Haiti from the Other Side
My perspective changed immensely over four days in September during my trip to Haiti as part of Bridgewater Candle’s Brand Experience. It is one thing to read a headline or watch a TV news segment on the island nation — and quite another to see it for yourself.
Through its Light a Candle Feed a Child program, the South Carolina-based Bridgewater Candle Company pledges 75 cents from the sale of every candle to Rice Bowls, which in turn feeds three meals to an orphan via its partnerships with orphans around the globe. “We do need to make money, but we want to work good into the way we do business,” Bob Caldwell Jr., president, Bridgewater Candles, told our group of 13 before we left.
With that reasoning, unlike many corporate cause-related programs, there’s no dollar cap on how much will be given. “I want to do things that matter,” Caldwell finished.
Once I saw Haiti, I better understood his reasoning. Haiti has myriad problems, and to leave the familiar behind and be thrust headlong into them was jarring. To visit Haiti is to have your heart broken over and over again — but also to be touched and inspired by the joyousness and resiliency of its people.
A corrupt system, a lack of infrastructure, no waste management and scarce employment opportunities result in poverty that is unfathomable to even the poorest American — many Haitians cannot even afford a pair of shoes. Orphans abound — and are often not orphans in the traditional sense of the word — their parents simply can’t support them.
Even worse, Restevek is a cultural phenomenon dubbed “modern day slavery” by the UN. Host families, often relatives or friends of poor families, take children in with the promise of caring for and schooling them, only to essentially force them into labor and often subject them to emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
If Rice Bowls cannot work with the host family to remedy the situation, they help remove the children — mostly girls — and place them in safe houses. We had a traditional Haitian meal at one the first night — including my now-favorite side, Picklies, a sort of spicy cabbage slaw. The young women and girls sang for us in a testament of fortitude and courage.
Speaking of the power of song, we also got to witness part of the “Songs of Freedom” initiative. This is an American Idol-style competition in which people write and perform songs against Restevek.
We also had the chance to meet some older children who had aged out of a Rice Bowls orphanage but still maintain a relationship with the organization staff. The small group was a sort of quasi-family that included a few sets of sisters and brothers.
“I may be smiling and talking, but deep down I am sad. You don’t know the feeling of being in an orphanage, being left out. I was always left out,” said Marie, who dreams of being a psychologist or a writer. “Rice Bowls keeps helping us in every way that they can, like helping the five of us. I am grateful.”
Later we traveled to The Hands and Feet Orphanage, which has a mission of not only caring for the children, but empowering them as well. “They can’t view outsiders as Santa Claus,” explained the organization’s Sean Moore.
That is why Hands & Feet created Haiti Made, in which former orphans and area residents hand-craft a range of fair trade merchandise including jewelry, leather accessories and apparel.
I left Haiti with a new appreciation for America — and a promise to myself that whenever I see a cause-related product on a shelf, I would take a moment to learn about the people it helps — and really see them as people with hopes and families and so much potential. Walking past it and immersing myself in my first-world life is a luxury I simply don’t have anymore. As another Brand Experience traveler put it, “Now that I know, I am responsible.”