Q&A with the Executive Director

As most of you know by now, in 2011, HFHF welcomed Lydia Dant on board as our first U.S. full-time employee and our Executive Director extraordinaire. Lydia has been at it for about a month and already has great ideas for how to help HFHF grow and expand our work in Haiti. We wanted to give you all a chance to get to know Lydia as she takes on this big, awesome new role! We hope you enjoy hearing more about Lydia’s heart for Haiti, her vision for the organization and some tips for what to buy on iTunes this week 🙂

How did you first find out about/get involved with Hope for Haiti Foundation?
I was introduced to HFHF in 2008 through a colleague in graduate school, Mahsa Abassi. She was a medical student who had taken a medical trip with HFHF. She was so passionate about Haiti and talked so highly of the trip and the organization that I had to get involved. Mahsa and I filled our internship requirement for school by designing and implementing a health assessment survey for the Bainet area. We spent one month traveling to each district, working with the community leaders and interviewing Haitians about their health care needs and the current health system in the area. We discovered that access to healthcare was extremely limited and that people were desperate for emergency care, especially for pregnant women. This instigated HFHF’s plan to collaborate with Bainet’s MOH (Ministry of Health) to open an emergency medical facility, as well as provide focused maternity care and introduce community health workers.

When I returned from Haiti, I kept working on the projects, and have basically never stopped. It was evident from day one of our trip that something special was happening through this organization – it was real people making a difference. At that time, the organization was entirely volunteer and supported entirely by individual donations. Most importantly, the relationship with the Haitian community was genuine and full of trust. There was an attitude of collaboration. Because of this alone, they had accomplished more tangible results than many other international non-profits that I was familiar with.

What made you decide to apply for the Executive Director position? What was your reaction when you found out you would be HFHF’s new Executive Director?
I studied international public health because I wanted to dissolve the drastic inequality and injustice that I saw in the world. Naively, I also thought that the challenges of the developing world would be easier to solve – providing clean water seemed easier than trying to figure out the stock market. Of course, I’ve since learned that behind every basic problem is an extremely complex web of social, political, historical, behavioral and environmental factors. But my desire for justice never wavered.

Working full time for HFHF has been a dream of mine since my first trip in 2008. I was constantly scheming up ways to earn an income with as few hours as possible so that I could devote more time to working with HFHF. I’m sure you’ve heard the question “What would you do if you didn’t need to get paid?” For me, this job is it. I know that most of HFHF’s dedicated volunteers feel the same way – which is why they give up their nights and weekends to do this work. For these reasons, I feel extremely fortunate to have been chosen for this position. It took several weeks for the realization to sink in. I still have to remind myself daily “This is my JOB.” I am extremely honored and grateful.

As you take on the challenge of being HFHF’s first U.S. paid staff member, what are you most excited about? What are you most nervous about?
I am most excited about getting the word out about HFHF. We’ve been operating “under the radar” so to speak. I know there are many people who are looking for tangible ways to get involved in helping Haiti, but aren’t sure where to start. HFHF offers an opportunity to not just give out of obligation or to appease your conscious, but to really get involved. Jean Eloi, HFHF’s founder, says it best when he says you become a “victim of Haiti’s passion.” Once you see what is happening in these small communities that we collaborate with, it is hard NOT to get involved.

I am most nervous about the enormous responsibility that I feel to lead while being a servant. HFHF’s vision is to help Haitians help themselves – to provide an environment that grows a generation of Haitians that can lead Haiti into a brighter future. We hope for a day when organizations like HFHF will not need to exist, because Haiti does not need our help. For this to happen, we must approach our work in a way that does not inhibit the future growth of Haitians or Haiti. This is an immense challenge, and something that I am constantly considering.

What are your goals for your first year in the position? In what specific ways do you hope to see the foundation grow?
We have only just begun 2011, and yet I am already looking toward December and thinking twelve months is not long enough to accomplish everything that we would like. One important goal for us this year is partnerships. Haiti is said to have the most NGOs per capita than any other country. I don’t know if that is factual information, but it certainly represents a truth. Because of a long and complex history, many NGOs in Haiti are working toward the same goals right next to each other, without any knowledge of it. Although collaboration brings a new and complex set of challenges, I believe it is necessary to foster a community approach to solving problems. There is an African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, travel alone. If you want to go far, travel together.”

That being said, HFHF has accomplished a tremendous amount in a short time. When HFHF began its work in Zorange 10 years ago, there was no education available, no medical care and very little work. Today, there is a thriving clinic that sees over 50 patients a day, a primary school, secondary school, and high school, radio station, soccer league, and much more. Each of these programs has supplied jobs for the area as well. Our work in Zorange is nearly complete to the point where we can expand to another village and strengthen their community. It may take another 10 years – or more – but we are ready.

Explain your vision for Haiti and why the work of organizations like HFHF are important.
My vision is that of the Haitian people – to see their country restored. I would like to see the children in Haiti today grow up with the opportunity to get an education without being hindered by money, disease or corruption. I would like to see them reach their full potential, and not be held back by malnutrition or lack of access to clean water. I would like to see parents have the opportunity to work and provide for their families. I would like others to look at Haiti and see its beauty, rather than its struggles.

The work that HFHF does is important for two reasons. It is important, first, because Haitians themselves do it. The community is in charge of the work, making decisions about what they want and how it should happen. Our staff in Haiti is 100 percent Haitian; Haitians changing Haiti. The second reason that HFHF’s work is important is because it is about collaboration. Whenever we take a trip to Haiti, the exchange of information is mutual. American physicians are teaching Haitians about cardiology. Haitian nurses are teaching U.S. medical students about tropical diseases. It seems like an overused metaphor, but the best way to describe it is as a family. This is important because by actually seeing and understanding other people’s lives, all of us – Haitians and Americans – can begin to shift our perspectives and underlying assumptions about the world, moving toward greater unity.

What would you say to someone considering taking a trip to Haiti with HFHF?
Great! Be prepared to have your life changed. I would absolutely recommend it. And, I would also say, unless you love cockroaches, make sure you always go to the bathroom before dark.

In all seriousness, the trips can be extremely challenging, but they are the best way to understand what this work is about. And, most of those who go to Haiti once go again and again and again.

You’ve been to Haiti several times. What’s your favorite thing about being in Haiti?
The area where we work, Zorange Bainet, is absolutely beautiful. It is an entirely different world from Port au Prince. While everyone is working extremely hard from sunrise until well after sunset, there is a peacefulness that can be felt all around. This is not to say that grief, tragedy, struggle, frustration and difficulty do not exist. But above it all, there is a sense of true peace. It shows up in long conversations after the sun goes down, in a group of children playing in the river or even in the elderly lady yelling at me in Creole not to go down the hill because I will certainly fall and hurt myself (which she is totally right about). Without your cell phone buzzing, e-mail to check or news to catch up on, you can really feel it. I guess what I am really describing is true community. To me it is a glimpse of what eternity will feel like.

Anyone who’s been to Haiti with HFHF knows it’s a long, bumpy ride to Zorange! If you were to take a playlist for the car ride, what would the first five songs on it be?
1. New Day, Robbie Seay Band

2. One Love, U2

3. Beautiful, Christina Aguilera

4. 500 Miles, The Proclaimers

5. You’re Just too good to be true, Lauryn Hill (this would be playing as we drove into Zorange and were greeted by all of our smiling Haitian friends!)

To someone visiting Haiti for the first time, it can be overwhelming to see so many ways that people are suffering. It seems hard to know where to start. If you could fix one thing in Haiti first, what would it be?
There are so many things that I would like to see improved in Haiti. It is difficult if not impossible to single out a particular issue, as so many of the problems are interconnected. However, if I had to single out one thing, I would focus on corruption. Corruption not only causes many problems, but also exacerbates problems that already exist. So, that seems like a good place to start.

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