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Art Sale to Benefit Haitians Beset by Storms, Food Shortage

Nov. 2, 2008 — Artists from St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas are donating works of art to benefit Haitians battling famine after the nation got hit with four hurricanes in a row.
Art Benefit for Emergency Relief for Haiti will take place Nov. 13 to 15 on St. Croix at Walsh Gallery, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the non-profit organization Haiti Community Support (HCS).
The impoverished island got hit with Faye, Gustav, Hannah and Ike, one right after another.
"It was harvest season and crops were lost," said Mathilde Wilson, a native Haitian and co-founder of HCS. "Planting is done with seeds from the current crop, but those seeds were lost."
Officials with the UN's World Food Program declared recently that all-out famine might be around the corner if immediate help isn't forthcoming.
"We are expecting up to 150 donated pieces from artists on all three islands," said Phyllis Biddle, chairwoman for the Art Benefit for Emergency Relief for Haiti. "There is a concern for the huge famine right here with our neighbors. We are looking forward to it being a good art show."
There will be a preview from 2 to 5 p.m. Nov. 13 and a reception from 5 to 8 p.m. On Nov. 14 and 15 the exhibit will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
HCS, founded by Mathilde and her husband, Bruce, is a V.I. non-profit doing rural development work in Haiti's remote mountain region. Its mission is to assist the community of Au Centre/Beaumont in Haiti and its surrounding region through programs that improve education, health and the basic quality of life of its people, and eventually through economic programs that make the community self-sustaining.
Au Centre is an often-forgotten village of about 200 families barely getting by on what they can raise as farmers. The village is located in the southern mountains, near the town of Beaumont, which is 130 miles — or a two-day drive — from Port-au-Prince. It is remote even by Haitian standards.
Mathilde was born in the village. While she is one of the lucky few who got an education, her mother and brother continue to live in Au Centre. In 2004 she returned to the village to visit her family. Seeing the many children who could not afford to attend the small local elementary school, Mathilde and Bruce gave scholarships to a few children. Back on St. Croix, Mathilde pondered how so few dollars made a world of difference for those children, and imagined the possibilities. Before returning to Haiti in 2005, the Wilsons held their first fund raiser at Mount Victory Camp. The community responded enthusiastically, and HCS was born.
The Wilsons spent last month in Au Centre, where residents poured the roof on their new elementary-school building. The 4000-square-foot structure is financed entirely by donations collected by this charity. One hundred and fifty villagers worked for two days to hand mix 250 bags of concrete and move it, by bucket, up ladders onto the roof. No time could be wasted — the last mix went up the ladder as the first outer bands of Hurricane Gustav arrived.
Joy in this accomplishment was overshadowed by the sickness and hunger everywhere, according to the Wilsons. Between crops, the children are dangerously thin. Many are eating only two green bananas per day, or a single piece of yam until the bean harvest in September, which should have brought relief. Their parents are often sick, with undernourished bodies susceptible to infection and disease, too poor even to buy aspirin.
Now the hurricanes have reduced the bean crop drastically. The continuous rains and winds have made the treacherous roads impassable. Near the village, two youngsters drowned when their bus overturned trying to cross a river. People live under leaking thatch roofs as their mud walls and dirt floors melt.
The Wilsons say they are doing this work because no one else is doing it. They operate under arduous conditions, but the need is so extreme that any help they provide makes a world of difference for the village and surrounding area.
Since 2004 they have renovated a four-room schoolhouse and hired a staff of 12 teachers/administrators, delivering primary education to 125 children each year. They bought land for a schoolhouse and community gardens, and finished the foundation, walls and roof for a new eight-room school house that will educate 175 children.
They have also built a food warehouse and community kitchen. HCS also completed plans for a community water system, piped from a clean spring, and arranged for doctors' visits to the village and women's education classes
Under the direction of HCS, an old schoolhouse is being converted to a medical clinic.
Paid work is provided on these construction projects part of each year for adults in the community. The educational, health and economic programs are designed and executed by the villagers. Program funds are spent in the village, improving the economy.
In printed material going out to potential donors, the Wilsons outlined some of the basics of the charity.
HCS serves 31,000 hot school lunches each year. That means 150 per day, five days a week, 45 weeks a year. This is the only meal of the day for many children. The Wilsons want to expand this program so they can serve school children's younger siblings and reach out to surrounding villages with "shack schools" nearby. Their goal is to serve 60,000 hot meals per year.
The charity buys the rice in Au Cayes, brings it up the mountain in trucks, and then carries the 100-pound sacks by man or mule the final hour's uphill walk to the village. Rice has doubled in cost over the last nine months. HCS is already taking money from other programs to make up for losses due to price increases. HCS has planted three acres of food crops on land next to the new school, and they are harvesting it now. HCS built a food depot to store it safely and securely.
HCS is establishing a health-care clinic in the village and a dispensary for drug prescriptions and hiring a health care worker to run it. HCS will also recruit and train five health agents to work in the outlying area.
The Wilsons were there in August when the roof was poured for the new school, enabling the kids to move out of a little schoolhouse. Also added to the new school were two 5,000-gallon cisterns to collect safe drinking water. A PBS news segment last week emphasized the crucial need for more safe drinking water on the island.
The school will be finished over the next year once funds are diverted from emergency food and medicine. With the old schoolhouse empty, HCS can renovate it into a clinic. Meanwhile charity workers are already using it by bringing in doctors who are working only a couple of hours from the village.
The Wilsons say the situation in Haiti may be deteriorating, with the instability of the world economy and the skyrocketing price of rice and corn.
"We need funds to expand our school lunches to many more kids, and to get the clinic set up," Bruce Wilson said. "Our groups in Haiti are getting things done, and they are incredibly effective. Our effort now must be to help more desperate people who are greatly in harm's way. These are not refugees, warring factions, criminals, drug users, etc., but peaceful, hard-working villagers who strive constantly to survive under abject conditions."
This is where the art show and sale is expected to help the charity take immediate steps in bringing in more food. For more information about HCS, go to haitisupport.orgor call 340-772-4380.
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