Written by Sarah Wallace
November 15, 2021
When I first moved to Haiti in 2003 I was young and care-free and had no understanding of the political unrest developing in the country which eventually resulted in a coup in February of 2004.
In those days it wasn't as easy as rolling over in the morning and checking your cell phone for news and new messages. Then, I had to go next door to the internet cafe, pay per 30-minutes of use, and connect the old PC to a dial-up network before I could hear from my parents. Except for once, that I remember. My mom called me on what would have been one of very few cell phones in the orphanage that I was volunteering at. The gist of her words were, "Sarah, I know you just turned 18 last month and you are now an adult who can make her own choices, but please choose to come home." I tried to convince her I was in no danger. But she wasn't relieved by my telling her that I would only go into town on the days when the bus drivers would tell me that it's safe to do so, and that I would stay home if they said there were roadblocks. To be honest, I had no clue what was going on, aside from that there were days that it was safe to move around and other days it was better to stay home. I had no clue that a rebel group had already taken over the control of two cities and that Port au Prince was next to be overthrown. I finally agreed to go and got out on the last flight before the airport closed, and 3 days before Aristide was removed by the US Military.
I made my way back to Haiti just over 6 months later. It was September of 2004 and I was no less ignorant to the political situation of Haiti than I had been earlier that year. My Haitian Creole was pretty good though and I knew that you still had to be vigilant when traveling through Port au Prince - something I did almost every weekend. I would volunteer all week at an orphanage north of Port au Prince and then head down to Fermathe or Jacmel, both south of Port au Prince, on the weekends to see friends. On one occasion, I arrived on motorcycle, to what is normally a busy intersection, to find no one in the streets. I jumped onto a bus, ducked down low, and watched through the window as people slowly emerged from their hiding spots. I'm thankful to not know what had happened in those moments before I had arrived.
In 2008 I moved to Haiti indefinitely as a midwife. I was able to travel to and from Port au Prince on public transportation with no concern which is when I slowly began to understand just how not-ok Haiti had been in 2004.
After the 2010 earthquake, though devastated, the country was unified and there was a sense of hope for the future. For the most part, that "onward and upward" sentiment was maintained for over 8 years.
July 5, 2018 was Jean-Moise' second birthday. That evening, the president announced the government's plan to raise fuel prices, right as Brazil lost to Belgium in the World-Cup. The combination of heightened emotion over the soccer match with the rage set off by the president's announcement sparked the most shocking, violent protest and countrywide looting I had seen in my time in Haiti.
The rest of 2018 and all of 2019 were riddled with protests and roadblocks, which came to be known as "peyi lock", or "locked country". In 2020, before Covid 19 put the country in another state of lock down, kidnapping was becoming an increasing concern.
As I'm sure you are all aware, my family and I left Haiti in September of 2020, to be in Canada for the birth of our son. We assumed that the country had hit rock bottom and that by the time we were ready to return, there would have been some improvement. By March we were preparing to return to Haiti in just a few weeks, and part of that preparation included a kidnapping contingency plan because kidnapping had become so rampant that we could not risk assuming we would be spared. Just a few days before we were supposed to fly out, we made the final decision to cancel our flights.
Since then, the situation in Haiti has only become more dire with the violent gang warfare, kidnappings, the assassination of the President, the recent earthquake and severe lack of fuel.
The Canadian and American governments are urging its citizens to leave Haiti. Our committed Haitian staff and recipients do not have the luxury of leaving when the country becomes too dangerous and too difficult to live in. They have no choice but to press on. We have the freedom to look the other way OR we also have the privilege and opportunity to help. Inflation is high and we have recently given our staff raises to meet the soaring costs of living. The services we provide at our midwifery centre, the income opportunity provided by our recycling depot, and the assistance provided by our family support program is more needed now than ever.
At this point, amidst the enormous struggle, Olive Tree Projects' Haitian staff have been outstanding and the clinic and recycling centre have outgrown the current facilities. We are now looking at how to best meet this need.
We know that the services we provide has a large impact on the community, and for many this is the only lifeline available. So I'm asking you, please, join us in providing a little piece of comfort, hope, and life-saving support to our suffering community in Jacmel.
Written by Sarah Wallace
January 11, 2021
The inequality in Haiti is drastic. Rich and poor share this same land, and on January 12, 2010 everyone's earth shook. The earthquake, for a moment, put everyone on the same level. Both rich and poor had their world shatter around them.
Homes, schools, businesses collapsed. Lives were lost. Families torn apart. Livelihoods destroyed. Haiti was devastated, heartbroken, afraid and desperate. January 12, 2010 was a defining day for the people of Haiti.
The world came to our assistance. Militaries and missionaries flew in. Money was sent. Countries opened their boarders to refugees. For a moment we thought that maybe this horrific tragedy could be what Haiti needed to get a fresh start. With aid money pouring in, there was hope that this "developing" nation would in fact develop faster than it could have before the earthquake hit. There was hope.
But it didn't take long for that hope to turn to frustration We saw farmers quit working their land because they knew their produce wouldn't sell with all the food being distributed for free. We saw a lack of coordination between NGO's and the government, resulting in inefficient and unsustainable work. We saw homes and vehicles being rented by organizations at exaggerated prices. We saw much of the aid money going toward over paid foreign professionals and contractors. Soon the inequality between rich and poor was growing. It became clear that Haiti's struggle was not only exasperated by the earthquake, but also by the aid that followed.
One truly beneficial outcome resulted from the influx of humanitarian workers, missionaries and foreign professionals. Many discovered Haiti's beauty, became fascinated with it's culture and history – tourism grew! Hotels, restaurants and bars were opening up, and there was a new market for artisan products. Some of the educated, international Haitian community was choosing to return to Haiti to work and start companies. Haiti was open for business.
It seemed for a while that Haiti had in-fact recovered from the earthquake and also the dependancy on NGO's. Many organizations had been called out for their misuse of funds. Many had turned their activities towards job-creation. Many organizations left. Some have stayed.
With the political instability we are now facing, a different kind of crisis has emerged. Like the earthquake this has effected both the rich and the poor. Businesses have closed and jobs have been lost. Humanitarians, missionaries and tourists have stopped coming. We struggle to find the balance between working for long term change and dealing with the desperate needs of those around us.
The events of the last 10 years beg the question, why do we stay if nothing seems to change?
We stay because we can't change the bigger forces that have and will shake this country. We stay because with or without us, our Haitian friends, neighbours and communities will have to endure the hard times. We stay because leaving won't help. We stay because we'd rather ride the highs and lows of this country along with those that don't have the freedom to leave. We stay because we are blessed with the power to remove some burdens from the people suffering in our community. We stay because when life is heavy working together makes the burden just a little lighter. We stay because during tough times, sometimes the only thing to cling to is hope. And we stay because in a world that can be dark and discouraging, we choose to be that beacon of hope.
Written by Sarah Wallace
August 8, 2018
If you have been following me and OTP over the last couple years, you know that we have been in a long phase of slow transition.
Our midwifery center (sometimes referred to as “the clinic” or “the birth center”) has transitioned away from having prenatal, delivery, and postnatal care as its primary focus. Although we will still maintain a small client load for prenatal and delivery, we are aiming to serve a larger population with breastfeeding support, HIV/Syphilis counseling and testing, and family planning.
My personal life has transitioned to an equal, if not greater, extent. My husband, Jean-Pierre, and I took in a baby boy who had been abandoned at the hospital. We named him Jean-Moise. 9 months later, our biological son was born. We named him Jean-Jacques. And 5 months ago, we were placed with another abandoned baby. A girl this time. We named her Doris.
It’s been said many times that OTP is my baby. It’s true, and the only thing so far that has taken precedence over OTP in my life has been my own actual babies. Several months ago, I decided that I would not be returning to work when Laura’s year substituting for me was up. As a board, we decided to start searching for someone to replace me.
Starting off with over 100 applicants, we narrowed it down to one. It was a long process, but we believe it paid off. Our new In-Country Manager started on August 1. His name is Jean-Marie.
Laura has been doing orientation with Jean-Marie. The other day Laura came home to tell me how things had been going. We caught ourselves discussing all his good qualities, and finally I said to Laura “Why are we acting so surprised that he’s amazing? We put him through an extensive interview process and we chose him!”.
We are very excited to welcome Jean-Marie to our team. He is very qualified and we believe he has the skills, qualities and the motivation to bring Olive Tree Projects to the next level.
I will continue to be on the board of directors and will be present in Jacmel to help in any way I can. As well, if you have any questions about the transition, do not hesitate to contact us.
Written by Trish Bailey (Sarah's mom)
July 24, 2018
This is my 8th visit to Haiti and I am fulfilling a promise that I made after my first visit in 2009, which was to write a blog for Olive Tree Projects. I have discovered that Haiti is a country that attacks the senses – smells, sights, sounds, tastes and feel.
As I exited the plane, the unique smell of Haiti immediately hit me. This is not necessarily an unpleasant or distasteful aroma but rather an accumulation of all the country as a whole. The pleasant smell of wood, coal and garbage burning, automobile fumes, stock piles of garbage, pigs and goats, stagnant water, and burning tires is mixed with the wonderful scent of ripe mangoes, papaya, bananas, fried plantain, BBQ chicken, the national Hibiscus flower and the fresh sea salt air of the ocean. But, more importantly, it is the smell of the blood, sweat and tears of hard working people, doing whatever they can to eke out a meager living.
Along the drive through Port au Prince to Jacmel, we pass a countless number of women sitting along the side of the road selling what fruits or vegetables are in season. It is not unusual to see 10 to 15 women sitting in a row along the street all with bowls of mangos hoping that someone will stop and buy the fruit that they have in their bowl. More women sit with a small burner cooking a variety of street foods. Young men walk between the cars selling bags of water, gum or holding a rag and spray bottle to wash your windshield. There are Taptaps (local busses) of every shape and color with people hanging out the sides and the roofs piled high with whatever and whoever can’t fit into the back - fruit, vegetables, live animals, gasoline cans, huge bags of coal, furniture and any and everything else that needs to be transported. The taxis are small 150cc motorbikes with up to 4 people scrunched together and holding on for dear life (at least, that’s how I see it) as they speed through the crowded streets maneuvering through the crowds and avoiding the large potholes.
And then there is the noise that reverberates in the ears. The loud hum of 11 million people. There are approximately 2.3 million people living in Port au Prince which equates to 65,000 people/square mile. The constant sound of horns honking as the drivers of trucks, cars, taptaps, and motorbikes warn or threaten anyone in their way. Haitians love music, loud music! The nighttime air vibrates with ‘nightclubs’ competing on who can play their music the loudest and, therefore, drawing the largest crowd. And then, during the night are the dogs barking and the roosters crowing. Surprisingly, I sleep quite well as it all seems to blend into a ‘white noise’.
Rice and beans is the staple food and there are many ways to prepare these 2 ingredients. The garlic, onions and different kinds of peppers add such wonderful flavors to rice and beans. Pates are a deep fried puff pastry filled with meats and vegetables. Banan is my favorite, which is thinly sliced fried plantain with shredded pickled and spiced cabbage. And, in the morning, there is nothing better than strong Haitian coffee with canned milk and sugar.
And then there are the wonderful surprises. The drive between Port au Prince and Jacmel may not be the easiest drive but the scenery over the mountain passes is so beautiful. The lush deep green vegetation in contrast to the rich red soil. The country people walking along the pathways from their simple homes that could easily be a few miles from the main road. Driving down the mountain and seeing the eternity of the Atlantic Ocean. The welcome smiles and waves from the people as we hurry past. The lovely promenade along Jacmel’s beachfront and the number of artists of every medium who sell their goods along the street and in the quaint shops and galleries. The nightclubs that specialize and focus on ballroom dancing, with dance floors that are overflowing with talented, beautiful couples dancing the salsa, rumba, tango, waltz and cha cha.
Olive Tree Projects has embraced and encouraged this wonderful culture. In 2009, there was Sarah and a few volunteers that she encouraged to come and help. The birthing center was just being put together and slowly getting known in the community. Now the clinic has a respected reputation throughout Jacmel and beyond, with the Ministry of Health expressing interest in using OTP’s birthing centre as a model for future government run birthing centres. It is primarily staffed by Haitians; midwives, nurses, aids, administration staff, cooking and cleaning staff, who are all committed to the goals of OTP and working toward a strong healthy community. The new focus will not only be safe births, pre and post-natal care and education but also reaching out to all the new mom’s in Jacmel to encourage breastfeeding. The plastic recycling is forging ahead and are always looking for more people to collect the huge number of plastic bottles that litter the streets and the beaches. Olive Tree Projects may be just a small drop in a big ocean but it has flourished and grown and without OTP the ocean of humanity would be one major drop less.
Written by Sarah Wallace
May 9, 2018
We are getting close to half way through year 10 of working as Olive Tree Projects. And for those who didn’t read the Jan. 6/18 blog, we said this year was going to be an exciting one. Well, don’t worry, we’ve met our promise.
A few months back we had a meeting with our staff and asked them to brainstorm on how else we could use the resources we have to provide a new service for the community.
It was one of our midwives, Dumaude, who came up with the idea of a breastfeeding clinic. Breastfeeding education and support is already something we do and are good at. But, we only reach our clients who deliver with us and have not yet tried to extend our services to other people. Despite indisputable evidence that proves the countless benefits to breastfeeding, only 40% of women worldwide exclusively breastfeed. Everywhere in the world lacks breastfeeding support – it may be natural but it doesn’t mean it’s easy! In Jacmel it’s no different and, with no existing programs for breastfeeding support, we see this as a huge need that falls within the midwifery scope of practice.
Our goal this year was to reach a deeper level of sustainability and we see this new direction as a way to achieve it. Educating and supporting women to breastfeed will create a ripple effect. The people we reach in the community can then teach their friends, support their neighbours, help their daughters when they have their own babies and, with time, we believe we’ll see breastfeeding rates increase in Haiti. With increased breastfeeding rates we’ll see healthier children, decreased postpartum complications, less financial stress on families with cost of formula, and decreased strain on the healthcare system will less infant hospitalizations. In this way, we’ll create a positive change that can outlast us and reach levels beyond our direct clientele.
But we will continue to do births! We are taking a couple months off this summer to regroup and solidify the breastfeeding programs. But, come October we will be on-call again for births and we are already almost booked up till December!
We are now assured that we’ll be able to continue doing births for a long time. Sarah recently received a call from the Minister of Health in Port-au-Prince saying our OFFICIAL license for the clinic is ready to be picked up (previously, we had a temporary authorization, but this is the real thing!). Now, for those of you who haven’t been following us – applying for a license for the clinic has been a very difficult, frustrating, long process and generally felt like a huge impossible mystery. But, we must have done something right, because we now have a piece of paper, with the Minister of Health’s stamp, saying that we are officially legal and licensed to practice midwifery. The Haitian government has recognized our clinic as an official part of the national healthcare system. Another step towards sustainability.
Soon after, Sarah received a call from the Minister of Health in Jacmel asking if she could come in to talk. During the meeting the director asked for her advice on how to improve maternity care in the public hospital and also said that our clinic will be an example for when the public system is ready to start birth centres in the city. Wow. The public health system is looking at our clinic as a model. They want to replicate it. The high quality midwifery model of care that we offer in our clinic has a chance to be copied in government run facilities. If this director’s plans come to fruition, the midwifery model of care we offer at our center will outlast us and reach beyond us. Sustainability.
Our board of directors are meeting frequently as we continue to finalize the details of our changing organizational structure, budget and goals for the coming few years. We will be sure to keep you all informed as these changes are made, and to keep you updated on the new breastfeeding program. We are excited to see where the rest of this year takes us! Thank you all for your support over the past 10 years, for helping us reach our past goals, and for making it possible for us to dream further!
Written by Sarah Wallace
January 6, 2018
We just passed our 9 year anniversary in Haiti.
Year 1. I dedicated this first year to figuring out life in Haiti. However, I ended up doing about a dozen home births, which lead to the decision to start a birth center.
Year 2. My time was consumed with a combination of post-earthquake disaster relief and setting up the birth center.
Year 3. The birth center was running at a low capacity and relied on several volunteer midwives. I also started the recycling depot as a personal side business, with the hope that it would one day make money to support the birth center.
Year 4. We continued to run the clinic and the recycling business grew, although it still wasn’t making a profit.
Year 5. Tania joined the team with the goal of training our local staff to be able to provide quality midwifery care without the supervision of foreign midwives.
Year 6. We learned that our original goal of having a fully Haitian clinical staff by the 5th year is easier said than done. We submitted our application for legal authorization of the clinic.
Year 7. We acquired a small foster home and continued to run the birth center and the recycling depot.
Year 8. We reunited those foster children with their relatives and continue to provide support. We finally found a strong clinical team, comprising of 2 midwives and 4 nurses (midwife assistants), although they still required supervision. The recycling business temporarily shut down due to the drop in international oil prices (it became cheaper for companies to buy new plastic than reused). We held onto the hope of opening again soon.
Year 9. Here we are. Our clinical staff is competent to work without supervision. Tania has moved on. We have come to terms that the recycling depot will not be profitable, but we have decided to subsidize it in order to continue providing employment to dozens of people and help clean the streets.
9 years ago we started out with the goal of creating a “sustainable” program in Haiti – whatever that meant, I did not know. Sustainable, by definition, means: able to be maintained at a certain rate or level; or, able to be upheld or defended. So here I am, taking a close look at what I has consumed me for the past 9 years and asking myself, is this sustainable?
Our staff can work without supervision – this is our one victory. But with only two midwives, they have to work overtime in order to fill our 24/7 schedule. To hire another midwife will require more funds; funds we don’t have. A couple months ago we put out a request for financial support so we could hire another midwife. $10 came in. Even if we had received the $12 000 needed to hire another midwife (for just one year), she would require the same training and mentoring that our current two midwives needed in order to bring their capacity up to our standards. That means it will be over a year until we have a third independent midwife. Even if we had that third midwife, what would happen if one gets sick? Or burns out? Or gets pregnant? Or takes a job elsewhere?
The challenges of starting and running a birth center were more than I could have predicted and perhaps that’s why I am so proud of how far we have come. The most encouraging thing is to hear strangers tell me that they have heard of “Kay Akouchman” – our birth centre – and that they have heard great things about the care we provide. It is also encouraging to see that we have become a model for midwifery care in the country for other organizations, and that even the ministry of health recognizes the quality of care we provide.
It makes me proud, but are we sustainable? What if OTP can’t raise enough funds to keep up with our expenses? What if we lose one of our nurses or midwives – the ones that Tania has given countless hours to train and mentor?
And what if I burnout like I’ve seen so many people do? What if I can’t keep filling in the gaps for what our clinic needs? Will the quality of our care be sustained then?
The truth is, I am burning out. It is a strange feeling to ABSOLUTELY LOVE what Olive Tree Projects does and represents, and at the same time, to feel very little desire to be involved anymore. It took a long while for me to finally admit that what I am feeling - this desire to retire, this disinterest in the clinic, this lack of compassion - is burnout. I have been beyond thankful to have Laura here volunteering as the in-country director (not to mention the live-in aunty role she is playing) as I focus on caring for our two young boys. And I am beyond thankful that Tania did such an amazing job at training our midwives to be able to work without supervision so that they can cover my shifts at the clinic. But what I am realizing is that my plans to go back to work as a midwife within a couple months were unrealistic, and therefore, the midwives who are working overtime in my absence, are at greater risk of also hitting burnout.
ALLLLL of this is to say something has to change. More money or more midwives would be great, but it won’t bring us any closer to our original goal of being sustainable.
Year 10. Reach a deeper level of sustainability.
As it stands right now, I am personally responsible for everything that happens in the clinic. Considering we are dealing with people's lives during a very vulnerable time, this responsibility bears a heavy weight on my soul - my tired, burnt out, soul. In the coming months we will be shifting the structure of our programs so that I am not the pilar of our work. The specifics of this are still being worked out, but we are encouraged to see how it is taking shape. What seemed at first (even to me) as a setback, or failure, is starting to look more like a huge leap forward. Year 10 will be an exciting one.