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Empower the People: How St. Luke is Making an Impact in Haiti

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Empower the People: How St. Luke is Making an Impact in Haiti

by Kate Vandeveld

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

- Howard Thurman

When you meet someone whose work and passions align, their enthusiasm and depth of knowledge is inspiring.

We recently had an opportunity to chat with just such an individual: Wynn Walent, a musician and Assistant National Director at the St. Luke Foundation for Haiti. St. Luke is a volunteer-based and Haitian-led non-profit that provides education, medical care, and vocational training in places that have been underserved by traditional service providers.

Empower the People: How St. Luke is Making an Impact in Haiti -- via WhyWhisper Collective

Wynn does incredibly impactful work in Haiti, and when we connected with him, we couldn’t wait to share his story with you. Here’s what he had to say…

Tell us about your experience in Haiti, and how you got involved with St. Luke.

I went to Haiti for the first time after the earthquake in January 2010. At the time, I was working for St. Luke's partner organization, Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) in Peru. St. Luke grew out of the NPH programs, starting about 15 years ago as children in the NPH orphanage grew into adulthood and were seeking a way to transform and improve their communities. When the earthquake happened, I was in Peru working at an orphanage, and intending to go back to New York in a few months. They asked me if I would come to Haiti to help out. I planned to stay for two months, but just kept extending my stay. I stayed there full-time for about two and a half years, and now I go back at least every two months. I still work with St. Luke but I’m now based in the United States, with frequent trips to Haiti.

What is your role in Haiti with St. Luke now?

II do a variety of things, but I focus mainly on communications, fundraising, building awareness, forming partnerships. When I was in Haiti originally, it was very hands on. I worked at the hospitals, and at the cholera center that we started at the end of 2010. Cholera hadn’t been in the country before then, and it came at an extremely vulnerable moment, so I was helping a lot with that. Since then, we’ve seen over 40,000 patients in the cholera center alone.

Now, I support the Haitian leadership at St. Luke’s Hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital and St. Damien’s Hospital, which is part of NPH. There are also two other clinics, including a women’s health clinic, and thirty two schools, including a nursing school, a secondary school, and a number of primary schools. In total, there are 2,000 Haitian employees between NPH and St. Luke together, and every program is Haitian led, which makes all the difference in the world. It's a Haitian organization. Haitian people lead, and foreign friends contribute and help at the service of their vision.

I support by making connections, fundraising, and nurturing relationships with foundations, while also working on grants and communications. I show prospective donors and supporters around. I look for creative ways to engage people in trying to understand the reality in Haiti, both the great need and the great possibility and strength.

Photo by Rebecca Arnold

What would you say makes St. Luke unique from other similar organizations?

St. Luke is unique for a few reasons.

First of all, St. Luke’s founder, Father Rick Frechette, is a really extraordinary man. He’s an American priest and doctor who has been in Haiti for about thirty years now. He's really beyond special.

St. Luke consists of two hospitals, 32 schools a job creation and production center, where we make pasta and bread and cement blocks. There’s also a restaurant, a kitchen and a tilapia farm, agriculture, clean water programs, housing. All of that is the St. Luke Foundation.

St Luke was born when the kids at NPH’s orphanage grew up and wanted to start their own organization. It’s 100% Haitian-led, with important international involvement and partners, but every program is led by a Haitian professional. It’s unique in that there is no real overhead, and resources go directly to the hands of the Haitian people, who know the local people and dynamics in the context of their country. They are so much more than capable, and we just give them the tools and resources they need to make that happen. We’ve been able to make a ton of progress as a result. Haiti is a really challenging place, and there are a lot of complicated reasons why it’s challenging. St. Luke is a great example of what can happen when Haitian people are given the reins, and given resources to make change.

We’ve also been working to integrate social enterprise into our model a bit, to provide a more sustainable income flow to the Foundation. We’re just trying to trim the margins of our budget a bit, not fully fund internally – that likely will never happen. We’re focusing on agriculture, peanuts, peanut butter, mangos, and tilapia. The model differs a bit for each: For tilapia, we sell some to local restaurants and local NGOs and use some to feed orphanages and employees.

We also build our own cement blocks, which is very impactful. This is because people often build in phases in Haiti, which is what made the earthquake even more devastating because homes weren’t complete. In making our own cement blocks, we can sell the blocks wholesale and let people pay us back over time so they’re able to build all at once, which makes a huge difference.

How have these experiences shaped you as a musician? And conversely, how has your music played a role in your work in Haiti? 

When I lived in New York, I was working with kids at a non-profit, but also playing music as much as I could. I had a period of time where I was traveling around, playing a lot of shows. But when I went to Haiti, music was put completely on the back burner, and the burner was turned off. I was just really focused on the work every day. Even now, I’m not actively pursuing music in the same way as before.

That said, my new album is based in the fact that music is such an integral part of my life and the lives of the people in Haiti. There are funerals and mass every day. I don’t really go to mass in the United States, but in Haiti, I go everyday, and it’s because I want to go every day. It’s a lot of community and solidarity, and music is an incredibly powerful part of the experience. I learned all the songs from burying the dead and spending time at the general hospital, and the songs are incredible. They’re spirituals and have a country gospel feel to them. Those melodies became the songs on the record. They’re not direct translations because it wouldn’t make sense, but they’re interpretations of the songs I hear there. I’m in no way an authority on Haitian music, and there are lots of different types of it, but I’m an expert on these ten or twenty songs. I’ve heard them so many times and just love them.

Wynn Walent of St. Luke Foundation Haiti -- via WhyWhisper

Many members of the WhyWhisper community want to use their time and skills for social impact, but sometimes don't know how to get started. Do you have any advice for them?

If the interest is international, you have to go to the country you want to work in. If you want to get involved in the “developing world,” you want to go and spend time in those places so you can see the reality in 3D. You have to link up with local people and link to them for as long as possible, in order to learn how to engage and make an impact a little bit later. But the first step is really just to walk with the people that you want to help. It may sound trite, but it’s really true.

Then I would say to find creative ways to make the people you’re hoping will support the work feel like a part of what you’re doing. Rather than saying “help us make this happen,” you’re saying “you’re a part of this team – how can we make this happen together?” Help them to understand that the link is direct. And I think that the way to do that is to put the resources into the hands of the local folks so that the link actually is direct.

What's the best way for people who want to help in Haiti, or with St. Luke specifically?

A great way to become involved with St. Luke specifically is through our Ambassador Program. Our Ambassadors help us spread the word about the work we’re doing in Haiti.

There are also other things that you can do from the United States. You can host a fundraising party. Last year, there were 32 holiday fundraising parties. Some are large and celebrity-driven, whereas others are small groups of friends having dinner parties to tell people about our work and request support.

We’re always looking for people with different types of skills to get involved in our work in different ways – especially graphic designers and fundraisers, so if you know any of those, send them our way!  You can contact me directly if you want to get involved in any capacity and we will figure out the best way to work together.

 

Wynn is going on tour this summer to promote his new album, which you can download here. All he requests in exchange is a donation of your choice, 100% of which will go to St. Luke. He’ll be in New York on August 5th, joined by friend and colleague, Esther Desir, who manages St. Luke’s morgue. They’ll be singing songs from the album, and weaving in the Haitian spiritual style even further with Esther’s help. According to Wynn, her live performance is not to be missed, so we encourage you to check out the details and get your tickets ASAP.

Wynn is also writing a book about Haiti and his friends there, which will be finished this fall. Stay tuned!

Do you know of someone who is doing something cool in the social impact space? Share with us! We’ll help spread the word. Here’s how:

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Start With Passion: How pilotED is Changing Education in Chicago

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Start With Passion: How pilotED is Changing Education in Chicago

by Kate Vandeveld

We write a lot about social entrepreneurs, people who change the world through revenue-generating business models. But as we well know, there are many who find the nonprofit model to be a better fit for their cause. Here are some of the factors to take into consideration when deciding which option is best for your organization or business.

Non-profits are critical in the world of social impact, and their leaders, like social entrepreneurs, are often passionate, driven individuals who see problems and want to find sustainable ways to fix them.

We recently had a chance to connect with Ben DuCharme, co-founder of Chicago-based non-profit pilotED that is working to provide critical support to at-risk middle school students who want to pursue higher education, but lack the necessary resources and guidance to do so.

Here’s what he has to say about his work and his experience developing and growing a non-profit:

 

Tell us a little bit about your career path, and what led you to start pilotED.

As a senior science major at University of Wisconsin-Madison I found myself disillusioned with the career paths that lay in front of me. Like many other students, I had partially planned on attending medical school, but fell out of love with the idea of working 24-hour shifts in a hospital. I turned instead toward my other potential career path: teaching. Along with other recent college graduates, I joined Teach For America-Chicago, which gave me the opportunity to dive into urban education. Although naive and consistently humbled by my lack of experience, I also quickly came to realize that many of my students, juniors and seniors at Eric Solorio Academy High School, had made their way through years of school with poor skills and worse academic habits. By the time they reached graduation, it was too late to undo years of inconsistent effort, apathy, and poor results. Their trajectory had been set a long time ago.

The idea for pilotED sprung from this realization. Jacob Allen, Marie Dandie, and myself recognized the lack of concerted effort to get at-risk students on track for college graduation early in their educational careers. While there are many great organizations operating in the high school or after school space, there was nothing available to middle school students who hoped to do great things with their lives, but lacked the support to do so. pilotED fills that void by taking cohorts of twenty "C" average 6th graders, and leading them through a four-year curriculum focused on identity and academic growth. Our program culminates in the 9th grade year, once students have established themselves as successful high-schoolers on track for high school, and college, graduation.

How pilotED is Changing Education in Chicago -- via WhyWhisper Collective

What is your role within the organization, and how did you determine your team structure?

My official title is Executive Vice President; however, I focus my time and effort on pilotED's metrics and teacher training. As a young non-profit, the establishment of strong and consistent data is essential to our growth. At first, myself and the two other co-founders made most decisions together. However, that team structure was unwieldy at best, so early on the three of us sat down to map out responsibilities. Although that sounds quite simple, in reality, the release of responsibility can be a difficult step, especially when you are used to having some control over all aspects of the organization. Our team's strong relationship allowed us to see each other's strengths, weaknesses, and passions, which led to a well-reasoned division of roles.

 

What would you say have been the most difficult aspects of developing and sustaining a non-profit?

For a growing non-profit, momentum is key. In order to build momentum, you need to maximize potential opportunities. Whether it is an official pitch or an informal conversation with a key stakeholder, how you present yourself and your non-profit makes all the difference. Each of these opportunities might be the only chance you get to secure a donor or an advocate who wants to open their network to you. As an organization, we found that our passion for our mission and vision quickly developed momentum in the Chicago education community, but sustaining it now that we are a known commodity is our new challenge.

 

What has been the most rewarding part of the experience so far?

As an educational non-profit, I have seen two distinct areas of reward. The first, and the most rewarding, is seeing our young 6th graders excel. Watching young adults learn and grow together and support each other to become better students and people has been quite the experience. Seeing the pride on their faces when they strut around in their pilotED t-shirts is something else.

The other area of reward has been the positive feedback we have received from the Chicago education community. When pilotED was just an idea, we believed that it was absolutely necessary and had the potential to revolutionize students’ lives. But we weren't sure that others would agree with the same level of excitement. Over the past two years we have been rewarded by receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from other education professionals. Whether in the boardroom or the classroom, people actively reach out to support us, which proves both how generous the Chicago community can be and that our work is valuable. 

How pilotED is Changing Education in Chicago -- via WhyWhisper Collective

How do you envision pilotED growing over the next few years?

During our first few years, pilotED will double in size each academic year. In five years we will be in three cities with similar populations of urban students where the need for pilotED is high. We have already been approached by individuals in other cities about expanding; however, our priority is establishing consistent success before we scale at a rapid pace.

 

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting their own non-profit?

When you build a non-profit from scratch, the founders have to believe wholeheartedly in their mission and vision. Everything that happens to that organization over the first few months and years is tied to your belief in and passion for your work. We started pilotED while the three co-founders were full-time teachers. It would have been easy to want to forgo more meetings after a long day of work. But it didn't feel like work. What we were doing each night was so important that we walked away from our meetings refreshed and reenergized. I could not imagine getting an organization off of the ground without a similar level of passion.

So if you are starting a non-profit, I urge you to ask yourself how strongly you believe in the idea and the pragmatic reality of what it will be. If both excite you, then go for it. We need more leaders like you.

 

We’re inspired by the pilotED team’s drive to make a difference in a way that is impactful and sustainable, and look forward to seeing it grow.  Check out the impact that they’re already making here, and then get updates by following them on Twitter and Facebook.  And if you’re interested in supporting their mission, you can make a donation here, or even sponsor a student.

Know of a non-profit leader that is making an impact in an area that’s important to you? Connect with us – we’d love to spread the word. Here’s how you can do it:

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5 Ways to Keep Your Creative Mind at its Sharpest

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5 Ways to Keep Your Creative Mind at its Sharpest

We’ve all experienced it - that moment when we realize we are no longer able to give our best. As social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders, we work tirelessly to drive our cause or project to the next funding goal or deadline. When exhaustion sets in, it's an unwelcome barrier to finishing the kind of inspired, fresh work we know we are able to deliver as our best selves. 

Here are five practices to keep your brain at its best, regardless of how many long hours you’re putting in:

1. Read a book  

According to a new study from Emory University, reading a gripping novel often causes the brain to “transport” into the body of the protagonist. This can cause shifts in the part the brain associated with receptivity for language, as well as the primary sensory motor region of the brain - leading to heightened connectivity. 

2. Take some time off

Every seven years, designer Stefan Sagmeister closes his New York studio for a year-long sabbatical to spend time renewing his creative outlook. In his recent TED talk, he shares the power of finding new inspiration by taking time away from regular routine.

3. Do one thing one at a time

Research has found the human brain incapable of multitasking. Instead, it switches between tasks quickly, and expends valuable energy as a result of doing so in succession. In contrast, doing one thing at a time saves the brain's energy supply and enables it to produce higher quality work. 

4. Feeling tired? Get creative

When you are tired, your brain is less efficient at filtering out distractions and focusing on particular tasks. This is usually considered a negative thing. But it it can be positive when it comes to taking on creative tasks. A tired brain is more likely to make new connections, accept unfamiliar ideas and think in new ways.

Try your most creative tasks before you fall asleep at night, or during your typical "low energy" time during the day. You may be surprised by the creativity that unexpectedly flows out of you!

5. Take a nap 

If you feel that you require a nap…take one! Studies have shown improvement in creative thinking, cognitive function, and memory performance as a result of afternoon naps. It is also possible that taking a short nap after learning information speeds up the process by which information is retained. Here’s a study explaining why. 

Have something to add? Tell us in the comments and we'll share it with our followers!

(Creative Commons photo from Flickr user jgoge)

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