Dr. Jorge Arias and Avelyne Saint Hilaire: Sustaining Hope in Haiti
The following is an edited transcript of Tom Martin's interview with Dr. Jorge Arias, global director of aquaculture and country manager for Chile and Argentina at Alltech, and Avelyne Saint Hilaire, the local administrator of the Alltech Sustainable Haiti Project in Ouanaminthe, Haiti.
Click below to hear the full interview:
What's happening in Haiti? Alltech is there, having arrived in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake of 2010 to a nation in need of much more than immediate disaster relief. There was, and remains, a need for sustainable economic growth, jobs, agriculture and education. Joining Tom Martin for an update on the Alltech Sustainable Haiti Project are Dr. Jorge Arias, global director of aquaculture and country manager for Chile and Argentina at Alltech, and Avelyne Saint Hilaire, the project’s local administrator in Ouanaminthe, Haiti. Dr. Arias served as Ms. Saint Hilaire’s translator for this interview.
Tom: Let's begin, Dr. Arias, with a brief history of Alltech’s engagement and presence in Haiti. Tell us how it all began.
Jorge: We went to Haiti about 10 days after the earthquake. That was in January 2010. We went with Dr. Lyons (Dr. Pearse Lyons, president and founder of Alltech) and a couple of friends. We went directly to the Dominican Republic and then by helicopter to Port-au-Prince. We wanted to check on the situation there and to see what we could do.
Port-au-Prince was the main area suffering from this earthquake, but actually, the whole country is in a continuous crisis situation. Dr. Lyons said, “What if we try to help Haiti through another region?” Through contacts and friends, we connected with people in the north of the island — in the Ouanaminthe area. People were arriving in Ouanaminthe from the critical area of Port-au-Prince. We found a school there, and that’s the beginning of the story.
Tom: This earthquake was devastating. Up to about 300,000 people were lost.
Tom: This struck a country that already had long been suffering from entrenched problems of all sorts. Could you carry on that description? How would you describe what you found?
Jorge: It was a terrible situation. All the buildings had fallen down. It was terrible. We really felt the need to start helping — not just that particular crisis, but in the long term.
Tom: You absorbed what you had seen and what you learned on the scene and out of that came a plan.
Tom: Can you tell us what that looked like in the beginning?
Jorge: Dr. Lyons said, “We need to make this project sustainable.” We asked what can grow in Haiti. What activity could we promote? We learned that Haiti was the first country in the Americas to produce coffee. Before Brazil, before Colombia, it was Haiti. It was also the first country to produce sugarcane. We chose coffee. Through that project, we could subsidize the rest of the activity. That was just the beginning.
Tom: Haiti, as I understand it, had undergone significant deforestation in the past. Did that lead to a decline in coffee production?
Jorge: I think it was all part of the same process. When you go to the island, you find two countries: the Dominican Republic and Haiti. One was colonized by Spain, the other by France. Haiti was trying to produce food for Europe and to export to different countries and also to produce coffee and sugarcane. On the other hand, the Dominican Republic has more sustainable beef and dairy production. What’s the difference? They didn’t deforest the area. So, they are two contrasting situations.
Tom: The aim of the coffee initiative was to help Haitian farmers get back on their feet. Has that been an outcome?
Jorge: Yes, at least in the community we’re influencing, which is the community of Dondon, a small village in the north part of the country. The original idea was to see what we can do: We find a coffee. We import the coffee to the U.S. green, as most of the coffee trading is taking place in the form of green coffee. We roast it in Kentucky, and then we sell it. With the profits, we can sustain the project. That was the original idea. We set an example for other people to follow.
Tom: Alltech’s involvement in Haiti extends beyond coffee production to educating and inspiring the next generation of Haiti. Tell us how the coffee connects to children.
Jorge: The first thing we started with was sponsoring a school. There was an elementary school in Ouanaminthe, and in one of our visits with Dr. Lyons, we knew there was another school (also in need of help). So, we took Dr. Lyons to see this second school. He immediately said, “Oh, we need to do something about this school also, Jorge.” That was the beginning of subsidizing and helping the other community. The students receive special education. We keep sending volunteers to teach the kids music, language, art and many activities.
We also prepare lunch for the whole community of students. And we have some parents coming every noon to enjoy good food in both schools.
We have more students now, to the point that we are planning to move to a new school in Ouanaminthe. We need to grow because we ran out of space where we are.
Tom: Wonderful. Let’s bring in Avelyne. Avelyne, thank you for waiting.
(Interpreted by Jorge)
Avelyne: Thank you, Tom. How are you?
Tom: Take us back to the beginning of your engagement in this project with Alltech. What was that like?
Avelyne: This is an experience where I’m growing every day because Alltech gave me the opportunity, not only to work with the community, but also the possibility to help the needy people in my area. The kids and the parents are enjoying and learning. They are evolving.
Tom: Avelyne, can you tell us about some of the ways that the school projects have made differences in people's lives — children in particular?
Avelyne: In the last seven years, the parents have received significant help. We started with 150 students in Ouanaminthe. In Dondon, we had fewer than 100 kids. Right now, between the two schools, we have 652 students. There are around 500 families that receive help and this education. That’s not only helping the students at the school, but also beyond school. And the kids are receiving quality education.
Tom: Avelyne, do you see this kind of educational experience and opportunity changing Haiti’s future?
Avelyne: That’s the main goal. We need to start from the beginning in order to change the country, and we need to start with the kids. I believe this was a real intention of Dr. Lyons’.
Tom: Thank you, Avelyne. Turning back to you, Jorge, let’s talk about water — clean, potable water. Tell us about Alltech’s water purification efforts in Haiti.
Jorge: The First Presbyterian Church in Lexington is associating with the effort that we started in 2010. They started buying the coffee first. That was the first activity. They did it for more reasons than to simply transfer the profits back to Alltech in order for us to sustain the project. They decided to use that money to go to Haiti and do some work with us. So, they have taken two or three trips to Haiti in these last few years, and one of those projects was to set up a water purification system for the whole community.
We bought a piece of land where we are setting up this purification system. We can sell the water at a reasonable price and that, in turn, will also subsidize the growth of the project and help us to build a new school.
Tom: And why was the water project necessary to begin with?
Jorge: Water quality is an issue in Haiti — in the whole region. We can decrease the influence of different diseases and we can guarantee the quality of the water we use for our kids, but also for the community. We don't know how far we can get with the (water) project. We know from experience that in Dondon it became the water well of the whole community. It’s interesting to see all the community getting involved. Sometimes what the community needs is for somebody to kick off a project and people will follow.
Tom: You mentioned disease. Have doctor visits also been a part of this project?
Jorge: Yes. On one of my trips, I met a group of doctors visiting the Ouanaminthe area, and I had been told that they were coming from Lexington. I met them and we became very good friends, and remain so today. They’re going to Haiti every year to work on another project with Southland Christian Church. We basically formed a “joint effort” with these guys. They’re still going every year, and they are visiting our kids at the school. One of the doctors created a foundation to sponsor kids coming from Haiti to study at the University of Kentucky.
We are trying to educate those guys and send them back to Haiti to work in their communities. We have one good example in James Blanq. He’s actually producing chickens now in Ouanaminthe, and he came through this program.
Tom: Another part of this project has been the important recognition of the healing and enriching power of the arts. What sort of connections have been made, and how have they developed?
Jorge: Dr. Everett McCorvey (University of Kentucky professor of voice and director and executive producer for UK Opera Theater) helped us, not only through the UK School of Music, but Everett is also a member of the community of First Presbyterian Church. We’re taking their volunteers to teach our kids music. We also invited a person that was giving a lesson in painting.
Every time that somebody approaches Alltech and our group of people working on the project and they say, “I know how to do this, I know how to do that,” they are more than welcome to come along and join us in the effort.
Tom: If somebody would like to join in the effort, how would they do that? Who will they contact?
Jorge: They have to contact our people at Alltech, and they can do it through me or anybody in the Alltech community, the Alltech family. We’ll be more than happy to find a way for them to participate in this project.
Tom: I have one question for each of you: I’ll start with you, Avelyne, and ask what positive changes have you seen occurring as a result of the efforts of the Alltech Sustainable Haiti Project?
(Interpreted by Jorge)
Avelyne: Now the parents are much more involved in the education of their kids, and they're more conscious about the importance of education. As an example, Mondays and Fridays are marketing (shopping) days in Ouanaminthe. There is marketing on the border between the city of Dajabon in the Dominican Republic and the city of Ouanaminthe in Haiti. In the past, parents directly involved in the trading process were taking their kids. So, on Mondays and Fridays, the school was empty. The big change now is that the kids are going to school from Monday to Friday and their parents are doing their thing in the market.
I have noticed that the government is aware of the project and is approaching the school to look at what we are doing, and they are getting more involved in all this process. That didn’t happen before.
Tom: Thank you very much, Avelyne. Dr. Arias, your response to that question too: What are the positive changes that you’ve witnessed?
Jorge: It’s just amazing. Dr. Lyons once told me, “Jorge, we need to bring different people every time we come to Haiti. We need to bring different people of our Alltech family or people from the Kentucky community simply because it won’t necessarily just change their lives, but it’s also changing our lives.” If you go there and see what’s going on, it really changes your perspective on your life; you see what you have, and what those people don’t have.
So, we’ve been doing that through Dr. Lyons. We are taking different people to visit the project. Those people are getting more involved in the project some way or another. I took part of my family on my last trip. I took my son and he wants to go back.
Tom: Dr. Jorge Arias, Avelyne Saint Hilaire, thank you both for spending time with us.
Jorge: Thank you, Tom.
Avelyne: Thank you, Tom.