Making an impact despite the odds

Summers1

University chaplain Vaughn CroweTipton couldn’t send just anybody to Haiti. In fact, he couldn’t send anybody period, which presented a particularly vexing challenge in Furman’s quest to fulfill former president Rod Smolla’s pledge to help the impoverished Caribbean island nation.

“We tried a number of avenues, all of which were blockaded for a number of reasons, the most significant of which was Haiti on the travel-watch list,” CroweTipton said. “So we couldn’t pack up students and do mission trips, and the truth is that really wouldn’t have been the most feasible thing for us to do anyway.”

The U.S. government has long discouraged travel to Haiti, resulting in insurance regulations that prohibit Furman from paying for any active student or faculty member’s travel there. That left only former students as an option, and even if some way could be found for Furman to provide financial assistance, who in the world would want to anyway?

Well, Jenn Summers ’13 for one.

“I felt like I really wanted to try and do something for a country I feel the U.S. has gravely mistreated in the past,” she said during a choppy Skype interview from her temporary home in Cange, located in Haiti’s mountainous Central Plateau.

Summers sometimes shouted above the roar of a chainsaw and had to leave for a few minutes to avoid insecticide being sprayed from a truck. She was coming down the homestretch of a year spent as Furman’s contracted “project manager” teaching English and natural sciences to students at Centre de Formation Fritz LaFontaine (CFFL).

A French and biology double major, Summers became fascinated with global health and sustainable agriculture and read “extensive” amounts of Haitian literature at Furman. She jumped at the chance to help a place she felt she knew but hadn’t seen and doesn’t mince words about America’s culpability in creating one of the world’s most impoverished countries.

“The U.S. has been involved in Haiti’s political situation since Haiti gained independence, and a lot of U.S. policies actually hurt the Haitian economy,” she said. “Clinton approved a huge rice subsidy that allowed incredibly cheap rice to be dumped on Haiti and just destroy their rice market. That essentially crippled a lot of farmers in the country. In addition to that, U.S. marines have occupied Haiti throughout history, and we have been complicit in helping dictators . . . in the sense that we would use the dictators’ complete control to enrich certain companies.”

An example is Cange itself, which was created by a dam built in 1956-57 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The lake it created displaced the valley residents and destroyed their ability to feed themselves when it submerged the arable land.

“The people who live here now have literally no means of surviving,” Summers said. “They were farmers throughout their history, and there is not farmable land around Cange. We’re on a mountain.”

Furman’s involvement began when Gillaine Warne challenged the school to help during her convocation speech in 2011. For 15 years the Australian who now calls Upstate South Carolina home has worked to help Haiti through mission work with the Christ Church Episcopal in Greenville and by founding Zamni Agrikol (Partners in Agriculture) and CFFL.

Malnutrition is one of Haiti’s biggest problems, and CFFL’s main purpose is to teach the people in and around Cagne how to again cultivate crops. Funded largely by the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, the vocational school strives to educate around 65 students between the ages of 18 and 42. Smolla was so moved by Warne’s words he immediately charged CroweTipton with figuring out a way to help, and ultimately he concluded that grooming a student or students from Haiti to attend Furman would be the best way.

That was the task Summers faced. Creating her own curriculum, she taught natural sciences and resources as well as English to a population not especially interested in learning English, and complicating an already complicated task was the discovery that being fluent in French was only somewhat helpful in communicating with a population that spoke Creole.

“The Haitian learning style is a lot like the French learning style with its memorization, and I asked them to do a lot more critical thinking and application of what they were learning,” Summers said. “They’re students who don’t really have a lot of options in life. This represents for them one of the few opportunities they have really to start a career and continue advancing their family forward . . . A few of them are really, really engaged in all of the concepts, just very intellectually curious. And some of them are just there to try and find a fighting chance in life.”

Asked if she felt as if she was making a difference, Summers paused before answering.

“That is a really hard question. I think a lot of what I’ve learned here is aid efforts can provide a Band-Aid but not necessarily a cure for the inherent problems,” she said. “I can see the problems with the (non-government organizations) coming in and giving away free things, so many free things, and then expecting the economy grow. But how are you supposed to sell something when things are free? So am I helping? I think I’m helping my students. I really do.”

Summers says she made “a lot of great friends,” and despite a painful case of chikungunya the Simpsonville, S.C., resident will miss Haiti. But the lessons she learned will come with her as she begins pursuit of a doctorate in ecology.

“I’m excited and motivated to try and apply what I’ve learned and work in my own community where I think I can be really effective,” she said. “The problems are bigger than us, but a lot of us makes a big thing.”

A decision hasn’t been made as to whether or not someone will continue Summers’s work, but CroweTipton says he couldn’t have asked for anything more than he got.

“We knew we tasked her with something that was pretty much gargantuan,” he said. “I think she did a smashing job with the whole thing. I think she got a student right at the edge of potentially being able to apply here, but ultimately I think the English language issues (were a problem). Nevertheless, this student is on fire for education at this point and looks like he will enroll at a Haitian university and continue his education there, which benefits Haiti immensely.”

Furman awarded Warne with an honorary Doctorate of Humanities in 2012 for her work in Haiti. Learn more about her and Partners in Agriculture here.