Montclair-Haiti Love Continues to Grow

The old Chinese proverb “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime,” was one of the overriding themes at an elegant soirée this past Saturday evening, which introduced delegates of the Haitian government to members of the Montclair town council and community residents. Mayor Jerry Fried, who was joined by Fourth Ward councilor Renée Baskerville and mayor-elect Robert Jackson, delivered an official proclamation (see video here) to celebrate “Haiti in Montclair Day,” as a symbol of the ongoing commitment that the town has for the struggling nation. “We already have a deep emotional connection to Haiti, and we hope to further explore how we might build on that relationship in the future,” said Fried, who confirmed that there are preliminary discussions about establishing a sister-city relationship with the especially impoverished Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Belair. “Even with the problems that we have within our own community, it’s striking to see a place in the Western Hemisphere whose needs are so enormous.”

Hosted by the staunchly apolitical non-profit Edeyo Foundation — the prime beneficiary of Montclair’s annual “Concert for Haiti“– the event was held at the Van Vleck House & Garden and served as a platform for the two communities to get to know each other better. “It’s important for representatives of the Haitian government to meet the people of Montclair, who have been so generous in their support for Haiti,” stated Edeyo founder Unik Ernest (pictured, right, with co-founder Michael Pradieu). “At the same time, it’s also an opportunity for the government to present itself to the people of Montclair.”

The long-broken country, which suffers from high rates of illiteracy, endemic unemployment and remains ravaged by the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, has embarked on a concerted renewal effort to pull itself out of its troubles by educating its people, generating economic renewal, attracting foreign investors and reigniting the Caribbean nation’s tourism industry.

The nation’s optimistic and forward-thinking message was delivered formally by Haiti’s Minister of Tourism Stephanie Balmir Villedrouin and Consul General Charles A. Forbin. “We must change the direction of activism from one which focuses on monetary donations, to one which helps Haitians build a sustainable future for themselves, through education and jobs,” Balmir Villedrouin told Baristanet. Later in the evening, the Minister of Tourism played a video that encapsulated the government’s campaign to present a holistic view of Haiti, and portray the beauty and pride that exists in the country. “Haiti has a lot of different regions that are wonderful places to visit — like the historic city of Cap-Haïtien in the north and Jacmel in the south,” she said, explaining that her department is working on a tourism master plan that will be complete in 2030.

But, thanks to outreach by the Edeyo Foundation, and other community activists like Cindy Stagoff (who has produced the past three “Concert for Haiti” events), Montclair residents have been enlisted into building a more prosperous Haiti for the past 4 years, and have actively raised funds to help Edeyo build a school in Bel Air. Haitian-born Michael Pradieu is a Montclair resident, and initially introduced Edeyo’s mission to his New Jersey neighbors by speaking at the Watchung School, where his children were students. A staunch advocate of the value of education, Pradieu believes that by providing all Haitian children with an equal opportunity to learn, grow, and prosper, the country can transcend it’s chronic problems. Montclair’s inherent community spirit for social activism, combined with the school’s mission of teaching compassion for others sparked a PTA-led initiative, which has focused on providing school supplies, shoes and toys for the children of Belair.

Stagoff, a social activist attorney whose motto of “think globally, act locally” motivates her efforts to help Haiti emerge from it’s ongoing state of instability, recognizes that the relationship benefits Montclair residents as well as the recipients of her town’s support. “We’re bringing the Montclair community together to help realize Edeyo’s goals, but at the same time, we’re helping to teach activism in our own community,” she said. “Ultimately, that’s good for Montclair.”

Amongst those in attendance at Saturday’s event, was Olivier Martelly, son of the Haitian president Michel Martelly, who produced the “I am Haiti” video. The young Martelly thanked Montclair for their support and let everyone know that “Haiti is open for business.” Other notable guests included Watchung School teacher Nancy Myers-Alvarez — who visited Haiti last year with Pradieu to train teachers in Belair — as well as teachers and parents from the school, various Montclair musicians who have performed in the Concert for Haiti, and even folks from elsewhere in New Jersey who have been involved in helping to rebuild Haiti. One Maplewood woman, Lucila McElroy (pictured at left with Olivier Martelly) just returned from volunteering in a tent camp where she worked with teen girls. She confirmed that the message she heard repeatedly from the people she worked with is that the Haitians don’t just want monetary help, they want to learn how to be self-sufficient.

The take-away from the event is that the road to Haiti’s long-term economic stability doesn’t come from handouts — it comes from foreign investment in education, the building of industry and the creation of jobs. It also comes from grassroots social activism, and it certainly helps to add in an outpouring of love, such as the one the Montclair community has shown to Belair. After meeting the delegates, it is clear that the relationship is mutual, and likely to grow along with Haiti’s brighter future.

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