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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Rebuilding Haiti With Help From Milwaukee

Q&A with Gigi Pomerantz, founder of Youthaiti

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Long before an earthquake devastated sections of Haiti in January, the island nation struggled to provide basic services to its citizens. That’s why Milwaukee nurse Gigi Pomerantz founded Youthaiti, an organization devoted to installing eco-friendly toilets, creating sustainable community gardens and planting much-needed trees in the flood-prone countryside. As a nurse, Pomerantz realizes that it’s better to fix the source of a problem than to merely treat the symptoms. Pomerantz spoke with the Shepherd about how Youthaiti’s work has changed since the earthquake hit.

Shepherd: What was it like to go back in February after the earthquake had hit Port-au-Prince?

Pomerantz: We went through the [Haitian-Dominican Republic] border without any problem. You’re in Haiti maybe 15 minutes across the border and you’re already seeing tents. Everywhere you look in Port-au-Prince there are tents. In every little corner of every neighborhood people are not sleeping in their houses. And when I say “tent,” I don’t mean tent. At that point, a month after the earthquake, many of them were just sheets on four posts. More people have tents now, but there are still a lot of people who are sleeping under sheets—and when it rains, everything gets soaking wet.

Shepherd: Duchity, the main village you work in, is far from the quake zone. How was it affected?

Pomerantz: By the time I went back, there were about 800 additional people [from Port-au-Prince, added to Duchity’s 7,000 residents]. Everyone has lost someone, whether it’s brothers or cousins or more distant relatives. There was one young man who had just moved to Port-au-Prince in the summer when I was there. He graduated from high school and he was going to go to university. He was the most dramatic change I had seen. He used to be this really energetic, upbeat guy. He would be rapping and dancing. And now he’s walking around with his head hanging down. I went up to him and asked how he’s doing. And he said, “All of these people died, what am I doing still alive?” He said, “I don’t know what to believe in anymore. I can’t believe in anything.” It just takes your breath away. How do you answer that?

Shepherd: How has your mission changed since the earthquake?

Pomerantz: In addition to initially sending down emergency relief money to help feed some of this influx of people, we decided that our organization is not an emergency relief organization but an empowerment organization. So what we’ve tried to do is to create more work projects. We are now paying people to do work that we had required them to volunteer for. We do a lot of gardening in association with these composting toilets and we say people have to do a day of [volunteer] gardening. Now we’re paying them. It’s less than they pay in Port-au-Prince, but it’s more than they would have otherwise and hopefully it will motivate them to not go back to Port-au-Prince without having some good reason.

Shepherd: You’re having a benefit on May 15. How will the money be spent?

Pomerantz: It will definitely go toward more toilets. Since the earthquake, especially, the need in all of the rural areas is so great. […] Our organization is small and we have virtually no overhead here. Someday I’d like to be paid, but for now everything on this end is volunteer. We pay people in Haiti. Right now we have four projects in progress. It’s very exciting.

I’d like to acknowledge the tremendous support the Milwaukee community has already given. It really has been quite remarkable.

We are a small organization, but we’ve been working since before the earthquake and we have direct relationships with people in Haiti that will continue long into the future. The work that we’re doing is a “hand up,” not a “handout.” We’re trying to empower people to do projects and to teach them to be able to do things that are sustainable.

Youthaiti will hold a benefit dinner on Saturday, May 15, in honor of Haitian Flag Day, at the Turner Hall Ballroom. Tickets are $100; for more information or to order tickets, go to www.youthaiti.org.