Western Massachusetts nonprofit helps Haitian villagers toward sustainable life
Adversity, particularly in the form of natural disasters and political instability, is very much woven into the narrative of Haiti, a country the size of Maryland that occupies the western third of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, with the Dominican Republic covering the rest, and where more than half the country lives on less than $2.41 a day.
For more than three decades under Tassone, a North Adams native and resident, teams of students have been helping nine, hard-to-reach villages in the mountains of the country’s Central Plateau, become an agricultural cooperative in an area without electricity, running water or one secondary school.
The nonprofit’s story is about young people going to the Cabaret Region of Haiti to build infrastructure, including schools, a health care clinic, and bakery for the population of 40,000 it serves in the mountains, but doing so in a way that can be sustained by the villagers.
It is also about donor commitment in the wake of the 2010 earthquake that required some of those infrastructures to be rebuilt, drought and hurricanes that destroy harvests and a pandemic that has restricted travel in and out of Haiti, as well as about hope around individual fortitude in a country where, according to the World Bank, lack of education and health care mean a child born there today will, as a result, be 55 percent less productive as an adult.
In a country where there the majority of primary and secondary schools are private and tuition costs are beyond most families, Tassone said Haiti Plunge has built primary schools in the villages it serves and its sponsorship helps 310 children attend.
A scholarship funded by the late Margaret “Peg” Downing, the first lay principal of the now-closed St. Joseph Central High School in Pittsfield, is sending 21-year-old Brely villager My-Meeclean “Mimi” Jean to nursing school this fall in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital about 58 miles away.
“Mimi was offered a full scholarship at the Elms College School of Nursing (in Chicopee) but because of all the restrictions resulting from the pandemic and because the United States Embassy in Haiti is not giving out visas, I thought it best to enroll Mimi in a nursing school in Haiti,” said Tassone who travels frequently to Haiti.
“Her hope is to be part of the medical team that staffs our clinic in the village of Desab. She may also staff a clinic extension in her own village which is seven miles away.”
Of her attendance at a four-year nursing school, Tassone added, “Mimi is one of the very few that ever got to this level of education, especially a female.”
“She is the second youngest girl that we have been able to send to nursing school,” Tassone said.
She added, “Females are expected to marry and often move to the village of their husbands.”
“Children, even in schools, rarely dream of anything except farming their family plot of land or how many children they will have,” Tassone said.
A woman religious for more than six decades who taught at St. Joseph in Pittsfield, Tassone is planning to attend the initiation ceremony for nursing students in Port-au-Prince next month as well as a graduation ceremony for village birthing attendants called “matwons” whose formal training the nonprofit helps fund.
“Our second group of matwons will graduate in October,” Tassone said.
“In 2018-2019 there were no infant deaths out of the 33 births. Keeping the babies alive from 0-3 is a major challenge because of the issues relating to malnourishment.”
Tassone called Haiti, where most of the population of 11 million lives in the countryside, “a magnate for disasters.”
“From June to November hurricanes are the danger,” she said.
“Because of climate change Haitians are now confronted with droughts as the rain patterns have shifted. They had a drought from March until July which means they lost their crops. Since they grow all of the food they eat, they had little or no food for their children until their next harvest.
She said Haiti Plunge has been able in the area it serves “to supply emergency food relief to at least give the children one meal daily.”
“As long as our donors continue to be generous, we can maintain this food relief program,” Tassone said.
She added that “private donations are our only source of funding.”
“We do not accept government funding,” Tassone said.
“The team members are also a major source of income. Each team member needs to raise $1,750 in order to participate. Each team is made up of 12 students and 2 Haiti Plunge staff. Our first team members are in their 50′s so much of our income comes from former team members.”
“Up until the pandemic we took teams of college and high school students almost every month. Our last team was in February,” Tassone said.
While the pandemic has restricted travel, Tassone said the nonprofit has “Haitian staff that are able to get food relief up to the villages it serves because we have our own vehicles and is able to send financial resources to them via Western Union.”
During her teaching career in Western and Central Massachusetts, Tassone took a break to spend several years teaching in a native school in Black Tickle, a settlement located on an island in Labrador.
“I was about 100 miles north of Newfoundland, off the coast of Labrador, working with the Inuit and native populations,” Tassone said.
“I am very drawn to indigenous populations. They have so much to teach those who are willing to learn. That is why I focused on bringing youth into these types of lifestyles.”
Tassone had started taking young people to Haiti as part of a North Adams-based program, Church Outreach to Youth, she founded and from which her nonprofit eventually evolved in 2012.
“The first team of students in 1984 were the ones who decided on the focus on the Cabaret area of Haiti,” Tassone said.
“The mission of COTY was to prove to young people that they could make a difference in one small part of the world.”
The villages that Haiti Plunge serves are within a 25-mile radius of each other and include a population that has farmed small plots of land for generations in an area where erosion and deforestation complicate sustainable development.
The nonprofit has invested in a road linking some of its partner villages to a highway; is helping to address deforestation through its Giving Tree Project and access to clean water through attaching gutters to buildings that collect rain into large storage tanks and then can be purified by passing through biosand filters, and eventually hopes to open a women’s center “to incubate small businesses for women.”
Tassone said the villages with which her nonprofit works are “seven miles deep into the mountains” from the “major city of Cabaret.”
“The only road into the villages is the one that Haiti Plunge built over 30 years ago,” Tassone said.
“Off-road vehicles are necessary to maneuver the terrain.”
She added that of the nine villages the nonprofit has supported for “over 35 years, three of those villages are self-sustainable.”
“Haiti Plunge has built and supports five village schools, built and staffs a clinic, and has done extensive reforestation in an area that was 88 percent deforested,” Tassone said.
“It has also started micro-businesses for women, such as the Raised Garden Women’s Project that provides women with an opportunity to be a partner, with her husband in the family, or in a single-parent family, and have additional resources for the family needs, which usually means sending a child to school as well as the Giving Tree Project that gives parents a mango or lemon tree for each of their children at birth so that by the time the child reaches school age the produce will pay their school tuition.”
She said starting next month and over the next two years the nonprofit will be putting in “rainwater collection units in each village” as funds are raised for the needed gutters, storage units and biosand filters.
“This will be the first time that these mountain villages have access to a clean water supply,” said Tassone of the project.
“The project cost is over $100,000 - $10,000 per village. Haiti Plunge has the money for the project to be started in two villages.”
Tassone said Downing had been “a supporter of our organization for many years” and had been sponsoring Mimi’s “education since she started in the village school.”
She explains further here about the Peg Downing scholarship recipient and about the work of her nonprofit.
Does her first name have a meaning and what made Downing willing to support her education?
My-Meeclean is named for her mother and it means “little.” Peg started sponsoring her from the time she started school in her village of Brely.
I had brought Mimi to the states for Grades 4 and 5 because I wanted her to learn English. Peg met Mimi at that time. I am Mimi’s godmother and in Haiti the godmother is the most revered person in the child’s life. Peg became her second godmother.
Peg had been sick for quite a while but she made arrangements for setting up a scholarship to be sure Mimi realized her dream of becoming a nurse.
Who makes up Mimi’s family and what is daily life for them?
Mimi is the oldest of four children. She has one younger brother and two younger sisters. Her family village of Brely is one of the nine bush villages the Haiti Plunge has served for over 36 years.
All those living in these villages are farmers. They grow all the food their family eats and sell the surplus at market place to purchase things they need and to send a child or two to school.
Every child in the family has chores to do.
When in the village going to school Mimi would start her day at sunrise going 2 to 3 miles to a mountain spring to get water for the family. When finished, she’d wash up, dress in her school uniform and go to school.
She would repeat this when school was over.
Her brother Rooby would take the animals to grazing land, and her younger sisters would go to the riverbed to do laundry. This is the ritual for all the kids living in the mountains in Haiti.
How have you seen Mimi grow over the years and what qualities does she have that got her this far in her education and that make her a fitting recipient of the first Peg Downing scholarship?
When Mimi has a school vacation she works as a translator for the teams. She is also an active leader in her church and in her village.
Mimi is exceptionally bright and has worked with the medical teams at our clinic. Our medical teams talked with her about going to school for nursing. It wasn’t until she excelled in secondary school that we put the idea of attending university in her mind.
Haiti Plunge will find the resources to send exceptionally bright students to school.
We are attempting to establish an endowment fund that will provide university opportunities for students who will remain in Haiti to help their people. To date Haiti Plunge has sent five students to university.
Was Downing a supporter of Haiti Plunge from the beginning and thus people made donations in her memory to the organization?
Yes, Peg was a supporter of Haiti Plunge since the beginning of the organization in 1984. St. Joseph High School sent many of its students on teams. It became part of their religious studies curriculum when I was chair of that department. We even brought some of our students from Haiti to St. Joseph to complete their education.
How hard is in for girls like Mimi to get an education in Haiti?
Mimi lives deep in the mountains of Haiti where 70 percent of the population lives. There are few schools in the mountains.
Public education in Haiti is non-existent so schools that are available are private, church-run or much like Haiti Plunge schools run by non-profit organizations.
All schools charge tuition so most children in the mountains, unless sponsored, do not attend school because parents cannot afford to send them. If a family can afford to send a child it will usually be a male.
Male children are equal to our Social Security. They will take care of the parents when they are unable to provide for themselves. The more education the better the lifestyle.
Haiti as a country has 60 percent unemployment in the cities. Most Haitians live to earn enough money to go to Port-au-Prince to get a visa and leave Haiti.
The dream is to come to the United States to work or another Caribbean nation. They want to work in a place that has more job opportunities.