Friday, November 19, 2010

Oasis of Hope: Part 3

Published 3/20/2007

Nurturing water of life
Colorado Haiti project works to clean drinking sources

By Aimee Heckel
Camera Staff Writer

EDITOR'S NOTE: In a country with staggeringly low literacy rates, most education in Haiti is in the form of oral recitation. And in a country with poverty and pain far deeper than human comprehension, Haitians often talk in parables. Storytelling is the country's heartbeat. This three-day series, which started on Sunday and concludes today, tells three modern-day parables of a group of Boulderites and their attempts to help save a country that, at times, seems 200 years beyond redemption. This is the tale of the Colorado Haiti Project.

This is where the river starts.

Sharp raindrops boom from the Haitian sky like buckshot. They splatter mud as they plunge into the guts of the island, about an hour and a half by plane south of Florida.

Amid the mess, Dr. Warren Berggren, of Golden, looks superimposed. His blue button-down is spotless and wrinkle-free. He smiles.

The St. Paul's Mission site, six hours south of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, heaves under the mud. The trees wrinkle from so much water.

The moisture enlists the air forces, malaria-laced mosquitoes, just one of the area's many health threats. The bugs kamikaze against the screens of the rectory porch, where Berggren sits in darkness, camouflaged between silhouettes of the other three Colorado Haiti Project volunteers. It's dinnertime.

Berggren, 76, balances on a wooden chair with lopsided legs. He watches the water war from the safety of the porch. He smiles as the skies reload their artillery with a click of lightning. He smiles, because he knows the earth wants to lose this battle. Haiti's soil is parched. It stretches out its arms and welcomes the blows, which will drip down the tree-starved mountains and join the Bakonwa Spring, the source of life.

The mid-February tropical storm isn't the only fight in progress. The Boulder-based Colorado Haiti Project has its own: against the poverty that has kidnapped this proud nation, once considered the emerald of the Caribbean. Only poverty doesn't back down so easily.

The project has rallied more than 100 Coloradans, mostly Boulderites, who have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past 20 years. In 2005, the capital fund reached $273,000, plus an additional $95,000 for programs and jobs for Haitians, including teachers and construction workers.

The strategy is risky - never attempted before in Haiti by a nonprofit. But, as the volunteers see it, a big battle demands bigger guns. By the weight of their dream - to hoist up an entire community to the bottom rung of poverty so the residents can begin climbing upward themselves - you wouldn't know the project operates on a tight budget out of the St. John's Episcopal Church in downtown Boulder.

The strategy centers around the St. Paul's Mission, near Petit Trou de Nippes, Haiti. Here, volunteers have constructed a sort of oasis of hope, complete with a school, church, guest house and rectory, standing for the goals of the project: education, spiritual growth and health care.
Berggren is rallying soldiers for the health-care front.

Don't be fooled by his thin frame or his age. Berggren has been training for this battle most of his life. He lived in Haiti for 15 years. He studied and taught at the Harvard School of Public Health. He's an expert in tropical public health. He can distinguish between the mosquitoes that carry diseases and the "harmless pests" as easily as if telling apart cats from dogs.

Berggren's immune system is iron, his mind is a switchblade and his heart is as sweet and easy to melt as ice cream.

He watches the rain and smiles, as if he knows something the others don't. Which, of course, is an understatement.

Berggren has a plan.

A poisonous spider the size of an apple crouches near the bed on the second floor of the St. Paul's guest house. On the first floor, Berggren'a wobbly voice echoes off the walls in a room that looks like a jail cell.

The area's top leaders listen from wooden benches, perched with perfect posture and hygiene, a reflection of the stubborn Haitian dignity still holding its breath in a deep well of suffering. The leaders and Berggren gather to determine the future of the Colorado Haiti Project.

Berggren and the other three Colorado volunteers are staying in the guest house. So are St. Paul's church assistants, teachers, cooks, maintenance workers, as well as some graduates of the school and some of their friends. Cement buildings this fancy are rare - it has electricity several hours each day - so the rooms are also used as classrooms or meeting halls.

In the same way that Berggren's immaculate clothes looked misplaced amid last night's rainstorm, St. Paul's Mission doesn't look like it belongs in Haiti.

Outside St. Paul's cactus-covered gate, a bus spins out stuck in the mud. Bodies dangle from the roof and back, absorbing the splattering mud and growing antsy with the likelihood of having to walk hours home through muck too thick for vehicles to forge.

Down the road, Frantz Torchen, 29, lives in a typical 120-square-foot, clay-floored hut with his wife, four children and 95-year-old grandmother. Torchen attended St. Paul's Elementary School, but dropped out in 1998 to try to find a job. He is still unemployed. Also typical. Seventy percent of the country has no work.

His house has space for one mattress and two chairs. And a nonfunctioning TV with a turn-dial. His house doesn't have electricity. The TV is a status symbol - a mark of pride - even covered in dust and blankets.

Torchen's wife, Katia, wakes at dawn to make spaghetti, which is breakfast and dinner. She walks two hours to and from the spring to fill jugs with water.

Thirty percent more women and girls than men fetch water for their families, the program says. The water loads are often startling. A donkey lugs 28 gallon jugs: 210 pounds. A woman balances seven jugs in a dishpan on her head: 53 pounds.

The Torchen dinner table is the joint grave of Torchen's parents. His family eats and hangs out on the stone caskets outside their hut. Life revolves around death.

Torchen's grandmother is blind, and her chest bones protrude where her dress hangs too low. She cries. She kisses a foreign face that hovers close to hers.

"You can have everything I own, " she tells the volunteers in French. But she doesn't own anything.

The Colorado Haiti Project started with medical missions. About two dozen Colorado doctors and assistants popped up portable clinics for one week a few times a year, offering free care for about 100 people a day. They set broken bones, treated abscesses and helped children who fell or rolled into open fires.

Haiti has no public hospitals, and nearly half of the country doesn't have basic health care. That's one reason the average life expectancy hovers around 50.

The country has the highest maternal death rate in the Western Hemisphere. The child mortality rate in Haiti is 13 times that of the United States.

A nurse at the primary school tells of the corpse of a 5-day-old infant brought in recently from the Grand Ravine area. A classic story of a child born healthy who began having chest spasms and trouble breathing. Now dead. The mother wasn't immunized against tetanus. Hardly anyone in Grand Ravine is. The nearest clinic is three arduous hours away. Vaccinating personnel rarely visit, and residents rarely leave.

The volunteers could have done medical trips forever, says Don Snyder, president of the project's board of directors, from Boulder. He didn't attend February's trip.

But, he says, the clinics were merely a Band-Aid.

"Why have a health clinic without fixing the water? Most patients you see drink bad water, " he says.

Students can't study if they're dying. They can't start a business without money. And they can't keep the momentum going without knowing how. The Colorado Haiti Project realized all pieces were interrelated. Their oasis was born.

Back in the guest house, Berggren unleashes the plan he's been grinning about all week.
A survey.

It's simple, but unprecedented in Petit Trou. It takes him two days to explain, plus a 45-minute debate over his suggestion that women conduct the survey. Residents argue women can't crawl around the hills like the men. Berggren laughs, remembering the dozens of times he clamored up the rocks using both hands while women glided past him, no hands, balancing tubs on their heads.

"The houses here don't have cornerstones, " Berggren says. "Women are often referred to as the center pole. You pull them out and the whole thing collapses."

So it's settled. Women will visit the hundreds of huts in the 19 villages St. Paul's serves and ask them questions to create a measuring point for the project's successes and needs. Berggren will stay at St. Paul's until they census is done, for weeks after the other volunteers go home.

He expects one problem to rise to the top: clean water.

Only a quarter of the people in rural areas have safe drinking water. More than a third of the deaths of all Haitian children stem from contaminated drinking water.

The Bakonwa Spring is more than five miles from St. Paul's Mission. Two boys stride with clunky white jugs as hands. They wear no pants and platforms of mud under their arches instead of shoes. They should be in school. Instead. the boys hurry past mules and shaggy goats. They pass a man sitting at an empty desk in the middle of the road. That's the bank.

As they draw closer to the spring, the trees look like they're blooming with tattered clothes, hung out to dry. The shores are colored with blankets, buckets and residents, mostly women and girls. Thousands of jugs are filled here daily. The spring is the hub the community, as a hang-out, as well as the only source of water.

The jugs bubble and groan as the boys hold them under water to fill them. Upstream, a man washes mud off his donkey, and the animal defecates in the stream. Naked children bathe and leap from limestone ledges. Women wash clothes. The two boys gulp from their jugs before sealing them. The water is dysentery or hepatitis A waiting to happen.

The Colorado Haiti Project hopes to some day run a waterline to St. Paul's. It'd cost about a quarter of a million dollars. But first, the Haitians they hired need to finish building the school. Later this year, the project will begin offering micro-loans so residents can start businesses and stimulate the economy. About 65 percent of the Haitian economy comes from international aid. The average Haitian lives on the equivalent of less than $1 a day.

There's also the leaky ceiling in the guest house. The grading on the school building that leaves puddles of standing water; mosquitoes love that. The cook needs to keep the chickens and dogs out of the kitchen. Maybe the project will add health-education programs.

What happens now depends on the survey. If the thrust comes from the locals, they'll be more invested, Berggren says. Hopefully that will equal sustainability.

The Colorado Haiti Project is constantly changing, but it's always moving in the same direction. Like a river.

It starts in lofty mountain shelves, sometimes with the bang of thunder, other times with a drizzle of water squeezed from the ground - a grassroots organization, like this one.

Boulderite and longtime Colorado Haiti Project volunteer Pat Laudisio spends the rest of the afternoon on the bank, watching the children work and splash. A Bible verse, Amos 5:24, is lodged in her mind: "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

"We live in an unjust world and extreme poverty is one of the results, " Laudisio says. "We are all part of one creation and we are all co-creators. ... In the struggle to survive, the people of Haiti reveal life, with all its richness and pain, and within their souls - and ours - the same God lives."

Water gives life, she says, and everyone, including the Haitian community, has a responsibility to keep the water clean and flowing freely.

If left alone, the river Laudisio watches is deadly.

As she sees it, this is where the river of life starts.
Or ends.

Contact Camera Staff Writer Aimee Heckel at (303) 473-1359 or

Oasis of Hope: Part 2

Published 3/19/2007

Spiritual solution
Colorado Haiti Project takes comprehensive approach to fighting poverty

By Aimee Heckel
Camera Staff Writer

EDITOR'S NOTE: In a country with staggeringly low literacy rates, most education in Haiti is in the form of oral recitation. And in a country with poverty and pain far deeper than human comprehension, Haitians often talk in parables. Storytelling is the country's heartbeat. This three-day series, which started Sunday and concludes Tuesday, tells three modern-day parables of a group of Boulderites and their attempts to help save a country that, at times, seems 200 years beyond redemption. This is the tale of the Colorado Haiti Project.

Pat Laudisio isn't there when the voodoo prince selects the goat for sacrifice.
She can't see its eyeballs bulge when the machete blade sings across the rocks as it's sharpened.

Laudisio doesn't see how the voodoo priestess's fingertips curl seductively through the acrid humidity, or how the priestess's fat stomach quivers with her chants and the throbbing drumbeats.

But if Laudisio squinted just right, she could see the smoke oozing through the trees about five miles away, and she would know.

Laudisio, whose family is well-known in Boulder as high-profile restaurateurs, knows about voodoo. She's been to Haiti a dozen times. She was the first executive director of the Boulder-based Colorado Haiti Project, from 1999 to 2004.

Over the past 18 years, the nonprofit built the St. Paul's Mission near Petit Trou de Nippes, Haiti. The mission includes a school, church, guest house and rectory, symbolizing the project's comprehensive approach that spans education, spiritual growth and health care.

The approach is unprecedented in battling Haiti's poverty. Most nonprofits focus on one area, such as medical care. But this project has created a tiny oasis of hope along Haiti's rocky road of decay. It's a holistic model volunteers dream can be replicated a million times throughout Haiti, since that's what would be needed to truly breathe new life into this country. But a cluster of cement buildings is all the project can do. For now.

The plan orbits around a church: a community gathering point. God's presence. The fuel for superhuman strength - since that's also what is needed to breathe new life here. This spiritual support is Laudisio's focus. She is in Haiti mid-February with three other Boulderites, including her husband, Antonio Laudisio.

Voodoo seems to be the only thing Haiti has in abundance. That, and desperation.

The country, just an hour and a half by plane from the United States, feels medieval, lacking clean water, a sewage system, jobs, schools - even soil rich enough to grow food. Haiti is the third-poorest nation on the globe.

Some say to compare the poorest conditions of Africa to Haiti is like comparing prison to death. Haiti has virtually no tourism due to its destitution and lack of even a Third World infrastructure. Visitors mostly come to help, and residents would risk life to escape to become a Miami vagrant, a much cushier lifestyle.

St. Paul's feels misplaced, blooming with new construction and optimism. Its church is the second-largest Episcopal church in the nation, even though it is six hours away on a roller-coaster mud road south of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

The plot lay naked when the first volunteers visited in 1989. The land blended in with the rest of the Petit Trou oblivion, without even a water well.

Pat Laudisio is a deacon from the St. John's Episcopal Church in Boulder. She prefers to respect the voodoo ceremony from a distance. The smoke coils around a metal prong plunged into the flames, before it exhales into the sky looking like the spirits it's supposed to summon.
Maybe it's summoning the spirits of the living, too, a reminder to look beyond the disease-infested bugs biting at their ankles and toward a faith that could carry them.

Laudisio isn't looking at the voodoo smoke.

She has her own ceremony to run.

It's hot. Beyond hot. The air feels like fire, accentuated by the haze of incense that the priest shakes from a brass ball on a chain, the thurible. More smoke.

It's Sunday morning inside a sweltering furnace called the St. Paul's Episcopal Church. People walked miles. Some joke they come to service just to plug in their cell phones, even though most phones don't work. Locals carry the black boxes as a status symbol, much like Americans and their Starbucks cups. The church has power from a generator that works most of the time. Nests of power cords coil around the already overburdened electrical outlets.

But truthfully, the residents' dignified hairdos and attentiveness - despite the heat - indicate that this weekly ritual is a place to recharge more than just phones.

The children, dressed in matching school uniforms, gawk at the visitors, gently and curiously, but look down when noticed. Maybe they know their destiny is already decided, being born in the wrong latitude. Maybe they're being polite. Mosquitoes also came to church this morning. They came for their feast.

Father Kesner Gracia explodes at the podium, preaching in Haitian Creole. Kesner, the archdeacon of this region, oversees 35 churches and is the Haitian head of the Colorado Haiti Project.

Ninety percent of Haiti is Catholic. The remainder are Episcopalian. Locals say 100 percent are "voodoo."

Kesner, 33, is well-built, but he strains to hold up his shoulders under a heavy green robe. More people pack in. Capacity is 500. Standing room only. More mosquitoes and waves of humidity follow them. Kesner's volume increases with the growing audience.

Down the road, the villages look like they are
rotting. Flaking pink and green doors pop from buildings made from hunks of lumber and tin. They're half built, or maybe half deteriorated.
The name Haiti stems from the "land of mountains." Hills that were once lush are now stripped of green, the trees plucked out for charcoal mining, one of the few economies that is still lucrative. Clear-cutting led to erosion. The raped mountains now gradually slip into the bay.

Anyone who's been here can hardly dispute that Haiti is at the bottom. The quality of life cannot get worse. The only step down is death itself.

Miles and miles of the same: processions of anguished faces pushing forward, selling anything they can think of: sugarcane sticks, broken TVs, bread soggy from the dirty rain. One man simultaneously sells windshield wipers and cell phone chargers. For a country without money to buy cars or functioning cell phones, his commodities are baffling. But there's a spark of energy. Haiti is abundant with persistence, despite meager returns.

Back in church, it's Laudisio's turn.

She speaks slowly to the congregation in English: "When I see your eyes and hear your singing and see you all moving together, I know you have a lesson to teach all of the world: The grace and love of God, for he is truly present here."

There's something else Laudisio wants all of the world to learn. She believes if there's no hope for Haiti, there's no hope for the rest of us.

"The problems that exist in Haiti exist in all parts of the world today, " she says. "Haiti is running out of time and space and resources, and if we don't pay attention to the causes of the poverty in Haiti, ultimately it will continue to grow in the rest of the world."

Of course, if Laudisio is right, the flip side must be true: If there's hope for any of us, there must be hope for the least of us. The ghettos scream in defiance of that, but there must be hope for Haiti.

The church drums crescendo. Twelve young girls float down the aisle. Their callused feet caress the cement in time, slowly and softly enough to not disrupt the plastic baskets of hibiscus blooms, eggs and coconuts tottering on their heads. Step left. Step right. Slowly spin. They offer the baskets to the altar, as carefully as if laying down a sleeping infant.

They cannot give money, but they offer what they have.

It's the Haitian proverb: "If you have nothing to give, give a piece of your heart."

So different from a decade ago, when missionaries tossed balloons and candy from their moving vehicles at the Haitian children, like a pity parade. They thought they were helping, but the random giving stirred a sense of dependency and emptiness.

The Colorado Haiti Project now expects the residents to reciprocate, whether it's voting on the next venture or keeping the grounds clean. The nonprofit's goal is to some day not be needed. Laudisio thinks the girls' offering dance mirrors a shift in perspective.

"There is a joy in understanding that they can be full participants in a growing community. They can make their own contribution that comes from their singing, their movement, their dancing together, " Laudisio says. "It's empowering to give something."

Even when the gift isn't something tangible, she says. Especially then.

And it's true for the American volunteers, too, although that's tricky to remember coming from a material nation, where the price of a few pairs of running shoes could feed and educate a Haitian child for a year.

Just this morning, another Boulderite, Leslie Sosnowski, said she wished she brought 650 suckers or bouncy balls, one for every child in the school. But she didn't.

She saw a boy standing alone near the water collection tank. He motioned, palms up and pleading. His hollow cheeks and eyes said he was dying. Sosnowski had a few Power Bars left. She could have slipped him one. It was tempting. She went back and forth, tortured by the tension between her big heart and the impossibility to help every child she saw. She knew if she gave this boy something, she was excluding 649 others.

Instead, she shared with him a smile, a commodity that she hoped would be contagious and have a longer shelf life.

The dimension of redevelopment that resonates deeper than the physical is easy to miss, Laudisio says. But the church building without the community inside is just another forsaken shell on the road.

The spirit of a nonprofit is the small, still voice inside, she says. Beyond a particular religion, Laudisio says a community of faith unites people through common values, the spirit that ignites when people focus on something beyond themselves.

This spirit is like the smoke, whether at a voodoo ceremony or an Episcopal church, that crawls from the altar into the air and slides into our lungs. It's inside us, even if we can't feel it.

"I believe that God exists within each human person and every living part of this creation and that we are drawn toward one another because God calls God's self, " Laudisio says. "Sometimes that call becomes more intense through people who are experiencing suffering ... and we respond to it, and it is a light and a depth and a wisdom and a joy."

The spirit pushes the Haitian merchant's bare feet one in front of the other as he waves windshield wipers and cell phone chargers, hoping to score a sale.

It's what draws Pat Laudisio back to Haiti year after year, even when the magnitude of the project seems heavier than a mountain.

It is the answer "how."

"We are larger than our little selves, " Laudisio says. "Love exists. That's the way we will survive."

Church adjourned.

Coming Tuesday: Addressing the health of Haiti.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Aimee Heckel at (303) 473-1359 or

Oasis of Hope: Part 1

An island of stability
Colorado Haiti Project helps bring haven of hope to poverty-stricken Caribbean nation

By Aimee Heckel
Camera Staff Writer
Photos by Jennie March-Aleu

EDITOR'S NOTE: In a country with staggeringly low literacy rates, most education in Haiti is in the form of oral recitation. And in a country with poverty and pain far deeper than human comprehension, Haitians often talk in parables. Storytelling is the country's heartbeat. This three-day series, which starts today, tells three modern-day parables of a group of Boulderites and their attempts to help save a country that, at times, seems 200 years beyond redemption.
This is the tale of the Colorado Haiti Project.

Leslie Sosnowski is done with fear.

At least that's what the letter says. She reads it to the sounds of the growling airplane engine as it carries her to Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. She reads it there, in the darkness of night when she can't sleep after
she swears something crawled across her neck. She reads it when she wants to scream.

The loopy handwriting of her 10-year-old daughter, Sara, strings together the pieces of Sosnowski's heart every time she sees a Haitian child lugging water instead of studying, and every time she silently wishes she was home and comfortable in Boulder.

Before leaving for Haiti on Feb. 16, the 50-year-old full-time mom thought she'd prepared for the end of the world - and, in a way, that's what she would find during her week in Haiti. She packed a fan, face creams and a yoga mat. Yet the one thing she didn't pack herself, something her daughter had scrawled in Sosnowski's journal the night before, was everything she needed.
Sosnowski carries another note from her daughter, too. But it's sealed in an envelope and not addressed to her. Sosnowski doesn't know what it will say.

Sosnowski sits on the cool cement outside a classroom at St. Paul's Mission. This is Colorado Haiti Project territory: A tiny oasis of hope wedged between poverty in every direction. Four buildings, a school, church, a guest house and rectory, represent nearly 20 years of fundraising and construction.

The stillness here is jarring, surrounded by chaos. In this country, mothers swathe their infants in plastic bags so they can place them on the sewage-smothered ground while they cook and try to clean their huts. In the finest straw homes beyond St. Paul's, residents alternate sleeping on their one mattress in one- or two-hour shifts, hoping not to be joined by malaria-laden mosquitoes.

Sosnowski thinks the half-built school looks like a prison.

But it looks like freedom to the Haitians.

But this is not a story about buildings. It is about rebuilding. It's what happens inside the buildings.

And inside, St. Paul's buildings bring education, spiritual support, medical care - a pyramid of rebirth for a nation that appears, by all standards, long dead and decayed. The island floats just an hour and a half by plane from Florida, but it's 200 years behind. Eighty percent of the country lives in abject poverty.

Haiti's problems are complex, tangled in a history of slavery and political instability. The lack of solid government has resulted in near anarchy. So most nonprofits take on one task, such as running a school or offering free medical care.

But the Colorado Haiti Project is trying a comprehensive approach for this one village, near Petit Trou de Nippes, 80 miles south of Port-au-Prince, the capital. The Boulder group is the only nonprofit ever to attempt such a vast reincarnation for Haiti, even on a small scale. As they see it, all aspects of what they are working on - education, medicine and spirituality - weave together.

The humidity sneaks through the barred windows at St. Paul's School. The air is so heavy that it steals Sosnowski's breath. Or maybe the entire island leaves her breathless, because it's desolate enough to take anything it can get.

By American standards, St. Paul's grounds look blighted.

The cooks shoo chickens out of the kitchen. Rice and beans are cooked in an outdoor cauldron over a fire. The showers entail a pipe sticking out of the wall, a knob, the force of gravity and a water tank on the roof.

Sosnowski is one of four Boulderites on February's mission trip, designed to check on the program, assess community need and help determine direction. Sosnowski runs the scholarship program to help the children get an education, since Haiti has no free schools.

But really, Sosnowski's trip can be defined by two letters.

She hopes if she reads Sara's letter to her enough times, it will become true:

"Mom, you are done with fear. ... You will learn a lesson, and be the best."

Sosnowski decides now she must be done with fear, now that she's seat-belted in Father Kesner Gracia's Nissan. She locks the doors. Extra safe for the ride through the city.

The car stands between her and a city that looks like a disaster zone that forgot to wear its yellow "Police line: Do not cross" banner. It's alive, a city that does not breathe, but pants.

Every turn is punctuated by mountains of trash, open sewers, desperation and sporadic but proud political graffiti marking the 1-year anniversary of one of the country's first democratically elected presidents.

Beyond Sosnowski's windows, people burst with every gesture. The echoes of their words reverberate in a hollow hum from tin roof to tin roof.
Sosnowski jumps. A weathered hand slaps her window. It's connected to an old woman, who loses footing as she wades through the crowd and crunches across glass and wrappers that float through the streets like fall leaves back in Boulder. The old woman balances a rusty metal tub of bananas on her head. The threads that cling to her bones clash with her poise and her noble jaw. Her eyes hit Sosnowski's. She looks away first, too quickly to see the woman's glare melt into a toothless smile. The pride of Haiti.

Sosnowski is not done with fear.

Sosnowski wonders if the car is symbolic of her life in Boulder: a false sense of security through physical separation. Just one rock or flat tire away from havoc.

One week earlier, the United Nations sent in extra forces to Port-au-Prince. Kidnappings for ransom are common. One teen was recently kidnapped and murdered, her eyeballs gouged out.
"They say that Haiti has collapsed, " Sosnowski says. "It has."

Ten-year-old Sara wants to go to Haiti this summer. The youth group from St. John's Episcopal Church in Boulder wants to build a playground here. Sara signed up.

Sosnowski isn't sure her girl can handle it.

Sara carries a photo of her 5-year-old Haitian pen pal, Rosemie Fleory, and shows it to her friends at the Boulder Country Day School. Sara's enthusiasm inspires others to sponsor Haitian students. Before Sosnowski left, her daughter watched the Colorado Haiti Project's documentary on repeat.

"The level of poverty she sees in 'Haiti Calls' either doesn't register with her - or deter her, " her mom says. "I think she hears Haiti calling in her heart."

So does Sosnowski.

Well, she hears something. Only right now, it's muddled in fear and the swirl crinkling paper and voices. Sosnowski perches on a splintered bench outside St. Paul's Women's Resource Center.

The center opened in the fall with 60 students, young women eager to improve their cooking and sewing, and hopefully, their lives. This fall, the center will offer them business classes and micro-loans to start their own shops.

Sosnowski's white skin glows in a crowd of Haitian children, like the Haitian's white teeth glow against their lips. The children hover over pages from a coloring book that Sosnowski packed, stroking the pictures with markers as carefully as if they're performing surgery. Any kind of education is their life support. Fewer than half of the nation is literate.

Education will help bring the nation back to life, Sosnowski says.

More than half of the country's population is younger than 20. Of these 4 million youth, fewer than half attend school.

But around St. Paul's, 88 percent of girls and 85 percent of boys are enrolled in school, a survey found. In 2005, the Haitian government recognized the St. Paul's School as one of the best primary schools in the nation based on its exam scores. Then, the school had no classrooms.
Classes were held under trees or in corners of the church.

St. Paul's School is out this week for Mardi Gras, but children still buzz around the classrooms. The school provides more than 600 children lunch - sometimes their only meal. A quarter of Haitian children suffer from chronic malnutrition.

Look, there's Rosemie.

Sosnowski told Sara she could sponsor the Haitian girl if Sara worked to earn the $300 it would cost annually. Sara's household chores put Rosemie through school, buy books and a uniform and provide her with lunch. When Sara doesn't want to clean her room, Sosnowski reminds her of Rosemie.

It always works.

Sosnowski snatches up Rosemie's envelope and crackles across the white gravel. The child stands barefoot, awkward and tiny in the courtyard. Rosemie's face is empty. She wears her gingham uniform with her name sloppily sewn on the pinafore.

The crowd slides back as Sosnowski passes, her steps narrow and abrupt under her long khaki skirt. Bodies turn to watch, like sunflowers craning their hungry faces toward the sun.
Today, Rosemie is the sun. Or better. Rosemie is a movie star getting her first Oscar.
Sosnowski hears the engine of the Nissan choking closer toward the mission site. It's time to go to the village. Her exchange is quick. Anticlimactic, even.

Like the school facility from the outside, it seems simple. But look closely; this is about what happens inside.

First, Sosnowski translates Sara's letter into French: "Rosemie, your eyes twinkle with pride. Your smile is as pretty as the sky."

Then it happens. Rosemie's eyes twinkle. Her cheeks stretch toward the clouds.

The Nissan rumbles up next to Sosnowski. The other volunteers beckon to her through the glass. She's standing on the outside, separate, and for the first time since she landed, she can hear the calling that drew her to Haiti.

It's unsettling and transforming. It is beauty borne of chaos, not just for this country, but inside her. It's the love underneath Sosnowski's fear. Sosnowski is done with fear.

Chelsea will love it here.

Sosnowski waits a minute before climbing in the car, savoring one moment more of the incongruent anxiety.

Coming Monday: Building community support through spiritual involvement.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Aimee Heckel at (303) 473-1359 or