The French Connection: Serving and Learning in Haiti

Ship students in Haiti with members of the family of Michael Celius ’15, who helped to organize the service trip in Gros Mangles.

Ship students in Haiti with members of the family of Michael Celius ’15, who helped to organize the service trip in Gros Mangles.

The fear is always the same. A group of volunteers flies into poverty-stricken Haiti for a few days full of ideas, energy, and good intentions. They diligently complete a project and board the plane home, never to return.

Sadly, Dr. Agnes Ragone, professor of modern languages, has heard this scenario more than once from natives of Gros Mangles, a small village on the Haitian island of La Gonâve. “They’re upset that people leave and don’t return,” she said.

So, when Ragone initiated the first service trip to Haiti with members of the Modern Languages Department in May 2012, she promised the villagers they would come back. And, faithfully, for the past four years, Ragone and a small group of Ship volunteers have kept that promise. “We will continue this as long as a project is needed. They are so excited that we come back. They love us to pieces.”

In January, a group of seven students, faculty, and alumni flew to Gros Mangles to complete the second phase of their latest project—a crucially needed $60,000 medical dispensary. The project began in 2014 with laying the foundation, and this January, the group raised the walls. The closest medical facility is two hours away from the village over rocky terrain.

This project is important to me because the people
are important to me.
— Fallon Finnegan '16
Building the walls of a medical dispensary in Gros Mangles.

Building the walls of a medical dispensary in Gros Mangles.

“This trip can be very challenging mentally and physically because of the extreme poverty you are faced with the moment you step out of the airport,” said Fallon Finnegan ’16, a double major in communication/journalism and international studies. Finnegan first traveled to Haiti with the group in January 2015.

“This project is important to me because the people are important to me. They deserve a medical dispensary and so much more.”

“Everything is lacking,” Ragone said. “There’s always this idea that we get to leave this. But the Haitians don’t get to leave. You have to do something to help.”

LAYING THE GROUNDWORK

It’s been six years since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shook an already fragile Haiti to its core. The French Club was one of several groups on Ship’s campus to raise funds for the nearly 3 million people affected by the catastrophe. Infrastructure, communication systems, medical centers, transportation facilities, government buildings, and tens of thousands of residences were critically damaged or destroyed.

Ragone and Dr. Blandine Mitaut, associate professor of modern languages, had been searching for a way to get members of the French Club involved in issues that affect the French-speaking world. This was it. Working in Haiti created opportunities for meaningful service, new cultural experiences, and student research, Mitaut said.

“We did fundraising for the earthquake and other fundraisers. After we assessed that it was safe, we started talking about what we could do on the ground,” Ragone said.

Beyond their French connection, the club had a link through Michael Celius ’15, then a Ship student and former resident of Gros Mangles. While at Ship, Celius expressed concern for his hometown community.

“Through his family, we had something concrete,” she said. “His dad (Jonas) had left Haiti in a time of upheaval in the 1980s. He wanted to give back to his village.”

The pieces were coming together. Ragone and Mitaut worked with the Celius family to orchestrate their first trip to Haiti in 2012. When they arrived, they were overwhelmed. “It’s hard to bring myself back to that first moment, being in the village surrounded by so much poverty,” Ragone said.

Ragone and Mitaut said that based on past experiences, the villagers were wary of foreign assistance. Frequently, they said that groups came with preconceived notions of what projects should be completed, ignoring the true needs of the village.  

“We could have done any project we wanted,” Mitaut said, “but we asked what they wanted. We formed a village committee to listen to what they had to say.”

With guidance from the Celius family and open minds, they launched Project Gros Mangles.

WORKING TOGETHER

The most powerful piece of Project Gros Mangles is the group’s desire to maintain an open dialogue with villagers. The projects they implement are direct requests from those who live there.

Andrew Hutchinson ’17, a double major in French and international studies, has been involved since 2013. He said that what sets Project Gros Mangles apart from the rest is that “...it was designed and implemented in full collaboration with the residents of Gros Mangles who are directly affected by the project. The highest degree of involvement that team members have is dialogue with the residents of the village so that we can put our resources behind a project that truly benefits the village.”

During Ragone’s and Mitaut’s initial trip, the community voiced concern over providing a safe place for children to play. The committee decided to build a playground at a local school. Once they returned to Ship, Ragone and Mitaut worked with the French Club to host fundraisers, solicit donations, and hold sales to fund the project.

“Everyone involved in the project is encouraged to participate as actively as they can in these fundraising efforts, not only because of the financial necessities of the project, but so that each of us feels a strong connection with each aspect of the project,” Hutchinson said.

Once they raised $2,500, a group of students and faculty from the Modern Languages Department traveled to Haiti in 2013 to build a 5,200-square-foot play-ground. The following year, they collected another $2,500 and returned to construct a 4,000-square-foot addition.

Faculty, students, and alumni of the Modern Languages Department work with locals of Gros Mangles on the second stage of a medical dispensary in January. So far, the group has raised about half of the $60,000 needed for the project.

Faculty, students, and alumni of the Modern Languages Department work with locals of Gros Mangles on the second stage of a medical dispensary in January. So far, the group has raised about half of the $60,000 needed for the project.

They raised the bar for their second project, committing to erect a medical dispensary. Because of the $60,000 cost and the additional involvement, Ragone said their plan is to break the work into four stages. So far, they have brought in nearly $30,000, completing the foundation of the dispensary in 2015 and raising the walls this past January. She hopes to add the roof and windows next year, then finish the inside. The final step will be staffing the facility with volunteer doctors and dentists each month.

Finnegan, who cofounded the Kreyol Klub on campus, held sales and events to raise funds leading up to their trip. She encourages others to donate to Project Gros Mangles because they can be assured that every cent goes toward the construction of the dispensary.

“As Dr. Ragone says, $5 for Project Gros Mangles goes a very long way in providing this village with a medical dispen-sary, which is a necessity for living. Here (in Shippensburg) we have the ability to go to the doctor’s office or MedExpress if we don’t feel like waiting for an appointment. There isn’t that opportunity in Gros Mangles, and many people suffer because of this.”

LIFE LESSONS

A strong component of Project Gros Mangles is educating and creating global citizens, Mitaut said. The students involved in the project are already dedicated to the cause, but traveling to complete the work in Haiti forces them outside their comfort zone.

“They have this interest in the rest of the world, but are not always comfortable exploring it,” she said. “This gets them to practice their French skills and form relationships with other French-speaking people.”

Project Gros Mangles brings in three high-impact learning opportunities—study abroad, service learning, and student research, she said. Prior to each Haiti trip, students learn about the interesting and complicated history and culture of the country. Ragone said that after years of oppression, natives revolted and gained their independence.

Our students really develop a sincere relationship with the village.
They’ve developed a social conscience.
— Dr. Agnes Ragone

The Haitian people have very little, she said. There is no running water, no electricity, no trash pickup. People often eat once a day because they don’t have enough food. Families pay for school based on their means. Despite these hardships, Ragone said “the villagers we encounter are delightful, welcoming, and have a sense of pride.”

Hutchinson has traveled to twenty-five countries, but said, “Haiti presents a uniqueness that I hadn’t entirely expected.” He said he now counts the people of Gros Mangles as family and friends.

“The people and culture of Haiti are far too complex to easily sum up,” he said. “Haiti and her people have a rich and developed culture that is held back only by the injustices wrought upon her by the outside world. ...In the centuries since it emerged from the only successful slave revolt in history to found the world’s first Black-led republic, Haiti has contributed beautiful art, music, and literature to the world.”

Ragone said locals enjoy when Ship students share their knowledge of the country. This past January, Ship students spent time with Haitian high school students and played a history game.

“They are impressed that our students can talk about those things. It really creates a bond with the locals and Shippensburg students.”

Finnegan said the Haitian people, culture, food, and landscapes are indescribable. “The people are incredibly sweet and welcoming. ...They also love to share their culture. They find it funny when things are unusual to us and are more than happy to show you how things should be done in Haiti. The people make the experience and the trip unforgettable.”

While in Haiti, students also take a trip to the island market, participate in art and cooking lessons, and visit Port-au-Prince. When they return home, they complete research projects and reflect on their experience.

Finnegan said her trips to Haiti have made her more appreciative of everyday life. “When I brush my teeth with running water in the morning; when I decide what I’m eating for breakfast, lunch, or dinner; when I drive over a pothole because at least I have paved roads for potholes to form in—I try not to take these simple things for granted because I know how difficult it was to live for ten days without them.”

The experience has had such a strong influence on Finnegan that she is pursuing a career with a global, nonprofit organization in event planning and fundraising. Hutchinson plans to move to Haiti after graduation to continue his work.

“Service learning is so important for our students. Some students complain when they can’t get a Grande latte at Starbucks, but these people (in Haiti) don’t even eat,” Ragone said. “Our students really develop a sincere relationship with the village. They’ve developed a social conscience.”

ONGOING EFFORT

It’s clear there is more work to be done in Haiti, and Ragone is committed to seeing it through. Every Mardi Gras fundraiser, hoagie sale, yard sale, dance-a-thon, charity event, and GoFundMe.com donation gets the group further in its effort.

“We have to raise the money,” she said. “All our efforts depend on the generosity of people. So far, we’ve been able to manage it.”

But there’s still plenty to be done. She encourages people to donate what they can and, if possible, get involved.

“Despite all that misery, people live with a sense of pride. …They have an upright, moral sense that makes you want to stay attached and be involved.”

For more on Project Gros Mangles, or to
donate, visit projectgrosmangles.com.