Helping the Poor without Hurting Them: A Primer

Lyndy Zabel, Director of Community Development for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church recently included this topic in his monthly newsletter.

Most people I know want to help those who are less fortunate. But with so many options, the question becomes “how?” Most organizations claim to be good causes. But it is good to think about what, where, why, and to whom we give. More specifically, how do we give to people without actually hurting them or ourselves? Here’s three things to consider:

  1. First, we can never go wrong giving urgent and temporary emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from natural or human-made crisis, such as survivors of floods, hurricanes, etc. Likewise with the truly vulnerable, such as the severely disabled, young orphans, the starving, sick, and the mentally ill homeless population.
  2. Secondly, after giving emergency aid, we should seek to support causes that help people help themselves. The receivers all have resources, knowledge, skills, time, and abilities just like us. Do our gifts acknowledge and compliment them? Do they help others build up from the assets they already possess? An example of this kind of gift would be giving a student scholarship to a girl in an impoverished country.
  3. Thirdly, material poverty alleviation usually involves empowering people to EARN sufficient material things through their own labor. Examples of this kind of gift are vocational training or micro-loans.

These are the teaching points that Helping Haiti Work attempts to follow. We provide the materials for Haitian seamstresses to construct a needed product (reusable menstrual pad kits), utilize the cultural knowledge of our seamstresses to educate young women about reproductive health and provide women with small business loans so that they can grow their business and better support their families.

International Women’s Day: The Lessons I have learned from Haiti

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As I watched the powerful feminist speeches at the Academy Awards this week, I reflected on my experiences in Haiti that have made me an advocate and messenger for women not only in the developing world but also here in the US.  Unlike women in Hollywood, Haitian women often don’t have a voice – either in their homes or their communities –  but what happens outside their sphere of influence can make an immense difference in their daily lives.

Haitian women, similar to women in most developing world countries, perform all of the household and child-rearing chores with no help from their male spouses. These tasks are often accomplished without the benefit of running water or a steady supply of electricity. No refrigerator, washing machine, microwave, toilet.  Monetary funds are controlled by their spouse and may be wasted on drink and games of chances, while the pantry is empty of food and the kids need new shoes. Physical and emotional abuse is overlooked by a society that places a lower value on females.

Washing clothes at the river

These same women have taught me what perseverance and a source of income can accomplish. Each year when I return to Haiti, I am able to meet with the newest microloan group and connect with some of our previous Helping Haiti Work loan recipients. I impress on the women who have been successful in loan repayment that they owe it to the new loan groups to give them advice and support. Numerous women have related their personal experiences of the benefits of the loans. Not only do the profits help with clothing and food, but the women are given a higher status in both their immediate family and in the community. Their husbands treat them better because they are bringing money into the family. The women have control over how the income is to be used. Their children see them as a more capable adult and that hard work has more than one dividend. Other women in the larger community ask their advice and apply for the microloan program.

We are also seeing some of these same changes in the women employed by our sewing program. They have brought us ideas as to what products they think will sell well in the market rather than only sewing the reusable menstrual pad kits and diapers.  One of our seamstresses was proud to use some of her funds to pay for a needed surgery for herself. Each time we visit with them they are becoming more outspoken and empowered.


My journey to make all of this happen also requires perseverance and the commitment to empowering Haitians so that they are better able to help themselves and each other.   I am often asked why I don’t focus my fundraising efforts on causes that would benefit women in the US rather than Haiti (that is another blog post in itself). Just as the Hollywood elite are using the #TimesUp movement to bring recognition to those women who may not have a voice, I hope that the monetary loans provided by Helping Haiti Work and the examples of female leadership by our participants will touch many more women than just the ones that we serve.

Come join us this weekend as we listen to great music from the 60’s and 70’s by the band Morpheus and help to raise money so that more women in Haiti can be empowered to make a difference in their lives. Visit the homepage for details and to purchase tickets.


My Love Affair with a Sh*thole Country

I first visited Haiti in 2006. It was not love at first sight, or even a like. I spent a week on a medical mission trip, missing my family and sweating in the operating room while I performed some of the most difficult surgical cases of my career, without adequate lighting and unfamiliar instruments. Climbing the steps of the airplane to return home was a welcome relief from the searing heat of the tarmac and the aroma that is Haiti (think rotting fruit mixed with exhaust fumes and burning charcoal). I’m not sure when the amnesia set in over the next few months, but I was soon planning my return visit the following year. 15 or so trips later, I look forward each visit to spending time in a country that I have visited more frequently than any other.

My  trip last week coincided with the recent comments about Haiti from President Trump. While he was ranting about the immigration of Haitians to America, I was participating in distributing microloans to a new group of 10 Haitian businesswomen. The women received $200 to help fund their small businesses and will be responsible for paying back the loan over 10 months with a low rate of interest. Each of these women has worked hard selling clothes, food, shoes and motor oil to support their families. This is in addition to the daily tasks that a Haitian woman must perform without the benefit of running water or electricity. Entitled or lazy would be the least descriptive terms that I would use.


The following day I worked with one of the Haitian seamstresses that we employ to construct reusable menstrual pads for distribution to Haitian girls. She uses a manual sewing machine and is able to make $4 a day working  5-6 hours. She also participates in menstrual hygiene instruction at area schools so that young girls will have the benefit of knowledge about their bodies and not the fear that her generation of women experienced. She has no desire to immigrate to America away from her family, but wants the opportunity to make her life in Haiti more comfortable.


I am not quite sure why this country has occupied so much of my time, energy and pulled at my heart. The opportunity to leave a frigid Minnesota in January makes the idea of sweating in the operating room more palatable. But is much more than that. Haiti is a land of contradictions – corruption and family strength, sadness and laughter, illiteracy and value of education.  There is very little black and white, rather many shades of grey. But it makes my brain think and try new ideas, something that is more difficult to do in my American job. I have been the recipient of many opportunities in the US, and although I have worked hard and been the first to graduate college in my immediate family, there were many along the way that provided encouragement and a helping hand. I would like to think that I can be that helping hand for Haitians – providing business loans for women, saving a baby’s life when her mother is suffering from seizures/eclampsia, removing an enlarged uterus so that a woman can better perform her household chores and providing education and hygiene products so that young girls are able to stay in school during their period. Yes, Haiti is a destitute country that has suffered from both outside forces and its own corruption. But its people are willing to change that – if we would only give them a fighting chance. And remarks such as those from our President don’t help to provide that chance.

A Five Year Review – It’s Not about the Numbers

After returning from our annual surgical mission trip to Haiti in early 2011, one year post earthquake, I was frustrated by the lack of progress that was happening in Haiti and the mismanagement of donated funds. I had had sincere hopes about the possibility of change after witnessing the international outpouring of attention and donations. Visiting with our Haitian co-workers on that trip, I was made aware of their sense of defeat and dimming of eternal optimism. Maybe what was needed was a smaller, more personal effort so that Haitians could realize that they were not forgotten.

My original plan was to appeal to a few friends for donations, kick in some of my own money, and grant 10 women $200 microloans so that they would have improved working capital for their businesses. I met those original loan recipients 6 months later on our next medical trip. Thru an interpreter they expressed their appreciation and wanted me to know how this program was different from other programs. Different because we asked them what they wanted (cash for their small businesses), we did what we said we would do (provide the loans), and finally that we kept returning to fund more loans. After hearing this, I realized that we had the opportunity to make a small part of Haiti understand that the rest of the world still cared about them and wanted to help.

Just as the roads in Haiti are filled with potholes, the journey of HHW has not always been smooth. Cultural misunderstandings, failure of some small businesses and difficulties in accounting to name just a few. But I still see the shy smiles and sense of empowerment of our loan recipients after being handed that first sum of money that makes it all worthwhile.  Five years ago I thought that our program was about giving money, but I now realize that it is about so much more.  It is about creating hope for a better future and making these women aware that we have not forgotten about them. Consider making a donation so that we are able to create hope for more Haitian families.

– Leslee Jaeger

The White Savior Complex that we are trying to avoid.

This video is a good reminder of what we are trying to achieve with our mission at Helping Haiti Work. We work to empower women to help themselves and their communities by providing them with the resources – loans and sewing supplies – to make a livable wage. We will be expanding n 2018 and employing a Haitian to assist with obtaining orders and distribution of menstrual pad kits because we feel that they know their communities better than we do.



Haiti – When something can go wrong, it will.

Over the course of the past 10 years visiting and working in Haiti, I have learned that even the most straight forward venture will have stumbling blocks. An hour long trip to the beach can be altered when the van breaks down and you bath in your own sweat, rather than the oceans waves, while waiting for the arrival of a new part.  When you ask a patient to get additional testing before surgery and she disappears for 2 days trying to find enough donated money to afford the cost of testing. Thus, when our recent planned trip to deliver 150 menstrual pad kits to Les Cayes, Haiti on the southern coast of the peninsula started to hit a few bumps in the implementation process, I didn’t worry too much. Haitian ingenuity seems to always overcome these minor obstructions, as it is how the country has functioned for so many years. But as the bumps in the road turned into large potholes, my confidence in our ability to pull off the venture waned.

Two of our seamstresses were to depart Cap Haitian for Port au Prince on Monday, a 6 hour bus ride that left at 3 am. They were to be met at the bus station in Port au Prince  by a representative of International Medical Corps and driven the additional 4 hours to Les Cayes. The seamstresses had the additional responsibility of transporting 150 menstrual pad kits and teaching materials that they would need for the 7 hour teaching session on Tuesday for community health workers and nurses working in the areas affected by Hurricane Matthew. Another 150 kits were to be delivered in March if the teaching went well and the health providers thought that the kits would be helpful to women and girls in remote areas. What could go wrong?

  1. The original chaperone for the women needed to back out 5 days before the trip and we scrambled to find a replacement who we trusted and with whom the women were comfortable traveling.
  2. As snaps were being put on the shield component of the kits, we realized that we didn’t have enough snaps to finish the order. Thank goodness for frequent mission trips from Minnesota, as we were able to send a supply with only a few days notice
  3. Despite counting and re-counting the kits, 39 kits (one large bag) were left behind at the sewing center and the loss not discovered until arrival in Les Cayes.
  4. The seamstresses and chaperone had assumed that lodging and food would be provided once they arrived at their destination. The representatives on the arrival end had not been informed of this and no accommodations were available.

The final outcome? 17 Haitian health providers showed up for the information session today and were highly impressed with the knowledge of Irose, the HHW seamstress. She spoke about puberty, reproduction and how the kits should be used to improve health. Some of the participants were interested in purchasing kits for themselves and family members, asking if they could promote the products beyond the distribution of free kits. Everyone agreed that local production of the product was something they wished to promote.

Once again I am reminded of the resilience of the Haitians. Many of us would have given up when only one of the above roadblocks stood in our way. But our seamstresses only saw it as a temporary detour until we were able to get them back on the road. And those missing 39 kits? They were sent on their own bus ride to Port Au Prince and will be waiting for the driver later today when he deposits the seamstresses back at the bus stop in Port.

Don’t forget about our upcoming fundraising event with the band Morpheus playing at the Hamel Community Center on March 4th from 7-9 pm. All proceeds will be used to support our sewing program and the microfinance loans. Ticket information available on our homepage.

My Upcoming Caribbean Vacation – Haiti and Warmth!


I am sitting in my kitchen in MN this morning contemplating all of the errands that I need to accomplish before I journey to Haiti in 3 days. The current temperature here is -8 with a projected high of 0 degrees. The heat and humidity of Hispaniola (collective term for the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti) is appealing, but this is far from a beach vacation. Our team of 14 will be performing surgery for 5 days as well as participating in a distribution of 114 menstrual pad kits to local school girls. However, the most worthwhile portion of the trip will be connecting with Haitian friends that we have not seen for a year.

In 2006 when I participated in my first surgical mission trip, I thought it was worthwhile, that we helped many people and that I was not going to do this again. It was a checkmark on my bucket list and I could start moving on. I failed in that I have returned 1-2 times a year to the island and my bucket list has only grown longer with fewer checkmarks. Sometimes failure is good.

My understanding of this island nation has increased dramatically since that first trip, while my perception of issues as black and white has changed to various shades of grey. For every beneficial initiative, there can be a downside. Initiating a HIV program in a hospital and hiring additional staff – beneficial. Existing staff now wants to be paid extra to take care of HIV patients because they believe there is additional outside dollars to support this. Bringing toys and new clothes for the orphanage kids that attend a local school – beneficial. More children are abandoned at the orphanage because poor Haitians see orphanage kids having a better life than they can provide. These are only a few of the examples that I have seen over the years.

Father Charles organized a meeting of all ladies in the microloan program in Ranquite. “I teach them the way to use money, they share their experience, how the microloans service is benefit for them, it helps them to take care their families. It’s was an appointment of brotherhood.”

Our current microfinance program that lends women money for growth of their small business (Helping Haiti Work) is not without concerns. I do not live in Haiti and administer this program, so I have to rely on others to be truthful about distribution of the funds and respectful coaching of the recipients. The other arm of this program involves employing Haitian seamstresses to construct reusable menstrual pad kits for sale in the community. The average Haitian woman who needs this product is not able to pay enough to cover the cost of supplies/wage to seamstress. Do we distribute the kits for free and continue to depend on donations to subsidize the program? Or do we focus on selling to NGOs that have more funds and can cover our costs?

Seamstresses assembling 300 menstrual pad kits

While these competing interests are playing tug of war in my head, I am gratified to report that we finished 2016 by granting 25 new loans and started 2017 by filling an order for 300 menstrual pad kits that will be distributed to school girls near Gonaives. Sometimes it is more important to think like a Haitian – appreciate today and don’t worry so much about tomorrow. That means I need to try to appreciate this cold MN weather while trying to finish all my errands today.

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A Path Appears

Monday evening, January 26 at 9 pm on PBS, the first of a three part series will premier. The story of a Haitian girl and her struggle to attend school will be highlighted in the second part. The series is based on a book by Nicolas Kristof.  See trailer for highlights.

Domestic violence for one woman in Haiti


In recent reports, 30% of Haitian women have suffered acts of violence from partners or husbands. A third of surveyed Haitian women believe that a man may sometimes have the right to beat his spouse. Add to this that the Haitian justice system often victimizes the woman and rarely are charges brought forward. Unfortunately, these are not statements that are unique to Haiti; they are true for many developing world nations where women are often treated as second class citizens. Being an eyewitness to this reality for one woman during our most recent medical mission trip is much more moving than all the previous articles or books that I have read.
Unbeknown to the medical team, the woman had arrived at the hospital the night before after having suffered a stab wound in the back from her husband during a fight. Some family versions of the fight stated that she had started it by cutting her husband’s ear with a kitchen knife. The x-ray machine at our hospital was down due to remodeling, so the woman was sent across town to another hospital. She returned the following afternoon, in severe pain and with very labored breathing. I was flagged down by one of the Haitian family practice docs as we were packing our supplies for departure the next morning. Word of caution – If the American gynecologist can tell that something is wrong on your chest x-ray, you are probably in urgent need of medical attention as the last time I formally read a chest x-ray was 24 years ago. Her x-ray was significant for a collapsed lung on her left side and a fracture of her collarbone, caused by the knife wound in the back. She was fortunate to still be breathing but was at imminent risk of her heart shifting due to the collapsed lung. The team halted our packing duties and immediately shifted to duty mode. A few people were sent in search of a chest tube and vacuum device while others got the patient comfortable on the OR table. Events like this always make be proud to be part of a fabulous team – no job is too humble (ie searching among dusty shelves in a dark room with a flashlight for a chest tube) and individuals get comfortable dealing with tasks outside their specific expertise (ie gynecologist reading chest x-ray, dentist reading instructions on vacuum device and filling channels with water). Within an hour, the patient was breathing more comfortably and settled in her room, with strict instructions to her father to get help if the pump quit working. When the pump burnt out 11 hours later, he dutifully notified us and we substituted another pump. Two days later the chest tube was removed and the patient was discharged home – with her husband at her side. I am sure there was community discussion about her blame in the matter by starting the fight and at no time did she ask to press charges.
Studies have shown that domestic violence sharply decreases when the female partner is seen as a contributing financial partner to the household. If our patient had a small business and was increasing the family’s financial stability, her husband may have thought twice about wounding her with a knife, as it would impact her ability to work. Helping Haiti Work, a microloan program that my husband and I established in 2012, is attempting to right some of these imbalances for the women of Haiti. In my discussions with the loan recipients they have expressed that some of the indirect advantages of the program is that they are generally treated better by their spouses and the community, as operating a business brings them more authority. Trying to change cultural norms around domestic violence can take an extended time. Maybe we need to also look at short term empowerment of women so that they can influence the longstanding cultural norms.
Our fundraising for this program in 2014 will generate 40 new loans of $200 each for women on the waiting list. More women continue to wait. Please consider Helping Haiti Work in your end of year donations