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Vassar Haiti Project

A scene from last year’s art sale at the St. James R.C. Church in E. Setauket. Photo from Andrew Meade

By Melissa Arnold

For many people in Haiti, financial stability has always been out of reach. The country ranks among the poorest in the world, and the economy there only suffered further following a major earthquake in 2010, which killed hundreds and left even more without homes.

Despite all the setbacks, Haitians are still known for their joy and perseverance. They’ll do whatever they can to make a living.

This weekend, St. James Catholic Church in Setauket will host a sale of handmade artwork and craft jewelry created by talented Haitians. A portion of the proceeds from the sale will be poured into bettering a Haitian community.

The church is partnering with The Vassar Haiti Project, a not-for-profit, nonsectarian grass-roots organization based at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. The program’s founders, Andrew and Lila Meade, both have personal connections to the country — Lila’s mother grew up there, and Andrew graduated from high school in the country while his father was involved with the international diplomatic service.

The couple met in 1985 and quickly bonded over their shared background. They married not long after. The Meades were frequent participants in Haitian fundraisers, but it wasn’t until 9/11 that they felt prompted to take a more active role. “I think it was a time when we really wanted to think about what our purpose was,” Lila Meade recalls. “Haiti was always on our radar, so it seemed a natural choice to help them. We started to buy pieces of Haitian art here and there and then began to wonder what it would be like if we held an art show to benefit villages there.”

Andrew Meade is the director of the Office of International Studies at Vassar and thought the college would make a great host site for the sale. Using their own savings to purchase artwork and family and friends as volunteers, the Meades held their first art sale at Vassar in February of 2012. They raised $14,000 that year.

The Meades felt strongly about putting the money toward education and developing personal relationships with the people they assisted. With the help of existing Haitian relief programs, they connected with the mountain village of Chermaitre to provide hot meals for students and salaries for teachers.

“In the developing world, it’s typical for children to help the family make additional money by staying home and working. Families usually won’t send their children to school without incentives,” Andrew explains. “Offering a hot meal at school was a huge draw. For many of these kids, it’s the only hot meal they’ll have for the day.”

The Vassar Haiti Project continued to grow each year following their first sale. In the past 15 years they’ve completed a seven-room school for kindergarten through sixth grade; built a medical clinic with a doctor and nurse on staff; and developed a system for easier water access and purification, among other projects. So far, they’ve raised more than $500,000 for the artists and villagers of Chermaitre.

The project is currently working on a reforestation effort, which includes planting 100,000 trees, and building a women’s cooperative. “A lot of the women in the village do not have husbands and are raising five to 12 children in a very rural area,” Lila says. At the women’s cooperative, “they learn to make things like jewelry or napkins, or use other skills they’ve learned previously to work. Right now they are growing incredible coffee. We’re then able to sell those goods and pour the profits back into the community.”

The project is also supported by a passionate group of Vassar student volunteers who facilitate art sales and brainstorm new ideas. They also travel to Haiti each year to meet face to face with village leaders to discuss their needs and next steps.

“The program is about more than helping the Haitian communities. It’s also about mentoring the students — encouraging them to develop and implement their own ideas,” Lila says. “We encourage global citizenship — not just considering the world from an American perspective but from other cultures as well.”

The art sales have expanded beyond Vassar, too, with individuals and groups hosting their own sales in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Connecticut, among other places.

Setauket’s Jeanine Morelli, coordinator of the upcoming sale, fell in love with the project while attending her 30th class reunion at Vassar two years ago. Morelli says she admired the artwork and purchased a few pieces that weekend, but meeting Andrew and Lila encouraged her to bring a sale to Long Island.

“With this project, you’re supporting the livelihood of the Haitians rather than just supplying handouts, and the leadership education for the students is wonderful,” she says.

The first Setauket art sale was held last February at St. James Catholic Church, where Morelli is a member. It was a huge success, raising more than $25,000. While Morelli admits she had to get out of her comfort zone to plan the sale, supporting Haiti was worth it.

The upcoming sale will feature more than 250 paintings and crafts at a variety of price points, with crafts beginning at $5 and most paintings starting around $50. Sixty percent of the proceeds will go toward paying the Haitian artists and purchasing supplies for the sales, while the other 40 percent directly benefits the initiatives in Haiti. All purchases are 50 percent tax-deductible.

The Long Island Vassar Haiti Project art sale will be held from Nov. 20 to 22 at St. James Catholic Church, 429 Route 25A, E. Setauket. The sale will begin with a reception from 7 to 9 p.m. on Friday, and will continue Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For more information about the sale, contact Andrew Meade at 845-797-2123. To learn more about the Vassar Haiti Project, visit www.thehaitiproject.org.