A 'Love Haiti' Relationship

valley volunteers drawn to help in beautiful, troubled island nation

by Bonni Knight

ALL SMILES. Bonni Knight, center, with teachers at the English in Mind Institute in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Knight is organizing fundraisers for the school at the end of the month.
ALL SMILES. Bonni Knight, center, with teachers at the English in Mind Institute in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Knight is organizing fundraisers for the school at the end of the month.

When I saw Tina Fern-Denzer last month in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, she was grinning from ear to ear. She had been on the ground for less than two hours after a long day of travel from Woodville, Wisconsin – with middle school students in tow, no less. Still she was beaming. Fern-Denzer was making her first trip to Haiti, and I wanted to see her in the true “before and after” sense, because I knew that once it crawls into your heart, Haiti rarely leaves.

There’s just something about the Caribbean island that captivates hearts in spite of its extreme heat, poverty, and post-earthquake struggles.

Fern-Denzer and I are just two of countless western Wisconsinites who have a “Love Haiti” relationship. There’s just something about the Caribbean island that captivates hearts in spite of its extreme heat, poverty, and post-earthquake struggles.

Along with a colleague, Fern-Denzer, her sister, and students from Viking Middle School in Woodville and Bloomington High School North in Indiana connected with a nonprofit construction organization, buildOn.org, and raised enough money to build a school in the village of L’Assise. To get the ball rolling, the group spent a week in the village laying the foundation; the school will be finished by community members, under the direction of buildOn.

The challenges felt overwhelming at times. In addition to using a pickaxe to chip away at rocks during the day, Fern-Denzer lived with a host family, who locked her into the room she shared with her sister each night. Whether this was due to voodoo spirits or more earthly threats, she never found out. And at the end of the trip, when the only road was washed out, she and her students had to cross a raging river on a rickety rope suspension bridge – on foot with all their luggage.

Yet despite her hardships, she described her experience as “incredibly moving. I hope I’ll go back. I’d like to take my own children.” When talking about the villagers she met, Fern-Denzer said, “They had such a strong commitment to education – they wanted that school for their children. They were so appreciative.”  

Three members of Eau Claire’s Christ Church Cathedral’s Haiti Project had similar reflections on their medical mission to Jeannette, Haiti, in January. Nurse practitioner Kristin Rubenzer and nurses Ellen Allison and Deb Lorenze spent their first trip to Haiti volunteering at a remote medical clinic, treating the sick and injured, providing medications, doing home visits, and dealing with emergencies. Without these medical visits, Jeannette’s health care system is limited to two local nurses who have little training.

But the mission team doesn’t want to replace the nurses. As Rubenzer puts it, “Our goal is to promote autonomy, to help the community help themselves.” Lorenze adds, “Our aim is to empower these people to take charge of the clinic and use us as resources.”

The three women echo Fern-Denzer’s feelings that, although life there is hard, it’s rewarding. Allison describes her trip as “Life-changing. I still can’t put it into words.”

“Joyful,” Rubenzer interjects.

The three women are heading back in October, when they plan to explore the possibility of mobile medicine with the two nurses from Jeannette, hoping to connect with Paul Farmer’s renowned program, Partners in Health. As Lorenze explains, “We can make a difference here. And we all fell in love.”

My own Haiti story is similar. My daughter dragged me willingly to Haiti in June 2013. Since then I’ve made eight trips, spending a total of about six months there. I’m hooked. I volunteer with an adult English school in Port-au-Prince, the over-populated, polluted, crumbled capital. Amidst the despair and destruction, I’ve become connected to a group of dedicated adult students who understand that their best route out of poverty is through education. They throw themselves wholeheartedly into the task of learning English, a skill that will increase their employability thirty-fold. These are people who want to lift themselves up, and they’re willing to work hard. They are ebullient and appreciative. How can I not be inspired?

Our school is called English in Mind Institute, and I now serve as the education advisor, putting my decades of language teaching experience to good use (I taught French at North High School). I even took my husband there in March. And he experienced, as I did, the joy of making a difference. You could come, too. We host “volun-tourism” trips.

Construction. Medicine. Education. These are some of the many projects Wisconsinites help out with in Haiti. Haiti is not for everyone, though. It’s hard. It’s hot. And there’s crime and disease. And spiders, as Fern-Denzer could tell you. Big ones.

But as I sat in her kitchen this week, listening to her reflect about her journey, I see the change in her. As she recounts stories from her trip, she fights back tears at times and she howls with laughter, but it’s clear she’s in love with Haiti.

Two upcoming fundraisers in Eau Claire will benefit the English in Mind Institute in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Love Haiti Gala will be 7-9pm Friday, Aug. 26, at The Volume One Gallery. Tickets are $40. The Love Haiti Jam will be 8-11pm the following evening at The Plus, and tickets are $10. See The Full Slate in this issue for details on both events.

To learn more about the English in Mind Institute, visit englishinmind.org or contact Bonni Knight at bonni@englishinmind.org