Rebuilding Haiti With Help From Milwaukee
Q&A with Gigi Pomerantz, founder of Youthaiti
Shepherd: What was it like to go back in February after the earthquake had hit
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
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
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.