CRANSTON — Nearly two years after Hurricane Matthew ravaged Haiti, some 200 Rhode Islanders filled the Imperial Room at One Rhodes Place in Cranston for an event to benefit the nation, still recovering today from the devastation.
“This is a great night for supporting Haitian Americans and helping them to support the people in their own country,” Brooke Conley, a South Kingstown resident and an owner of The Collective bookshop, said Wednesday.
Conley is a member of the board of directors of the nonprofit organization Hope and Change for Haiti, which hosted Wednesday’s Engage for Change gala and fundraiser.
Founded just after Hurricane Matthew caused a humanitarian crisis in the island nation, Hope and Change for Haiti aims to “improve the quality of life of the Haitian community and contribute to progress” in the country, according to its mission.
“We wanted to be different from other organizations that operated in Haiti,” Executive Director Norly Germain said following an introduction by Aniece Germain, his wife and the organization’s assistant director.
Germain said in founding the organization he wanted to make sure that Haitians were given an active role in recovery efforts.
“Our vision was to create a sense of community,” he continued. “Let the people who are experiencing hardships be involved in finding sustainable solutions to their problems. Work with the people and for the people.”
Hundreds of thousands of Haitians were left with homes either damaged or destroyed after Hurricane Matthew tore through their country in the fall of 2016. Germain traveled shortly afterward to his hometown of Paillant, where he met with 70 families who had been left homeless.
“Through open dialogue, we identified their priority needs,” Germain said.
In addition to building earthquake-proof and hurricane-resistant housing at a fraction of the cost of those built by other international charity organizations, Hope and Change for Haiti also strives to work with Haitians to create access to clean water, provides sponsorship for children to go to school, trains local leaders, empowers women and encourages growth of the local economy through agricultural and livestock projects.
“For us, this is just the beginning,” Germain said. “We won’t stop until we create real sustainable development.”
Attendees sat Wednesday evening at tables cloaked in white cloth and illuminated by candlelight. They enjoyed their meals and listened as speakers took turns talking about the devastation in Haiti and lauding Hope and Change for Haiti’s efforts.
Congressman Jim Langevin was among several officials invited to speak.
“Looking around tonight, I see a room filled with dedicated, passionate advocates whose commitment to improving the lives of Haitians both in Haiti and here in Rhode Island is second to none,” Langevin said.
Langevin added it’s important to prioritize policies in Washington which support “economic growth, improve health care and food security, promote respect for human rights and strengthen [the] democratic institutions” in Haiti.
Beyond that, he added it’s crucial to save Temporary Protected Status (TPS)—a program established in 1990 to allow people from countries ravaged by war and natural disasters to remain temporarily in the US.
Earlier this month, Langevin joined more than 100 members of congress in signing a letter urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to reconsider the decision to end TPS for more than 400,000 Salvadoran, Honduran and Haitian immigrants currently in the US.
“As you can imagine, I don’t support any of the policies of [the Trump] Administration,” Langevin said. “But this one especially needs to change and I hope it will be reconsidered.”
State Treasurer Seth Magaziner was also in attendance Wednesday. He spoke about the importance of celebrating diversity.
“The United States of America is the oldest democracy in the western hemisphere—the second oldest democracy in the western hemisphere is Haiti,” Magaziner began as the room echoed with applause.
Magaziner continued, sharing stories about the “vibrant culture of proud people” he witnessed on a trip to the Haitian capital city of Port-au-Prince.
“And they’re people who have a lot to be proud of,” he added.
Other speakers Wednesday included Sandra Cano, a senator from District 8 in Pawtucket; Rep. Robert Lancia of District 16 in Cranston; Nirva LaFortune, a councilor from Ward 3 in Providence; Hilary Levey Friedman, president of the Rhode Island National Organization for Women. Hume Johnson, a professor of public relations at Roger Williams University, spoke about nation branding and the dangers of “telling a single story about a place;” Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell of District 6 in Providence gave the keynote address.
And among those in attendance were at least a dozen residents of South Kingstown, including local members of The Woman Project and the owners of The Collective.
Sarah Markey, of The Collective, said as the gala kicked off she was glad to support the efforts of Hope and Change for Haiti.
“They do amazing work back in Haiti—building homes and giving school supplies to Haitian students,” she said. “But they’re also a voice of advocacy amongst the Haitian Rhode Island community.”
And it’s that sort of work and advocacy—the “civic contributions, cultural contributions, political contributions”—that Magaziner added during his address make him proud.
“When I look and I see the leaders in our community,” he said, “and I think about the tremendous contributions made by the Haitian community here in Rhode Island, and what it would be like if we could unpack the potential of an entire nation of leaders like them, it makes me so proud that here in Rhode Island we have an organization like Hope and Change for Haiti.”