Last year, Ellen Schreder saw both a need and an opportunity. Her work in CapHaitian had come to a standstill due to political unrest in the country of Haiti. Communication with the staff at her guest house and HHW sewing center continued and she soon realized that food scarcity was becoming an enormous issue for the people of Haiti due to the border closing between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Many of the vegetables and meat for the northern population of Haiti is transported across the border from the DR. Around the same time she saw a notice that the Ferry Morse seed company was looking for a donation site for their unsold seeds. Ellen soon had 20 large boxes of seeds taking up the extra crevices of a container on its’ way to Haiti. Because of the tropical climate, the seeds were planted soon after arrival and produced a bountiful harvest of vegetables for area families. That same tropical climate allows for 2-3 growing seasons, providing for a never ending supply of food.
Unfortunately, the situation in Haiti is even more dire in 2020. Although the political unrest has diminished, the threat of Covid has again closed the border, not only with the DR but also the US. Ellen reached out to Ferry Morse again asking for seed donations and last week a semi delivered 45 boxes of assorted vegetable seeds that volunteers have spent the week sorting. Due to the large quantities received, we have been able to provide donations for urban gardens in Minneapolis to use in 2021. These urban gardens are working to diminish the food deserts that contribute to unhealthy eating habits while also teaching volunteers about where food comes from.
Since my last post a week ago, we have received orders for close to 5000 cloth masks and have employed two more sewers to help fill the orders. The sewers are trying as best as possible to observe social distancing and have set up the sewing machines in two different locations; on the ground floor where the fabric is stored and on the top floor veranda. With breezes and gorgeous views of the surrounding countryside, I know which location I would choose.
The majority of these sewers live 1-3 hours distance from the sewing center and are trying to produce as many masks as possible during a time that they are needing to stay away from their families. In honor of the Haitians service, Ellen Schreder and Gymps Sunel are providing lodging in their guest house and New Roots has donated meat from their nearby educational farm and butcher shop to provide meals for the sewers.
Our yearly fundraiser set for May 3rd has been cancelled due to Covid 19 restrictions, the same reason we are seeing the requests for masks in Haiti. The upside is that we have the fabric that is needed to construct the masks. The downside is that we are rapidly diminishing the supply of fabric that is needed to construct the reusable menstrual pad kits. Donations to Helping Haiti Work will help us to resupply the fabric as well as pay for the food supplies needed to feed our staff. Donations can be made electronically thru the Donate button on our home page or via checks sent to: 13015 44th Ave North, Plymouth, MN 55442. All donations are tax deductible
In this pandemic, it is sometimes difficult to be aware of what is happening in the rest of the world. Haiti has had 18 confirmed cases of coronavirus thus far and estimates are that it could spread quickly in a country that already has a fragile healthcare system. Projections of the devastation that is possible in this impoverished country due to widespread dissemination of Covid far exceed the death toll of the 2010 earthquake. Haiti experienced a similar pandemic when cholera broke out 10 months following the earthquake and killed an estimated 10,000 people. Coronavirus could be even more significant as the remainder of the world is fighting the same virus within their own borders and not able to send medical ai/financial aide to Haiti.
Haiti lacks not only ventilators to treat its’ citizens once they have been infected but also has a limited supply of masks and other protective equipment for health care workers. While fabric masks are inferior to manufactured masks, they are better than no mask. When the first few Covid cases were reported, we started to receive requests at our sewing center for fabric masks. The Helping Haiti Work seamstresses that normally sew reusable menstrual pads were contacted and eager to learn a new skill. Due to the ingenuity of Ellen Schreder, co-leader of our Days for Girls Enterprise, she was able to gather our seamstresses together and via video connection, instruct them in the construction of fabric face masks using an interpreter and a live demonstration of mask construction on her sewing machine. Within days the seamstresses had sewn 250 masks and the masks were purchased by 2 local birthing centers and a hospital. We currently have orders for 250 additional masks. As part of the distribution of these masks, institutions are also providing education on handwashing and social distancing.
Fabric masks should only be a temporary solution until better protection is available for the healthcare workers of Haiti. We are hopeful that as the supply chain of commercially made masks increases, these same fabric masks can be used in the general population.
Although the political and economic chaos continues in Haiti, we have been able to maintain financial support both of our seamstresses and microloan women because of our supporters generosity. During the recent MN Gives campaign, we received $3400 in donations. Pictured above is our first loan group in Port Margot, our third microloan site. They received their loans of $250 each in September and were all able to repay their first loan installment plus interest on time last week. Our seamstresses submitted an invoice (noted above) for the work that they have completed in the last few months. They were able to sew these items because we had the funds to install solar panels and bring in upgraded sewing machines and bolts of fabric. Our inventory of completed products has continued to grow as the number of mission groups visiting Haiti has sharply decreased due to travel warnings. We are hopeful that when mission groups return, they will continue to remember our organization and our support of the hardworking Haitian women.
The smiling faces of our Haitian seamstresses and their drivers are because they have secured the gasoline to fill the tanks of their motos and be able to make it home to their families. This gas cost $25 per gallon and was difficult to locate. Haiti is currently suffering the effects of unpaid fuel bills by the governmental elite and the subsequent lack of gas shipments to the country. Due to the solar panels that were installed earlier this summer and materials that arrived by container shipment in February, they are able to continue sewing components of the reusable menstrual pad kits. Unfortunately, most of the orders placed by mission groups have been retracted as the groups have had to cancel their trips. At last count, we needed to refund groups for orders that involved just over 800 kits. At $9 a kit, that is $7200 of lost revenue.
A crew of nine American women, led by Elly Schreder, traveled to Haiti 2 weeks ago to meet with the seamstresses and share food and community while teaching them how to construct surgical hats for sale in the community. The women were hosted by a local Rotarian who gave a lesson in business practices. Two distributions of kits, in addition to reproductive health education, were accomplished as 100 girls received their kits. Given the lack of gasoline and prominence of protests, much was accomplished and the Haitian seamstresses were hopeful that their good luck would continue as they work to support their families.
Unfortunately, the gasoline price has continued to rise and most public transportation has been shuttered. The streets are bare of cars and motos while food scarcity is becoming a growing concern. Currency has been devalued by half while the cost of living has increased by 25%. The math does not work for even the most elite. When a pregnant women is finally able to get to a hospital after an obstructed labor they are often turned away as the hospitals are unable to locate gasoline to run their generators and power the operating rooms.
Those of us who support the citizens of Haiti from afar are left helpless to view news stories and frustrated by our ability to help. At HHW, we have reassured our seamstresses that they will continue to be paid for their work even if we are not able to sell the menstrual pad kits at this time. Luckily, the sewing centers are within walking distance of their homes and the sewing machines powered by solar panels. By the end of this unrest, we may have enough menstrual pad kits for the entire country of Haiti!
Our new industrial grade sewing machines arrived via container this winter and were installed in the recently renovated space in Limbe. Unfortunately, the machines could not be adequately powered by the generator and the rising cost as well as sparse supply of gasoline necessitated a new plan. A trip to the Dominican Republic was made to purchase solar panels and a Haitian electrician installed them on the third story roof of the building. Once the machines were functioning, a lesson was given to all the seamstresses in how to operate the new machines. New projects for construction include mens/boys boxers and surgical caps.
After a month long delay, due to the riots and political unrest in Haiti, our container made it out of port and the supplies were unloaded and organized in the newly finished sewing center in Cap Haitian. Ellen Schroeder and Kris Dirks assisted the Haitians in putting up shelves and then loading the shelves with enough material to construct 3000 menstrual pad kits. The dye-cut machine that is used to cut the material was used as soon as it was put together as all the Haitians wanted to see how it worked. New orders are starting to increase again as Haiti is making a tentative return to normal.
We were recently contacted by a local relief group that is working in Venezuela to help bring financial relief to mothers and children by providing hospitalized children with nutritious food and mothers with diapers. They purchased 200 reusable diapers that our Haitian seamstresses had constructed, providing not only an income for Haitians, but also a needed product for Venezuelan moms. The route that these diapers took signifies the interconnectedness that we all share as women in the world.
Flannel material woven in China in factories staffed by mostly women
Material purchased in the US and cut into diaper pieces by women volunteers
Material shipped to Haiti in suitcases carried as extra baggage by mission volunteers
Diapers sewn by Haitian seamstresses who are paid a living wage
Completed diapers return to US via mission volunteer suitcases
Diapers are delivered to Venezuelan contact in US
Diapers finally make their way to moms in Venezuela
At one of our local Days for Girls sewing events, a volunteer started sorting the scrap fabric that is left after cutting the cotton shields on the dye cut machine. She took the material home, cut it into 4 inch squares and created a baby quilt. On a whim, we brought the quilt to Haiti and asked our seamstresses if they thought there would be a market for this product. They were very enthusiastic and asked for as many scraps of fabric as we could supply. Since then they have created 30 baby blankets that have been sold to Healing Haiti, a NGO located in Port au Prince. Because our orders for the menstrual pad kits is not steady, this is a product that the seamstresses are able to create and fill a need locally. We have been impressed with their artistic skills in matching and coordinating colors to create a beautiful product.
Many of the seamstresses that we employ to construct the reusable menstrual pad kits are women in their 40’s and 50’s. Due to age and a lack of adequate lighting in their homes, the visual skills that are required for the detailed work can be frustrating. A recent volunteer to Haiti, Kris Dirks, brought reading glasses in different magnifications that were donated by Eye West Vision Clinic in Rogers, MN. The seamstresses were amazed that with the glasses they could read the letters on a small piece of paper held out in front of them.
The seamstresses had asked for other projects that they could complete with the scraps of fabric that they create when making the menstrual pad kits. Kris and her daughter Laura designed small blankets that use 4 inch squares of cotton fabric quilted together for the top. The women enjoyed arranging the squares into different color patterns and then learning how to sew the squares together and attach a flannel backing. They plan on marketing the blankets to expectant mothers to use.