Haiti's magnitude 7.0 earthquake brought more misery than one nation should ever have to bear. The one-year anniversary will no doubt bring sobering reports that paint a bleak picture of Haiti's future. But for many young Haitian Americans, the hope for a better, stronger Haiti remains. For some, the tremblement de terre that shattered so many lives was a defining moment and a catalyst for launching new projects to benefit the people of Haiti.
Transformed by their personal experiences with the tragedy, Dominique Toussaint and Rachel Pierre -- founders of Mobilize for Haiti and The Andora Project, Inc., respectively -- are part of a new generation of Haitian Americans who are leveraging their passion, professional experience and networking skills to create sustainable public safety and child welfare systems in Haiti.
"I was in New York when I learned of the earthquake. My sister was still living in Haiti and we did not know what became of her," says Toussaint, 35, an entrepreneur and graduate student at the Harvard University Extension school. He is chair of Mobilize for Haiti, a nonprofit seeking to build a 911 emergency response system in Haiti. "I felt an indescribable anguish but I had to do something to help in a meaningful way. I withdrew some money and drove to the Embassy of Haiti where I helped build a command center that coordinated the initial humanitarian response at the Embassy of Haiti in Washington."
Toussaint's sister was fortunate enough to make it to the Dominican Republic where she caught a flight out to New York. "But my heart was still aching for the roughly 300,000 Haitians who perished." Realizing that Haiti needed a long-term strategy to respond to emergencies and disasters, Toussaint created Mobilize for Haiti with a group of volunteers who worked in the command center at the height of the crisis. In addition to their advocacy for a 911 system, Mobilize for Haiti trains first responders and is facilitating the participation of Haitians in reconstruction efforts.
"Our goal is to ensure that Haiti is rebuilt better with substantial participation of the Haitian community," Toussaint says.
I learned of Toussaint's work through Rachel Pierre, 32, a social worker and president of The Andora Project. "Prior to the January 2010 earthquake, I had a vision for a project that focused more on creating a safety net to prevent child trafficking of Haitian children. The earthquake forced me to not only adjust and expand the vision of this project, but also to accelerate the work."
Pierre lost four family members in the earthquake. "I knew right then that the trajectory of my life had changed," says Pierre. The Andora Project is committed to developing a comprehensive child welfare system focused on family preservation. The organization's core activities include providing technical assistance to the Haitian Ministry of Social Affairs and facilitating relationships between U.S. and Haitian social workers. The project offers support to the State University in Haiti's social work department by offering the expertise of U.S. schools of social work. The outcome of the project will be to strengthen Haiti's child welfare program while training Haitian social workers to be better equipped to respond to social problems.
Pierre migrated to the U.S. when she was 15. A single mom and graduate of Howard University's master of social work program, she has spent the past year getting to know major players in the reconstruction effort. She is also collaborating with Toussaint and other Haitian Americans who sprung into action after the earthquake.
Pierre and I first connected through my Action for Haiti page created the night of the earthquake. The page became a hub of activity as users, mostly in the Washington, DC area, posted information about fundraisers, clothing drives and volunteer opportunities. But as Haiti disappeared from the headlines and most of us went on with our lives, Pierre steadily moved forward with her plans.
In the coming months, Pierre may receive a major boost for her efforts. She is a semi-finalist for the venerable Echoing Green Fellowship for social innovators. "I made the decision in July 2010 to focus on my organization on a full time basis. It has been a big sacrifice on my household, but one that I can't imagine not making."