Just back from our Maverick IMPACT trip to Haiti—and the best word to describe the experience is “intense.” It was a good thing we had our guides on the ground awaiting our arrival when we touched down in Port-au-Prince, because the scene was ultra chaotic. Imagine any airport you’ve been to with vendors, porters, taxi wranglers, etc.—and multiply it by five.
We all jammed into a “tap-tap” bus, which is a bus-like vehicle the locals ride in. They call it a ‘tap-tap’ because you tap on the roof when you want to get out.
Now if I thought the airport was chaotic, the streets were doubly so. It literally seemed like the traffic did not stop or care about anything that resembled rules. At one point, the driver slammed on the brakes (hard!) and we all flew into each other. Mind you, there are no seatbelts or anything on these buses, and I was joking about how this particular tap-tap had quite a high dollar net worth inside.
We arrived at our hotel to be greeted by an armed guard with a shotgun. After dropping off our bags, our hosts decided a tour of the capital was “safe.” With a lot of the unrest around elections, along with new State Department warnings, we were worried; but we ventured back out in our tap-tap bus anyway. It was pretty surreal to see the devastation from the earthquake up close and personal.
It’s been a year since the earthquakes, but many of the buildings are still in ruins, including the Presidential Palace. That would be like our White House crumbling. Across from the palace was a tent city set up for refugees. All of these sights were quite emotional for two people in particular on our trip: Maverick1000 Member #1 Mike Filsaime and his father, Lionel. Lionel grew up in Haiti and left the country when he was 19. Mike lived there with his father for about six months when he was 12 or 13, and remembered riding his bike down some of the same streets we toured, which are now in ruins. It was really cool for Mike to give up Super Bowl tickets to do this Haiti trip, funding two houses with his father. As Mike told me on the trip, “Hey, I’ve missed the Super Bowl three years in a row with Mavericks, so why stop now?”
Our guides specifically warned us not to hand any of the begging kids money, because they said it would cause a small mob. I got that part; but I couldn’t help myself in giving out some water and food. As we were driving through traffic, one boy reached his hand in and asked for water. I handed it over, along with a packet of croissants nobody was going to eat. Big mistake. A massive group of kids started gathering around our bus, and were literally holding on to the sides as we were driving. We feared for their safety in and around the bus with this incident I stirred up.
Once we got back into the hotel, we were joined by a few local micro-entrepreneurs to talk about the economic situation in Port-au-Prince.
The common theme was that most entrepreneurs were out there hustling, but they were all selling or trading in commodities. The most successful Haitian woman on the panel was buying 100 bags of rice, and then selling them at the market for a small profit each month. When we asked what they needed the most help with, the answer was: more capital. Interesting answer—because they all said if they had more capital, they’d buy more product to sell at market. This answer has a very limited impact, because they are all selling (give or take) the same commodity. Whether it’s rice, sandals, or clothing, there was little differentiation among them all—and simply having more inventory doesn’t mean more profits.
One of the micro-entrepreneurs did suggest that he wanted to open up a cyber-café, and it was interesting to hear him go over his idea with our group. He was discouraged because he thought he needed to buy a building and then set up the café, which would be costly and time consuming. I had a different take for him: I suggested he go to an existing business or shop, and simply take over a small corner of their space with a few laptops. This way—by piggybacking on somebody else’s established business—he would need much less start up capital and the risk would be quite low.
After a local dinner, we gathered around the TV in the hotel bar to watch the Super Bowl. (Maverick1000 Member #35 Doug Doebler supplied Steelers “terrible towels” for fans of the yellow and black.) It was a pretty low-key Super Bowl party, with most of the group hitting the sack early. I think everyone was somewhat somber from everything we saw that day.
The next morning, we hit the airport again to catch a chartered flight out to Jeremie.
Touching down, we could already tell the atmosphere and environment were different. Our packed schedule started us off with a tour of a village Caring House was in the process of building, so we could see the progress. Afterward, we visited a female health clinic run by Haiti Health Foundation (HHF), who were our hosts in Jeremie. HHF was founded 30 years ago by Dr. Jerry Lowney, a Connecticut dentist who’s had a tremendous impact on the community. (In fact, some residents go as far as to call him a God around there.) As a partner of Caring House, HHF helps determine where new houses will be built in each village, and serves such an important function that residents go to their clinics before going to any of the public hospitals. People trust the HHF equipment works and the doctors are well trained.
Next, we went to a school Caring House funded to see some of the children of Jeremie. This was my favorite part. A smile is a universal language of joy—and these kids just lit up when we walked in. We all brought backpacks of toys, gift, coloring books and other goods to distribute to the children, and I spent most of my time in the kindergarten, first grade and second grade classrooms, tossing out frisbees, stuffed animals and footballs. We were greeted with songs of gratitude and welcome by the kids.
After the school visit, we took our next jaunt to the fishing village of Testasse, where many of the students live. This is a village Caring House built with a fishing co-op, which now serves as the economic engine that creates self-sustainment for the village, helping them rise out of poverty. Once again, we were welcomed with song with a special fete thrown in our honor upon arrival. This tradition of songs conveying stories and meaning is really interesting in the Haitian culture—and to have an entire village or school welcoming you with song is something you do not quickly forget.
Seeing the success of the fishing co-op got me thinking about why we couldn’t create additional Maverick villages designed with some sort of economic engine from the start. As we learned more about the economic conditions and the limitations in Haiti (i.e.: government involvement and money required just to talk about bringing in factory equipment; hassles with exporting; etc.), ideas came up about how to work around those obstacles.
One of the trip members was Ryan Deiss, who discussed the idea of some sort of low-level manufacturing that could be done in the villages, and then sold within the country. For example, much of the fruit harvested in Jeremie goes to Port-au-Prince for canning or jelly making, and then it’s shipped right back to Jeremie for sale. All of this could be done right in their own region to create economic empowerment. Maverick1000 Member #61 Mike Cline also suggested the idea of “digital exporting,” and talked about training a group of Haitian villagers in specific outsourced tasks, and then allowing IT companies to use them as a second-tier tech team.
Theses kinds of ideas and thoughts are what get me excited about doing these trips. Part of the Maverick DNA is creating a ripple—and the ripple here is someone like Ryan, who has connections in China delivering simple machinery to create jobs and revenue. Or like Maverick1000 Member #16 Jim Spano, who came back from the trip and immediately reached out to HHF about the solar panels he has connections to, and how they will immediately improve the efficiency of operations there. You never quite know what will happen on these trips—but if we are the spark and impetus for it, I’m thrilled!
What’s more, all of our Maverick attendees raised $78,600.00 for Caring House Project Foundation, which will fund at least 14 complete houses (if not more). Lots more pictures and details in Doug Doebler’s version of the trip…read on!