On January 1, 2011- my husband and I committed to building a Children’s Home and School for orphans after the earthquake struck the year before. In May 2010, I went down to Haiti and volunteered for a month. During my stay in Haiti, I worked with organizations like the United Nations, Salvation Army, Unicef. Each of these organizations had their own projects- from working in the Tent Cities, to cleaning debris from the destroyed buildings, to moving families into new shelters. However, the most sustainable, meaningful work I found was working alongside Bonite Affriany.
The Haitian Mother Theresa- Bonite Affriany
Bonite is a Haitian woman, who lived and worked in the US for over 40 years as a nurse in New York City. She returned to Haiti about 6 years ago. She felt a calling to return to her homeland and give back. When she returned to Haiti, she was devastated to see how deforested the land was, and how little fruit and vegetation was left. She remembered a much more green and plentiful land. When she returned to her home city of Jacmel, she began a food program, as so many of the children in her area were malnourished, and did not have a reliable source of healthy meals. What began as feeding a few children quickly grew- and Bonite in 6 years time built a center that feeds over 200 children daily, she runs a medical clinic out of her property, a clothing distribution center, adult education classes, afterschool programs, summer camps and so much more.
After volunteering with Bonite one day in May, I was transfixed. What she is able to accomplish in one day, most organizations do in a week. Bonite has the highest of standards, runs an impeccable kitchen, has about 5 women that work with her to prepare and serve the meals, as well as 3 young adult men also work with her. For the rest of my time spent in Haiti, I went to Bonite’s everyday. And you never knew what she would be doing. One morning, she distributed over 100 toothbrushes and toothpaste to the kids, and was giving them a lesson on dental hygiene. Another day she was ironing the 10 wedding dresses she has on her property, for the women in her community that want to get married but cannot afford a dress. Bonite is about as close to the Mother Theresa of Jacmel as once could get.
Bringing a Yoga Service Retreat to Haiti
After spending time volunteering with Bonite, and feeling so inspired by her work, I could not wait to return to Haiti and bring a group of my own yoga students to join me. I returned back to the US in June 2011- and began organizing a trip. It was not easy – the earthquake destroying the little infrastructure that existed in the country, the language barrier and trying to organize transportation and accommodation- yet five months later, in October 2011, I’m still not sure how I pulled off all of the logistics, I brought my husband Philip Schneider, and a group of 12 yoga students.
We were greeted warmly by Bonite. She hugged everyone, gave us a tour of her property and then she immediately put us to work. Bonite was up to feeding 250 kids a day, and so our team divided and conquered and helped out with the program. While we were preparing the meals, the kids arrive, and are so well behaved. The younger children gather on a back porch on the property, and begin singing Haitian songs. Their voices are like angels. The older kids congregate inside the property, and also sing songs as well as do homework. For some of the kids, they will walk over an hour to get to Bonites. For many of the kids its their one meal of the day. Before eating, Bonite has all of the 250 line up in single file, and wash, soap and dry their hands. They then enter the dining areas, and wait until everybody is served before saying grace and eating together. I do not think I have ever seen such a group of well behaved kids. After eating, some kids start their long walk home. Others play on her property, do homework. The young adult men that work for Bonite help tutor and the kids with their studies.
On the second day that we were at Bonites, I was inside of Bonite’s center helping her to organize all of the medication she is sent and distributes. One of Bonite’s helpers came in with three little girls, who looked to be between 8 and10 years old. The girls, with tear stained faces, looked very frightened, dirty – like they had journeyed to hell and back to arrive at Bonites. Bonite greeted them warmly and gave them each hugs. Then she started questioning them about who they were, how did they arrive.. The oldest of the girls began to answer their questions. Since they were speaking in Creole, I had no idea what was going on. One of the little girls started to cry, and Bonite immediately began to console them. She then asked the helper to get the girls a warm plate of food, clean clothes and a shower. She then hugged each of the girls and the girls followed the helper out.
Apparently the three girls had escaped from an abusive situation. They were orphaned after the earthquake, and went to live with an uncle. They were being beaten each day, and could not take it anymore. They had nowhere to go, and through some channel learned about Bonite. Bonite then explained that children arrive on a weekly basis to her doorstep. As much as she would love to take them all in, she did not have the facility to do so. It was a dream of hers to build an orphanage.. She then proceeded to share with us that adjacent to her property, she owned land and had a permit to build a Children Center, she just did not have the funding. She budgets it all on the feeding program she has now. She led us to her property, which is just up the hill from where she has her center. After the earthquake, and people had lost their homes and had nowhere to go, Bonite let people stay on the property. When we got there, it was filled with people living in their tents.
Throughout the next few days, Bonite kept the three girls with her. She has a guest room, and was letting the girls stay until she could find a safe home for them. The transformation of the girls in the short time that they were at Bonites was heartwarming. Their tears and looks of sheer terror became smiles and giggles and enjoying themselves. It brought all of us so much joy to see these sweet girls playing and having fun.
We stayed in Haiti for a week, and accomplished so much as a team. Our group volunteered not only with Bonite at her Children’s Center, but also at the Faith and Love Orphanage and Better Future International Orphanage in the nearby town of Cyvadier. We helped to fund and work on a dental clinic, we built 2 homes, we taught English classes, we moved a tent city into more permanent homes, as well as simply playing with the kids- enjoying art projects, face painting as well as Twister, soccer and yoga.
After leaving Haiti, I knew I would return again and again. All the trip participants unanimously agreed our time in Haiti was by far the most rewarding and meaningful of experiences. Somehow, I just could not get the image out of my head of the injustice of those 3 little sweet, young girls who arrived at Bonites with absolutely nowhere to go. I became haunted with that image.
Making Haitian Dreams Come True
Fast forward two months later. I was leading my next yoga retreat to Bali in January 2011. My husband accompanied me on my trip. On New Years Day, January 1, 2011, we were having breakfast on our small terrace overlooking the rice paddies. Philip asked me what I wanted to do in the upcoming year of 2011. What were my new years’ intentions? Without batting an eye, I answered: “ I want to build a children’s home in Haiti for Bonite. I cant stop thinking of those 3 little girls. I want to find a way to fundraise and build the home that Bonite already has the permit and land for.” Needless to say, Philip was taken back a little. Most likely not the answer he was expecting. But he wholeheartedly agreed, and said: “Lets call Bonite, and tell her the good news.” So on January 2011, we picked up the phone in the rice fields in Bali and called Bonite in her town of Jacmel and told her the news. She was beyond excited, and began to cry. It was a bit of a shedding tear love fest. We had a quick conversation, and promised once we returned back to the US, we would call her and work out details.
We returned back to the US in the middle of January, and began our initial efforts. Philip and I had never done anything like this before. We began with grass-roots efforts, reaching out to friends, family, colleagues and our community. Fortunately, Philip had some contacts in the architectural world, and reached out to Ed Weinstein, who agreet do create the plans without receiving a salary. We also had Bonite’s Haitian engineer who agreed to volunteer his time. Everybody was incredibly supportive. Philip has a dear friend named Misha Collins, aTV celebrity as well as Founder of a non-profit organization called Random Acts, whose mission is to brighten up the world, one random act of kindness at a time. Misha wholeheartedly agreed to support us, which worked out beautifully, since his non-profit is 100% volunteer based- all the money raised would go directly to the Children Center we wanted to build. We were ready to begin fundraising!
Since I am a yoga teacher, I felt the best way to personally fundraise was to get the local yoga community involved. Some friends of mine in the Off The Mat, Into The World Yoga Community had created a fundraising platform the year before called One Love Dallas, in order to fundraise for the Global Seva Challenge, in which participants each have to raise $20,000 to attend a select trip- and help out communities on a global level. In one day, the creators of One Love Dallas had raised over $30,000 by igniting their teachers, students and yoga communities together. They were thoughtful and kind enough to share their fundraising platform for me.
Collective Hearts For Haiti- International Seva Yoga Fundraising
My husband and I named it Collective Hearts For Haiti. We scheduled an event time at this beautiful community center in Mill Valley, close to my home. I then invited 12 yoga teachers to take part of leading a 3 hour yoga class. Each teacher would teach for approximately 10 minutes, and then we had set aside time for a short film about our time in Hatii, drinks and refreshments.. To participate in the event, we asked each teacher to invite 12-15 students to either pay, donate or fundraise $100.
Each teacher I reached out to was excited and willing to help. I actually began to get such an overwhelming response, that I decided to host 2 events. I had teachers calling me, asking how they could get involved! Being from the bay area, there are many yoga studios and teachers. We ended up having 2 events, one in April and June, and had 25 yoga teachers from over 15 yoga studios participate.
My husband built an interactive website, in which every teacher was featured, and their students could sign up underneath them to register. Each student then had their own page, that they could reach out to their own community. It was amazing to begin receiving these emails of people we did not know, who were applauding our efforts and sending in donations. As well as so many people wanting to get involved in the events- quite a few people volunteered to help get refreshments for the events, and local businesses also donated drinks, refreshments and items for the silent and live auction we decided to include. A local girl scout troupe even made a big “Collective Hearts For Haiti” banner for the event. T-shirts were donated for all the teachers and volunteers to wear, with the words “Compassionate Journeys” written on the front.
The events were a huge success. The Mill Valley Community Center was the perfect place to host an event. Centrally located, plenty of parking, and the sunlit room easily fit 200 yoga mats and people. We rented a large movie screen, and during the entire event, showed images of the kids in Haiti, and the work we were already doing. The yoga teachers poured their hearts into the practices, as well as had a lot of fun teaching! There was a true sense of community spirit, and how a group of dedicated individuals can collectively make an impact. Once the yoga finished, and everybody was still on their mats, we hosted a live auction- all items offered by people in the community, private yacht boat rides, yoga paddle boarding class, a weekend stay at a home in Tahoe. All items on both the silent an live auction were bidded on, and enthusiastically so!
Each event raised over $35,000 for Haiti. As well as the lifting the hearts and minds of people who not only attended the events, but sent in donations if they could not. I was overwhelmed with the response. Just after the final event took place at 6pm on Sunday, June 11th, I left the event and immediately was brought to the airport. I was leading a yoga retreat to Haiti, and was so excited to share personally with Bonite about our events.
The Fundraising of the Jacmel Children Center was well under way! Our dreams of building a home for these children I met was coming to reality, thanks to the collective efforts of friends and colleagues in the bay area.