08/05/2013 11:45 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Empowering With A Gentle Touch

Kole Zepol means to "put shoulders together" in Creole, Haiti's principal language. In mid-July, I witnessed a remarkable organization, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), helping Haiti to rebound after its devastating 2010 earthquake. CRS's strategy - of engaging Haitians directly to drive their own development - provides lessons for all who want to improve their own organizations, including those of us in higher education.

My weeklong trip to Haiti is part of CRS's effort to establish partnerships with U.S. Catholic universities. CRS is inviting St. Mary's University to assist its international mission of providing emergency relief for and promoting development among the world's poorest of the poor. Our small group toured CRS projects and observed its staff and local Haitians shouldering together beyond the rubble and rubbish and Haiti's crushing poverty.

During my first hours, my eyes could not see anything other than Haiti's utter brokenness. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Eighty percent of Haitians live on less than $2 per day; most Haitians eat only one meal a day. More than three-quarters lack electricity or running water in their homes. Even more lack adequate sanitation. Two hundred years ago, Haiti was densely forested with stands of mahogany. Today 97 percent of the forests are gone. Only grass and small shrubs remain on rocky hillsides.

In the remaining days, however, I witnessed CRS's effective, efficient, gentle touch. CRS's success in Haiti and worldwide, I believe, is tied to the rightness of its core values, which I observed firsthand.

CRS's first value is deep respect for the human person - for the dignity of each individual as one of God's children. Of its 500 staff in Haiti, more than 90 percent are native Haitians. CRS staff can relate to Haitians; they can understand and assess; and then partner with local groups. One example illustrates: Two years ago, five CRS staff ventured into one of Port-au-Prince's worst slums. For two months, they spoke and met with residents. Then one Saturday, in a slum the United Nations has called "the most dangerous place on Earth," 1,000 volunteer residents cleaned up their neighborhood and 60 truckloads of garbage were hauled away.

CRS's second core value is subsidiarity - that social issues are best handled at the lowest or least centralized competent authority, closest to the affected community. CRS partners in almost everything it undertakes, typically with local groups. When no local group exists, CRS works to form one.

One of CRS's most significant projects is partnering with Haiti's Catholic Church to improve its schools, which educate 20 percent of Haiti's children. CRS has trained dozens of local Catholic educators to assess the quality of their schools; to provide teacher training to 1,000 teachers who lack any kind of teacher training; and to establish parent-teacher associations.

CRS's third core value is empowerment. Its strategy with every development project is to put shoulders together with Haitians to establish a sustainable initiative, to build something that will last and grow after CRS funding has elapsed. Since the 2010 earthquake, for instance, CRS has collaborated with small coffee, cocoa and mango agri-businesses to improve productivity and establish export markets. Grocery stores in Miami and New York now feature Haiti's delicious Madame Francis mango.

It's challenging for a visitor like me to envision how the nation of Haiti can ever rise again. In my trip to Haiti, however, I watched Catholic Relief Services - through its charitable and life-giving embrace - bring hope and joy to thousands of men, women and children.

As I returned to San Antonio and St. Mary's University, I could not help but reflect on higher education's own core values. Do our policies and culture embody deep respect for all who serve the university, the lowest-paid hourly as well as the most distinguished professor? Are we aggressive in establishing partnerships with the local business and nonprofit communities to enhance our students' education? Are we challenging our students, so that when they graduate from our universities, they are empowered to lead lives of significance?

Originally published Aug. 5, 2013, in the San Antonio Express-News.