Growing strong in Haiti, one community at a time

Child helps paint a mural. | Photo credit: Knight Foundation
Rhythm Foundation: A child paints a mural at the Big Night Little Haiti festival. | Photo credit: Knight Foundation

The devastating earthquake that hit Haiti in 2010 left Louino Robillard with an air of tragedy, a quality he shares with so many of his Haitian compatriots.

Yet his mere survival motivates him.

When the quake hit, he was walking outdoors, on his way to a building that would collapse, killing its inhabitants. “My life doesn’t belong only to me anymore,” he said he thought at the time. “I need to live for the community.”

Robillard grew up in Cité Soleil, an extremely poor, crime-ridden neighborhood of Port-au-Prince. He and other local activists had long worked to help residents improve their lives, but their efforts often had been overshadowed by violence.

Feeling strangely renewed by his experience during the earthquake, Robillard wanted to work with his peers to tackle the violence head-on. In 2011, they launched Konbit Solèy Leve, a group that brings together warring neighborhoods, stitches them together to take on local initiatives and, when possible, turns them into a social movement.

“Anyone can come to us with an idea, and together we work to make it happen,” Robillard said.

Because youth gangs continued, volunteers brought together by Konbit Solèy Leve focused on meaningful alternatives to violence.

One of their initiatives — the Cité Soleil Peace Prize — recognizes young people who make a difference in their communities and promotes them as role models.

Sometimes one solution reveals a new problem.

The SAKALA youth center, launched to promote nonviolence and community development through basketball, was one such situation.

Many kids were so weakened by hunger they couldn’t train or play, according to Laurent Herode, a SAKALA co-founder. So before picking up a ball, the kids were taught to pick up a hoe. Together, they created the Tap Tap Garden on the site of a former garbage dump. It would feed more than 250 participants.

The garden has produced so much that SAKALA can feed the kids, give away food to others in the community and sell some to finance an expansion. Today, Tap Tap also serves as a tree nursery and an educational center, attracting young leaders of dozens of similar gardens around Haiti.

In rural northern Haiti, Robillard and his wife started a model forest park to educate the local community about the importance of trees. (Deforestation has caused severe environmental problems in the country.)

Networking across borders

As part of an international visitor program that focused on conflict management, Robillard and Herode traveled to the United States and were surprised to see that some U.S. cities struggle with some of the same problems affecting Cité.

The men have shared their experiences and ideas with local U.S. officials and gained new insights too. They have seen that at-risk neighborhoods respond to community policing, which involves getting police officers out of their cars and away from desks and into the community to build trust with citizens. In Haiti, they hope to imitate job-training programs for younger workers, such as YO! Baltimore.

This article was originally published on Share America.