Poorest of poor in Haiti get help from local groups

Poorest of poor in Haiti get help from local groups
Author Steven Werlin with Rev. Dr. Rebecca Langer

Reaching out to the poor in Haiti has been a special ministry for several local individuals and groups for more than a decade.

In December 2005, after researching organizations having measurable results in aiding the “poorest of the poor in Haiti,” Avondale resident Michael Fisher, founding and senior partner with Fisher, Tousey, Leas & Ball and a longtime Riverside Presbyterian Church (RPC) member, founded a private foundation to support Fonkoze, (pronounced fon-kow-ZAY, which means “shoulder to shoulder”), an organization which provides financial and humanitarian services in Haiti.

Two months later, Fisher’s foundation, Haitian Microfinance, Inc., awarded the first grant in February 2006 to establish a village bank in Haiti. Since then, Fisher has been joined by RPC and by Uptown Civitan in supporting Fonkoze.

The Riverside congregation sends delegations to Haiti each February to learn how to microfinance the women’s functions.

Steven Werlin signs a copy of his book for Jenny Parker, who plans to go on a mission trip to Haiti in 2018.

Steven Werlin signs a copy of his book for Jenny Parker, who plans to go on a mission trip to Haiti in 2018.

“Associate Pastor Bill Hoff and Youth Director Breanna Scooter and I took a group of youth to help with three day summer camps,” said Rev. Dr. Rebecca Langer, who has made the trip five times. “We’re talking about 1,000 children! This year RPC will work to underwrite many of these camp costs.”

Riverside resident Laura Crooks, a member of Uptown Civitan, said the women were inspired to support Fonkoze after a talk Fisher gave to the group some years ago.

“We all felt that we lived privileged  lives and wanted to give back in some way to help women,” said Crooks. “The Fonkoze microfinance program was a perfect fit for our Uptown Sisters for Haiti.”

Recently RPC hosted a visit by Steven Werlin, a professor at Shimer College in Chicago and author of “To Fool the Rain: Haiti’s Poor and their Pathway to a Better Life,” to share his own experiences working in Haiti.

Werlin, the only foreign staff member of 900 Haitian employees, was in Jacksonville in late September to promote understanding of the Fonkoze program.

“Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” said Werlin during a presentation Sept. 29 at the University of North Florida. “I was living in Haiti and working with teachers to develop adult literacy programs when one assignment led to another and I got involved with Fonkoze and Chemen Lavi Miyò, which means ‘Pathway to a Better Life.’”

The program was created to empower the Haitian women to lift themselves out of poverty following the Fonkoze Staircase Out of Poverty model, which has a 96 percent graduation rate, said Werlin.

“It is all based on the old adage about give a woman a fish and she can feed her kids for a day but teach a woman to fish and she can feed her family,” he said.

However, as Werlin pointed out, she needs fishing gear, good health, self-confidence, hope and a plan. He explained the “steps” of the staircase to success, which include selecting the poorest of the poor women in a village, training the women in two business, such as raising poultry and growing peppers, investing in the businesses, addressing health care needs, and getting assistance from the village.

To ensure success, the program offers the presence of a coach for 18 months.

“It would be easy to just see how poor these people are,” said Werlin. “But in front of you is the inventiveness and the power of these people to succeed.”

Werlin said the resulting mind-set is not “what Fonkoze did for me, but what I did with help from Fonkoze.”

With the help of Fonkoze, Riverside Presbyterian Church, Uptown Civitan Sisters for Haiti, and dedicated people like Werlin, there is a pathway to a better life for the people of Haiti. Check it out at www.fonkoze.org or contact Rebecca Langer at [email protected] for info about the RPC mission trip in February 2018.

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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