, "Talk to Franci!"

With Marcorel Lisius, YOUTHAITI's in-country coordinator, Aug 2009

The youth do all kinds of things in the village from helping to build toilets, to cleaning the streets, to organizing cultural events and soccer tournaments. We rent a house in the center of the village where they come and hang out. We dream of putting in a cyber-cafe there, where they can stay in touch with family and friends far away.

And, they all call me "Mom"!

So, "Mom", how are those kids doing now? Have you heard from any of them since the 'quake?

Duchity was not directly affected by the quake, as it is more than six hours away on a "good" day. But, the village is devastated; everyone has family in Port-au-Prince. Everyone knows someone who has died. I spoke with the director of an orphanage who asked me to call Port-au-Prince (PAP) for the school principal (no phone card or no connection) to locate his children. Then, I had to tell him that two of his daughters were lost, and they were not able to recover the body of one. He traveled the next morning by motorcycle to try to find her and also to bring all his children back to Duchity.

Franci said over 500 people have returned "with only their two hands and the clothes on their backs." Families are stretched thin to feed and clothe them - but everyone is trying. We have begun to take displaced people into our house. [This is the house YOUTHAITI rents in Duchity for the youth group, and we stay there when we visit. It has three small rooms and a latrine in back. We can fit 10 or 12 people in the bedrooms and around a table.]

We plan to provide food as people stay or pass through. We will help with resettling and hopefully get people planting and doing agriculture again. Our agronomist is developing a plan for increased garden production using urine from our composting toilets.

Selecting site for Arborloo

Money donated goes directly to the people for food and urgent needs. Then, we will go in and start to work on jobs and long-term solutions, driven by what our Haitian partners tell us.

I hear almost daily from someone in Haiti - from PAP, Duchity, from people wandering away from PAP. Sometimes, they just want to hear my voice, other times to tell me some news. Thankfully, no one I know directly has been lost.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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