Monday, January 15, 2018


Poem for the Poorest Country in the Western Hemisphere

by Danielle Legros Georges

O poorest country, this is not your name.
You should be called beacon. You should

be called flame. Almond and bougainvillea,
garden and green mountain, villa and hut,

girl with red ribbons in her hair,
books under arm, charmed by the light

of morning, charcoal seller in black skirt,
encircled by dead trees. You, country,

are merchant woman and eager clerk,
grandfather at the gate, at the crossroads

with the flashlight, with all in sight.

Copyright © 2010 by Danielle Legros Georges. Originally featured on Public Broadcasting Service’s Bill Moyers Journal. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Haiti in the News

In eight days, our group flies to Haiti. Last night, Haiti made the national news because our president disparaged the country and its people.

Anderson Cooper's response is moving and poignant:

To reiterate: Eight years ago today, an earthquake hit Haiti, killing approximately 250,000 people (this is an estimate -- I've seen numbers as low as 150,000 and as high as 300,000; we don't have exact numbers because so few government and official people were there). For some perspective, about 2,600 people died on 9/11, about 1,800 died from Hurricane Katrina. Even using the lower numbers, the 2010 Haitian earthquake ranks as one of the worst natural disaster in the world since 1900, and the only one on the top list from the Western Hemisphere. Dr. Morse (doctor on our trip and frequent volunteer in Haiti) told me that you never meet a Haitian who didn't have a loved one die in the earthquake.

This Twitter stream claps back to those who may agree with the president by reminding everyone of the role the U.S. and other major nations played in keeping Haiti from succeeding. From the slave trade to crippling debt to government interventions to cruel tariffs, the U.S. has helped ensure that this country remains poor.

It is difficult to live in Haiti. Powerful countries have used and abused it. Mother Nature has thrown her worst at it. And yet Haitians are surving as best they know how. I'm sad our president insulted this country and its people, especially on such a grim anniversary. I hope our little group of volunteers can go do some good, despite this dark shadow.

To donate to the diocese's work in Haiti, specifically to support hospitals and medical teams in and around Cange, please give online here.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Faith Without Works Is a Dead Faith

This is part of my pre-trip reflections on Haiti before I leave Jan. 19.

In my experience, Episcopalians are notoriously bad at evangelizing,which is how many people envision missionary work. By that, I mean we’re notthe type to openly talk about our faith much. Many of us get uncomfortable discussingreligion, and you’ll rarely see Episcopalians wearing church t-shirts, sportingchurch bumper stickers, or posting about their faith journeys online. Growingup, while my friends were quoting Bible verses and trying to convert the Jewishgirl on my softball team by telling her about Jesus, I was having heateddiscussions about why there were two versions of the Genesis story with mysmall-and-scrappy youth group of the unpopular kids.

But also in my experience, Episcopalians are actually prettygood at the work part of missionary work.We’ll come in and help you set up a school, but we won’t leave Bibles in your hotel room. But even that kind of work can often be too quick of afix, too easy to say “we helped,” and then leave for other projects.

So it is with great pride (and a lot of personal concerns)that I’m becoming part of a decades-long involvement in Haiti with my church.This is not a one-off visit. I’m not there to take a photo with some nativechildren in order to make my Facebook profile picture look more progressive (analysisof that idea is here, and a fantastic,biting Onion spoof is here). And this is not voluntourism – we’re notdisrupting local systems or providing unreliable care. The church and itspartners have been providing medical care, education, and even agricultural supportfor decades. They’ve built sustainable schools and hospitals, giving Cange oneof the best and most reliable hospitals in the country (in fact, after thedevastating 2011 earthquake, Cange had one of the only hospitals left standing,and the area’s population doubled with refugees and those needing medical care).The church didn’t send money in the 80s and move on, but rather has stayedinvolved to build systemic, necessary, quality care for people in the direstneed.

This is faith with works.

As I mentioned, I have no medical value on this trip. Mypersonal challenge is to cover this experience with the right tone to gatherinterest and encourage funds, without disrespecting the people or culture. Irealize that I could have donated my airplane costs directly, and I’mstruggling with what it means that I’m sending myself instead of more directlysending funds. Is writing about a trip worth it? Does counting pills help mehave value? I hope I get this right. Please correct me if I veer off path. 

To support the diocese's medical work in Haiti, please donate here

Why is Upstate S.C. Involved in Haiti?

This is a follow-up to my first post about the history of Haiti, which I'm writing because I'm going to Haiti in mid-January.

When I first started attending Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Clemson, S.C., in the mid-2000s, I heard mentions of Cange and Bois Jolie, Haiti, each time we said the Prayers of the People. I learned that we sent young adult volunteers there, helped sell artisan goods from there, and I later learned that some of our parishoners went there on medical or engineering teams. Over the next few years, I also learned that Clemson University partners with local Episcopal churches to send engineers to the Central Plateau of Haiti to help rebuild water systems (read about their impressive projects here). All of this prompted one question for me: Why was Upstate South Carolina so involved in a remote part of Haiti?

Last fall, when I asked if I could join along on the medical trip to Haiti, I became determined to learn more. Clearly, I was proud to belong to a church that not just preached the idea of helping others, but actually sent the money and the workers to do good work. And this wasn’t the one-time mission trip concept that I’d grown up doing with youth groups, where teens feel good about themselves for painting a building or playing with kids in a poor community, but then leave -- but rather, this involvement in Haiti was a sustained, holistic approach to truly helping a community to get what they most needed: clean water, basic medical care, and a chance to make a living. But how did this all start?

So How Did the S.C. Episcopalians Get Involved?

For my initial research, I read Mountains beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, which explains Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti and the creation of Partners in Health; reviewed the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina’s webpage on Haiti; and interviewed Harry Morse, the doctor at Holy Trinity who has organized the Haiti medical trips for years and co-chair of the diocese’s World Missions Committee. Here’s what I’ve pieced together to understand how this all got started:

The Right Reverend William Beckham, native of Columbia, S.C. and Navy veteran of WWII, became Bishop of the Upper Diocese of South Carolina in 1979. That year, he traveled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for an Episcopal conference, and over that weekend, he met Bishop Garnier, the first bishop elected by Haitians. Bishop Garnier instructed a local priest in the Central Plateau, Pere Lafontant, to give Bishop Beckham a tour of that area.

Lafontant and Beckham went to Mirebalais, where Lafontant was living at the time as a priest for St. Peter’s Church. He wanted to take Beckham to see Cange, which was not yet an official village. Haitians were living in Cange because the fertile, expansive valley where they had lived and farmed for generations had been flooded by the creation of the PĂ©ligre Dam, which had been built (mostly by United States interests) to provide more reliable energy to the big, international companies in Port-au-Prince, but created environmental and social damage, as seen more obviously in the people it displaced. The people in Cange had no potable water, and were living on land deemed uninhabitable. Pere Lafontant was trying to help as many people in the area as possible even though this was not his home part of Haiti. He was noted for saying, “Faith without works is a dead faith.

Bishop Beckham saw the challenges of this area first-hand, and went back to South Carolina and started telling people about Cange. It was clear that getting fresh water to the area was a top priority, so the first project he managed to get funded was to rebuild the water system. The money came from churches in the Episcopal Diocese of Upstate S.C. and the engineers were from Greenville, S.C. Soon after, an artisan program was set up to support local women by giving them a means to make and sell goods, and medical teams started going around 1982.

So that's it. South Carolina is involved because one man who saw an area in need cared enough to do something about it. His parishoners agreed to send treasure and talent, and thus began a lasting relationship.

The church medical teams were working in and around Cange when Paul Farmer first showed up as a medical student. Dr. Farmer’s work was incredible (Mountains Beyond Mountains is an inspirational book about this modern-day genius and boots-on-the-ground philanthropist), but it’s worth noting that the diocese was there first. In fact, the Episcopalians helped Dr. Farmer set up Zanmi Lasante, and later Partners in Health (in the book, Farmer refers to them as the “South Carolina church ladies” who helped fund his early projects). The diocese also set up a school in Cange that has seen decades of students graduate, including students who have become medical professionals in the local hospitals and clinics. Decades later, Clemson University got involved, and engineers affiliated with the university and/or the church have constructed, updated and repaired water systems throughout the area.

Current Day

So, that leads us to today. This year, there are enough medical volunteers from the area to take two trips – the one I’m going on in January, and another in March. Each trip will go to two new villages as well as to the more established clinics, and our work will focus mainly on hypertension treatment, as high blood pressure and stroke are very common in Haiti, yet treatable with medical care.

Our trip in January will include an experienced coordinator who has facilitated the S.C./Haiti relationship for years, two doctors, three registered nurses, a priest, and me. All of us except one live in the Upstate of South Carolina. We look forward to continuing this extensive mission work.

To support the diocese's work in Haiti, please give online here.

First, A Brief History of Haiti

Before I signed up for this trip, I could find Haiti on a map, but knew nothing else about it. If I looked closely, I could find some old, dusty negative feelings I had about Haitians, likely based on racist ways they’d been described by people around me and/or American media. I knew the country was poor, but I didn’t know why. So, it was time to learn more. Here’s a very brief overview, admittedly reported with some bitterness at learning that the U.S. played a big part in this country’s suffering.

The Basics

Haiti is a republic on the western side of the island of Hispaniola, with the Dominican Republic sharing the other half of the island. It is located only about 50 miles from Cuba in the Caribbean Sea.

The two official languages of Haiti are Haitian Creole and French, though French is spoken mainly by the educated, upper classes, so Creole is the true populist language. Haitian Creole reflects the country’s history of French colonization and Western African people. Most Haitians are Christians, though many also practice Voodoo.

History and Strife

Founded in 1804, Haiti is the world’s oldest independent Black republic. The land served as a holding point for slaves brought from Africa (mostly modern-day Angola, Nigeria and Congo) to the Western Hemisphere, mainly to work grueling jobs on sugarcane plantations or to be sold to America. The slaves revolted against the French in 1791 in what is now known as the Haitian Revolution. The uprisers successfully defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, the only time in history in which a slave revolt led to a new nation.  

Upset over their loss of income from slaves, the French required Haiti to pay reparations, a crippling debt the country continued to pay until 1947 (totally about 40% of the country’s GDP!). This debt payment, combined with some corrupt governments, horrific deforestation (which happened mainly when colonists cut down trees to plant cane, and again when Haitians had to sell mahogany trees to help pay off that debt) that left the land vulnerable and difficult to farm, and damaging natural disasters, kept the country poor and struggling. Additionally, other Western countries did what they could to keep Haiti down; after all, the rebellion was 60 years before the U.S. Civil War, and Americans didn’t want their slaves getting any ideas. Western and European powers continued to stay involved in Haiti’s affairs, occupying and intervening in governments, building infrastructure to support international businesses more than locals, and even upholding the false idea that AIDS began in Haiti and that Haitians were at higher risk (which effectively “killed tourism” in the country and even affected exports).

The book Mountains Beyond Mountains describes the country as being in dire poverty, giving countless stories of people with no access to clean water, constant exposure to avoidable diseases, meager shelter, little or no medical care, unstable food, and few means to improve their lives. According to the U.N., Haiti has the lowest human development level in North America, meaning low life expectancy and low levels of education and income.
It is a country in need.

So how did Upstate South Carolina get involved in helping Haiti? Read that here

Starting 2018 with an Adventure

My 2018 is starting with a chance to check off a lot of my common New Years’ resolutions: more travel, help others, more adventure, get out of my comfort zone, invest in community, be a good example to my children, try to change the world for the better. On January 19, I’m going to the Central Plateau of Haiti on a medical mission trip to help provide basic medical care to one of the poorest and most neglected parts of the Western Hemisphere.

I’m joining a group of doctors and nurses affiliated with the Episcopal Upper Diocese of South Carolina. The diocese has been sending medical professionals to this part of Haiti since the early 1980s (more on that in my next blog). I clearly have zero medical skills, but they’ve agreed to take me along to: a) help count pills and run the pharmacy (we’ll see a lot of hypertension patients who will be prescribed medications), and b) to document the trip in order to drum up interest in the project and raise funds. So I’ll be participating and documenting…and trying my best not to get in the way of the people who actually have value.

We’ll be staying in Cange, Haiti, in a compound set up by the church group and Partners in Health decades ago. It will serve as a home base, providing potable water, reliable food, and a comfortable place to sleep – but we’ll be hiking out to surrounding, remote villages each day to set up pop-up clinics. To prepare for this trip, I’ve had to get a lot of vaccinations, buy clothes to handle heat and hiking yet prevent mosquitos, and work on getting in shape for long, hot, arduous hikes over rocky terrain. It’s been a refreshing change of pace from my normal mothering and write-at-home duties.

I’ve also been reading about Haiti and about the history of the church’s and PIH’s involvement there. I’m going to write a few entries here about what I’ve learned to help set the stage for the work we’re doing. I then plan to post photos and brief stories from the trip, as we’ll likely have internet access in the evenings from Cange. So please follow along on this journey.

Happy 2018!

Monday, October 23, 2017

It’s Time to Stop Saying No

I’ve read a lot of Mommy Blogs and inspirational Facebook posts. I’ve seen the memes and lists aimed at helping frazzled, over-burdened, guilt-ridden moms to find ways to better balance their sanity and their lives. One common recommendation from all these sources is to “Start saying no” or “Feel empowered to say no” or “You’re allowed to decline for no reason other than to protect yourself.”

I understand this need. I know there are pleasers out there who say yes to all requests and find themselves bone dry and leeched of all personal time and resources. I understand that we could all benefit from fewer commitments and more time for self-restoration.  

But frankly – I’m over all this saying No. It’s time to step up and say Yes again.

I feel like we’re suffering now from too many people feeling too darn smug about their choice to decline. Now that everyone feels good about saying no, we’re seeing a dearth of volunteers and a shortage of reliable help. We need fewer no’s and a lot more yes’s to get through the modern age.

Where Have All the Yes’s Gone?

I attended our elementary school’s fall festival last weekend. As always, it was a fun community event that brought together parents and kids having a great time and supporting the PTA. As always, it was staffed entirely by a few people – the same few people who volunteer to do almost everything. I talked to one PTA board member who said that from a school-wide email that the principal sent to all parents to request volunteers, she received three emails. Three. With a school of almost 900 children, only three parents put their necks out to volunteer for a short shift at a Saturday festival (about 15 folks eventually filled out an online sign-up form). But you know what? The event still happened and went off beautifully. Because those few people who did sign up (the same group who always do), came early, stayed late, and pulled a lot of weight. Not only did those folks not say no, but they said “hell yes” and just got it done. They had to.

I’m on a board of directors starting a new charter school. It’s the hardest and most difficult volunteer project I’ve ever undertaken. I’m currently putting more hours toward that than my own job. Regularly, I want to quit, or at least put the school in the back seat for a while. But then I look around at my other board members – other parents juggling families and jobs (several with full-time jobs or a lot more kids), other adults managing to find hours in their days to help make this school a reality. Because if we don’t show up, it won’t happen. We have to say yes – and then say yes over and over again – if we want to make a difference. It would be easier, more relaxing, and better for my sanity and my family if I said no – but I recognize the greater good served by saying yes to this school and the work it entails.

Community Care vs. Self Care

The movement to say no is rooted in the idea of taking care of the self. Too long, women were asked to donate (unpaid) a lot of time and effort to help teachers, help nonprofits, help the community. In recent generations, we also got master’s degrees and went back to work, then took on modern parenting and all its heavy requirements, and somewhere in all of that do-it-all insanity we got burnt out. How could we not? We were expected to do too much with too little time and resources.

I was there. I felt it too. So in response, we began to encourage each other to get pedicures, go to the gym, hire a sitter just so you can go to coffee. These are good things and do restore sanity, and I don’t want to take them away from any person.

But do you know what’s also good for the soul? For restoration? For balance? Being a part of the community. While personal restoration is important, there’s a lot of good feelings that come from being a part of something bigger, from helping others beyond yourself. And there are a lot of articles out there about how parents feel isolated and alone in raising kids and living in new towns and cities. So why not find some restoration in the company of others, accomplishing something good?

Let’s Reframe What Saying Yes Means

What if, when we’re asked to volunteer, we think of all the benefits that come from saying yes, instead of all the exhaustion.

What if, instead of one mom’s night out each week, you met with a board of directors to help run the arts center where your kid takes classes? You could help create the kind of classes your family wants, while spending time with other people who love the arts and your community.

What if, instead of one trip to the gym or coffee date each month, you volunteered in your kid’s classroom. You’ll build up a few children and help an overworked teacher. You may be a little more tired, but you’ll probably also feel pretty darn good for making a difference.

What if you ran for office, which might mean having to order pizzas for dinner instead of cooking home on meeting nights, but in return your children would see you setting an amazing leadership example? And you could speak up for the other frazzled family and their needs from government?

What if you figured out how to marry family time with community time, setting aside one afternoon each month to help the local soup kitchen? You are then saying yes to your family and to other families who are truly in need.

Yes within Reason

Boundaries are important. We can’t say yes to everything or we will truly be exhausted. And we can’t say yes to everything and still expect to do it all well. But in saying yes to a few important things, we can truly make a difference.

For example, because of my overwhelming commitment to this charter school, I had to say no to a request to sit on my church’s vestry (board of directors). The church certainly needs volunteers. I know I could do good work there. But right now, I have to stick with the thing I started and see it through to the end. I had to say no to the church…but I know that I can say yes in a year or two. I’ll say no now because I know I can’t balance two major commitments, and I want to do my main one well. But that also doesn’t mean that I can’t chaperone a field trip at school or cook a dinner for a church group one night. I can still say yes to small things.

So if you've already said yes to something – bravo! And thank you. You've earned the right to say no a few times now. Hopefully more folks will say yes so that you can get to say no sometimes and stuff will still get done. Until then, though, you've been labeled a helper, and you may still have to do a shift at the holiday bazaar. 

Yes is Not Possible for Everyone

If you read this far and want to punch me in the face, or scream about how I don’t understand your life, then likely you aren’t able to say yes – and that’s OK too. For the single parents out there, for those struggling to make ends meet, for those without stability, for those working two jobs, for those with illness or taking care of others who are sick or frail, and for those with babies who haven't slept in months – you get to say no. Your no is truly about saving yourself and your family, and you get to say NO at the top of your lungs because you are doing the best you can with what you have and you just can’t make a cupcake this week.

Because I value and respect your need to say no, that’s why I need to say yes. That’s probably the most important reason that more people need to say yes – they need to step up because others simply cannot. Perhaps the best way we can support the overwhelmed parents is to volunteer to do the things that have to get done so that those parents can focus on their needs.

So if you have a few minutes… a few free brain cells… some extra resources – please start saying yes. Please stop forwarding around posts about the luxury of saying no, and instead lift up and praise those who are saying yes. Thank your board members. Thank your PTA volunteers. Thank your soccer coaches. And then go join them.

Say yes to making difference, and you might just find that self-restoration you were seeking all along.