The first time I went to Haiti, roughly two years after the earthquake, I was there to fly paragliders. I was part of a group who aspired to pioneer flying sites with the goal of organizing a flying festival and establishing a viable tandem flying area. Adventure tourists are typically some of the first to venture into a developing country, which is why we thought a suitable flying site might help the local economy. Utilizing paragliding to bring adventure sport enthusiasts to Haiti as well as helping to start a tandem business that one day could employ Haitian pilots were two of our goals, but we were also there to fly the mountains-beyond-mountains for which the country is known. We realized we needed to see the lay of the land before we could move forward with either idea.
After arriving in Haiti, the NGO workers we met seemed amazed when they learned we were there to fly paragliders, explore the country, and enjoy a holiday. Our not having a driver, venturing wherever the wind took us for the next two weeks, and financing our own travel to locate flying sites baffled them. We drove countless hours over some of the roughest roads, with the goal of finding the perfect spot to someday host a flying festival. In truth, it wasn’t a pure vacation, but as far as I could tell during our time there, we were the closest thing Haiti had to conventional tourists.
Our unique sport of paragliding arrives in locations without political, business, or strategic preconceptions. Because we are not competing for resources or espousing ideology, people are generally open to letting us in on whatever they are up to. For example, I received an education on the competing theories behind straight foreign aid allotment versus free market/ for-profit resource community development. The former distributes resources directly to those in need, while for-profit development helps individuals or groups build businesses that provide needed resources to the community at a cost just below the free market price.
From a boots-on-the-ground level, I found our arrival within communities resulted in a shared joy rather than the skepticism many people in aid-riddled countries have for foreigners. Perhaps this was because in landing a parachute in a place that had never considered such a possibility, we became welcomed, celebratory, visitors—a break from daily drudgery—rather than someone entering with an aim for change, which locals have seen over and over again with varied results. The residents seemed to appreciate their locale being highly prized by visitors. Of course, people working for change in Haiti are truly dedicated and indispensable to their cause and the country’s eventual recovery. I am merely pointing out that we were able to bring them a bit of blissful normality, while participating in our sport, paragliding.
After weeks on the road, we located a half-dozen flying sites throughout the country, but none with easy access. However, by the end of my first two-week trip I was committed to raising awareness outside of Haiti that the country is not solely about natural disasters, relief work, and cholera. It is a worthy destination for experiencing a vibrant culture ripe with amazing art and soul-filling music, and a beautiful and challenging spot for paragliding. Our group came up with a slogan: Vacation First Mandate, or VFM. We postulated that coming to Haiti on vacation could be a great way to help Haiti by providing income for communities that would sustain local economies. If the Dominican Republic could have a thriving paragliding and kite-surfing tourism network, why couldn’t Haiti? And how cool it would be to use sporting prowess to enable change in a country that is desperate to be uplifted!
We travel for a variety of reasons— to enlarge our worldview, develop deeper and broader perspectives, seek adventure, take photos for Instagram, or to increase our exposure to, and understanding of, the human condition. After I returned from my first trip to Haiti, I tried to evaluate my encounters there. I didn’t find it to be the most “fun” place to hangout, as it was expensive, difficult to navigate, sometimes dangerous, and historically downtrodden. Yet it was intense, had a rich beauty, and fostered a perspective shift in me that is hard to explain. Much like driving through Port-Au-Prince, explaining a trip to Haiti takes a lot more time than the usual, quick response, “it was fun,” that helps me get through the grocery store in my small town of Jackson, Wyoming.
I left Haiti simultaneously inspired and weary to continue the effort to find a viable flying site on the next trip that could sustain a tandem business and host a flying festival. After the second two-week trip during the following fall, we established a solid tandem launch just 1.5 hours from the capital of Port-Au-Prince, surrounded by beautiful Caribbean beach resorts. Simon Vacher, a tandem pilot and friend, works there four months out of the year. And this year, with the help of the Cloudbase Foundation and KEEN shoes, we will train our first Haitian pilots from the surrounding community to become tandem pilots who will fly tourists, missionaries, and NGO workers, providing a good income for them and their families.
I also have been trying to determine how I can help on a deeper level, in addition to our tourism mission. After a bit of a learning curve and my fifth trip to the island, I discovered an amazing community center in Cite Soleil run by Haitians for Haitians, called the SAKALA.
Cité Soleil is considered to be among the poorest and most dangerous slums in the Western Hemisphere. This densely populated neighborhood suffers from decades of exploitation, government neglect, and social stigmatization, and Cité Soleil’s youth bear the brunt of this marginalization. The founders and staff of SAKALA have consciously placed themselves here, working to transform children’s lives. Simultaneously, they are combating outside stereotypes of Cité Soleil.
SAKALA is a community center and organization that fosters and provides sports, education, urban gardening, community service and peace-building workshops, in an effort to provide safe environments and empower youth to become active members of their community engaged in building a society in which social justice can flourish. The term SAKALA is both an acronym and a word in and of itself. As an acronym, it stands for Sant Kominote Altenatif Ak Lape, which translates from Creole to English as The Community Center for Peace and Alternatives. As a word, it translates roughly to “Acceptance.”
250 youth from all four blocks of Cité Soleil are enrolled in SAKALA’s programs, and the community center’s playground, sports facilities, classrooms, library, computer lab, and urban garden also serve the community at large.
On the last trip to Haiti, I took 35 pairs of KEEN shoes for the after-school soccer program based in the SAKALA. This following video features Daniel Tillias, the director of SAKALA, and the kids from SAKALA who can now play with a lot more ease on the hot, paved soccer pitch of their soccer field.
The Cloudbase Foundation recently raised money to start a urban gardening education and tool lending center for Cite Soleil based out of the Sakala. This program will be the keystone of an effort to help locals in the neighborhood grow their own gardens in a space as small as a tire, be a self sustaining business that will lend tools, create a communal farming area to work, sell compost, and promote Meringa to fight malnutrition. We have a long way to go, but we are confident in our partners at the Sakala.