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“We are one Santo”: Building a community -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

“We are one Santo”: Building a community

Laying the groundwork for the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project begins long before the land is cleared and construction is under way. In Léogâne, Habitat for Humanity Haiti has been working with leaders of the Santo community for months, establishing trust and exploring ways to build on the strengths of the people who call this place home.


Photo slideshow

A community called Santo


“Since the earthquake, we have been approached by so many NGOs,” said community leader Willio Latagnac, “but most have not accomplished anything. With the help that we are getting from Habitat and their partners, we believe that we will have a new community. There will be a big change.”


“Since the earthquake, we have been approached by so many NGOs,” said community leader Willio Latagnac, “but most have not accomplished anything. With the help that we are getting from Habitat and their partners, we believe that we will have a new community.”

“There will be a big change.”

Before the devastating earthquake of Jan. 12, 2010, sugarcane grew tall on these 34½ acres. Since then, the site has served as a refuge for nearly 300 families, most of whom lost what little they had in the disaster. For more than 18 months, they have lived in shelters cobbled together from tarpaulins, straw, sticks and concrete rubble.

This summer, Habitat Haiti and its partners began building sturdy, earthquake-resistant houses on this site. Ultimately, 500 houses will signal a new beginning for families that had nowhere else to turn.

The leaders of the Santo community have been involved in every step of the process, from setting long-term goals to helping select families to move into the new homes.

Architecture for Humanity, a nonprofit design services firm that focuses on sustainable development, first conducted several focus groups in Santo and held a daylong design charrette with nearly 100 members of the community. What emerged from those sessions was the Santo Community Development Framework and Plan which incorporated all the shared priorities from a school and a recreation and community center facility to health services and economic support and development programs.

As plans for the community took shape, Habitat Haiti helped create a 25-member youth committee—with members ranging in age from 18 to 25—along with a women’s group and an elders’ group. Each group meets regularly to talk about priorities and successes in turning this farmland into a fully functioning community.

Latagnac, 29, was a former football star in Léogâne. Now a teacher and radio announcer, he is eager to use his star power to help his neighbors in need. “Because of the popularity of the team I used to play with, that gives me strength to help the community,” he said. Latagnac and his wife have an 8-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old son.

“After the earthquake, when the government opened up this land, people from different parts of Haiti came here to live,” Latagnac said. “Sometimes there were some issues between the people who lived here before and the people who came later. Through our work with Habitat, we have helped bring peace to the community. We are one Santo.”

Margareth Jean Pierre, a community engagement coordinator at Habitat Haiti, explained that the project helped bridge some of the differences among the people who settled in Santo.

“In our culture, when you go to someone’s house, they offer you coffee,” Jean Pierre said, smiling. “Every day I drink lots of coffee. Lots of coffee.”

Jean Pierre and her fellow coordinator, Kensky Princivil, have spent countless hours in this community, nurturing relationships and collecting information. The two led a team of 10 enumerators who conducted a tent-by-tent survey in Santo gathering household information that served as a baseline and as a basis for selecting families most in need for housing help.

Jean Pierre said there was some resistance from the community early in the project due partly to broken promises made by other NGOs and partly to very specific concerns. Many people had planted vegetable gardens on their tiny plots, for instance, and were reluctant to give up what little they had, even to make room for a Habitat house.

Once they understood that they would have plenty of time to harvest their small crops before construction began, they embraced the concept of a new community of homes.

“We have all kinds of families here,” Jean Pierre said. “We have teachers, sailors, students, painters. Some people lost their families in the earthquake and others have no job or can’t work. Others have a larger family now. If someone’s sister or brother was killed in the earthquake, they must take in their children.”

The Habitat houses being built in Santo are compact—about 200 square feet with a porch and a separate latrine. Each family will be instructed how to build onto the core house as they regain their financial footing.

“It’s very important for women in the community to get involved,” said Frantzyse Erisma, general coordinator of the Association of Women’s Solidarity in Santo. 28-year-old Erisma has two young daughters but she spends as much time as possible helping to set the group’s priorities and working toward a stronger community.

“I’m using my voice for all the people who can’t.”

Jean Osner Dory, 65, is a respected elder in Santo, chosen to lead the community panel that interviewed potential beneficiary families for this year’s Carter Work Project. Habitat Haiti ultimately selected the 100 families based largely on recommendations by Dory’s committee.

“You need to give people their dignity,” Dory said. “When Habitat is finished here, our lives go on.”

So much has been written about the resilience of the Haitian people, it’s too easy to overlook their generosity. The leaders of the Santo community council have family obligations and livelihoods of their own, yet they have committed themselves to creating a strong, sustainable community.

“We want to support our community,” said Marie Veronila Antoine, assistant coordinator of the women’s association and an ardent ambassador for the work of Habitat. “We need to take care of people and follow up with them. That is our duty.”

Antoine, 37, is also a beneficiary of this year’s Carter Work Project. She and her children will be moving from a stifling tent made of tarps into a new house in November, but her focus always stays on the community. She believes success is measured not by a house but by a community.

Murat Aubin, a project coordinator for the Santo community, works as a transportation supervisor in Léogâne to support himself, his wife and their 3-year-old daughter. Nearly every day, he finds time to be on the construction site, talking to community members and even pitching in on manual labor.

He bears a striking resemblance to U.S. President Barack Obama, and smiles whenever anyone teases him as “Mr. President,” but he gets very serious whenever he talks about the state of the community. “The way these people are living is unfair,” he said. “By midday, these tents are like hell inside.” After a long pause, he added, “I want everyone to get a nice shelter, so they can live better.”

Aubin said other organizations have come in and promised help that never materialized, “but now we have Habitat. We are on Habitat’s side.”

Community engagement, the foundation of Habitat for Humanity’s work around the world, is especially evident in this community of Santo. Residents recall many tense moments as desperate people settled into bleak circumstances. Skirmishes over small issues often escalated into dangerous confrontations.

“In the beginning, they were not really a community,” said Princivil. “It was not always easy to get them to sit together, share, discuss and reach common ground, but now they know they can overcome their differences.”

Now that the first Habitat houses are being built, few in the community doubt the value of working together toward a greater goal. “They are never too tired to participate in our meetings and to discuss changes,” Princivil said. “They know what they want, and now they are united. It’s been a great experience.”

The mutual respect among Habitat Haiti staff members, pre-build volunteers and community members is palpable. Longtime Carter Project volunteer Mike Hosey, a burly, white-haired gentleman from North Carolina, communicates with a young Haitian work crew almost entirely with hand signals, nods and smiles. When Jean Pierre walks the dirt pathways that connect nearly 300 tents, people wave or occasionally come out to shake hands, give hugs or ask questions.

“I love these people,” Jean Pierre said, “and I’m proud of them. I am so proud to be working with them.”

The three committees of the Santo community council—the women’s group, the elders and the young people—meet every Sunday to talk about projects and set goals. Everybody contributes one Haitian dollar to an emergency fund for neighbors in dire need—the elderly, sick people, single mothers who can’t work.

“This is a generous community,” said Latagnac, who has been elected president of the community. “We want to help ourselves, and we want to help each other.”

Joshua Weber, Habitat’s program adviser on the Santo site, has seen firsthand the work ethic of Haitians ever since he and his crew started clearing the land for the 100 houses of the Carter Work Project.

“If you show up here at 6:30 in the morning, you’ll see about 150 people standing outside the gate, wanting to work,” said Weber, a native of Maryland in the U.S. who has been living and working in Haiti since January 2010.

In mid-July, Weber and team were putting up a tall, chain-link fence to delineate the site of the Carter Project build and preparing the land for the laying of 100 concrete foundations. Two 20-person work teams made up of old people, young people, men and women dug trenches and hauled materials in the heat of the day, laboring alongside local skilled construction workers and a handful of pre-build veterans from former Carter Projects.

Weber hires local workers for about three weeks, allowing them to earn a little income and learn some skills, before rotating in another group.

“Everybody here wants to work,” he said.

Members of this community don’t consider themselves victims. They are survivors.

Mary Giudice recently took over as director of operations at Habitat for Humanity Haiti, returning to a country where she lived 20 years earlier.

“I’m so excited about the Carter Project, for what it has always said about inclusion,” Giudice said. “It’s so important to stand shoulder to shoulder with people and give them visibility. It’s about acknowledging them as people—brilliant, valuable people. That’s what President Carter has always done, wherever he’s gone.

“We work with the people in Santo every day,” she added. “We’ve created this energy with them, so that not only will they see the full effects of partnership and community, but they will be in a much stronger position to take on anything.”

Ultimately, some 500 Habitat homes will stand on this field but the ripple effect of what’s being built here—beginning with a sense of community—will go on for generations.