Hands Together's roots date back to 1985 when Father Tom Hagan, O.S.F.S., who was serving as chaplain to Lafayette and Moravian Colleges in Pennsylvania, led a group of students on a visit to Haiti. When he returned, Father Tom realized that the experience's profound impact on the students opened opportunities for college students to become more sensitive to the plight of the people in this impoverished country. Educating, encouraging, and inspiring the students to translate their Haiti experience into a compassionate response to help the poor were the seeds sown by Father Hagan that eventually grew into the Hands Together of today.
By mid-1989, students from different schools, including Smith College, MIT, University of Massachusetts, Boston College, and the University of Kansas visited Haiti through Hands Together's programs. At this point, the program had grown into a recognized intercampus volunteer & relief organization, and as a result Hands Together, Inc. was established as a nonprofit corporation.
Hands Together continued its effort to bring as many people as possible to Haiti. In May 1989, the first adult/professional trip was completed, involving for the first time professors, doctors, lawyers, and people from all walks of life.
During the 1990s, Hands Together increased activities in Haiti and fund-raising efforts in the U.S. Fr. Tom, who was serving as chaplain at Princeton University, introduced the Hands Together Program to the students there and in doing so discovered a receptive, passionate and caring adult community outside of the University's walls. Directed by the vision of Fr. Tom and fueled by the support of good people in the Princeton area, Hands Together quickly matured and undertook ambitious large-scale projects in Haiti. Haiti's largest water-well digging machine was purchased by Hands Together and shipped to Caritas Gonaives, a local Haitian diocesan orgnization. Hands Together and Caritas Gonaives built a solid partnership, collaborating on water projects, community development, agricultural efforts, educational programs and emergency assistance.
Hands Together purchased a Haiti headquarters and center for volunteers to target the poor living in the worst neighborhoods of the Cite Soleil slum. After Fr. Tom Hagan moved to Port-au-Prince in 1997, our programs in Cite Soleil rapidly grew and Hands Together emerged as one of the leading educational and health organizations working in Haiti's largest and poorest slum.
Hands Together entered the new millennium determined to improve and broaden our programs and services to the poor living in Cite Soleil. We added many new classrooms to our elementary school, nearly doubled the number of registered members at our free clinic and became one of Cite Soleil's largest employers by giving decent, service oriented jobs to over 200 residents. Through much prayer and trust in God we continued with this slow and painstaking work, our roots sinking deeper into these very troubled communities. The people living in Cite Soleil experienced and appreciated the persistence of our efforts to improve their communities and slowly began to believe that we would not abandoned them in times of adversity. This strengthening of the fragile bond between us and the desperate, frightened people living in the slum has helped us weather the storms of violence, theft, and corruption that have wreaked such havoc on this horrible area.
The enviroment in Cite Soleil became increasingly violent as severe political upheaval and growing inter-neighborhood gang conflicts spread throughout the slum. Thousands of people fled Cite Soleil as more than 1,300 homes were burned and over 100 people killed. Under these volatile conditions, HT suffered constant harassment, threats to staff, attacks on HT volunteers and workers, and destruction of HT buildings and programs. Many aid organizations began leaving Cite Soleil because of the insecurity, but Hands Together increased its education and outreach efforts.
Even with the hostile enviroment and constant setbacks, HT opened two more Becky DeWine School Campuses: St. Ann Campus in 2001 and St. Margaret in 2002 -- thereby expanding our outreach to include five of the eight major slum sections. The people living in these neighborhoods suffered from acute hunger and malnutrition and HT launched dry-food distributions, providing rice, beans and oil to thousands of residents living near our school locations.
The Hands Together/Caritas Gonaives partnership continued to promote human development among the rural poor through water wells, agricultural promotion, irrigation projects and assistance to the poorest schools in the Gonaives Diocese. In May 2002 HT launched a major agricultural effort in Bassen, committing funds for the construction of a 200,000 gallon water irrigation cistern and 3 km. of irrigation canals, creation of a peasant farming credit cooperative, and the construction of Haiti's first center to promote enviromental protection and agricultural production.
Gang violence and instability intensified in Cite Soleil and HT closed its schools and outreach programs several times during this very dangerous and frustrating period. But this did not stop us from our commitment to help the poor there. After being shot at and failing to bring in dry food for the suffering population, Fr. Tom organized a meeting with all community gang leaders to forge a relationship that would allow HT to continue its mission to help the poor in Cite Soleil. For many months, HT was granted safe passage into the slums and HT vehicles filled with food and medicines flying white flags were the only ones going in and out of Cite Soleil.
A January 2004 e-mail from Fr. Tom to Doug Campbell:
"There was trouble today in Cite Soleil with shooting breaking out between Brooklyn and Belecau..our schools remained open but people were afraid this afternoon to go to adult education. Daniel, the director of the clinic was screaming and yelling at our house because he refused to take a number to wait for his salary.
During this most violent period, 28 HT staff & students would die, directly from the violence between the gangs and the UN forces.
Out relationship with the central leadership and gangs in Cite Soleil fueled efforts to create gang-life alternatives through education and job creation. Hundreds of young men and women worked for HT via projects such as: neighborhood clean-up projects, home-building, classroom aids, kitchen work, recreation and physical education, painting and school building repairs and other programs designed to promote responsibility and a health self-image. We provided scholarships for 100 gang-kids to attend a vocational school in Port-au-Prince.
A November 2005 e-mail from Fr. Tom Hagan to Doug Campbell:
"Doug...It is 5:15 and I feel like I have been beat up...this place is becoming tougher. Giving out 250 salaries was tough...also, Pocinat, the principal at St. Joe's brought me two large bullets..she claims were shot by the United Nations..one bullet pierced the wall of the pre-school classroom while the children were in class. Be in touch tomorrow, F Tom
Fr. Tom Hagan organizes a program called Oblate Volunteers -- for young men interested in the priesthood and joining the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.
By December 2006, enrollment at the Becky DeWine School had reached 4,400 students and HT operated 7 campus locations in Cite Soleil. Daily school meals and elderly feeding reached 5,000 per day -- funded largely through donations from BND (a Haitian NGO dedicated to nutrition and development) and Mary's Meals (a Scottish charity dedicated to school feeding in the third world).
In September 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanna devestated the city of Gonaives and surrounding villages. There was no warning and more than 3,000 people drowned or were buried alive in mud. Tens of thousands lost everything they owned. Mud slides from the deforested hills buried homes, killed livestock, and wiped out the meager subsistence farming crops. We spent 6 months helping people recover from the hurricane by providing food, water, and personal items, utilizing Gonaives students and HT dump trucks and back hoe loaders to clear the mud and debris from streets and homes.
Our Gonaives development team grew rapidly. Under their leadership we completed the CCFP (Catholic Center for Protection of Enviroment) established ongoing agricultural training programs for peasants, ecological weekend workshops for thousands of Gonaives students and irrigation and local credit cooperatives to help farmers become self sufficient. Our agricultural development expanded to include large-scale irrigation canals in Brunette and peasant training -- and for the first time since 1986, we saw healthy eggplant and bean crops in the fields in Brunette. By 2006, we oversaw five rural schools and a nutrition program for 600 severly malnourished children in Ti Desdunnes, Haiti.
By September 2008, our Becky DeWine School held 6,400 children: preschool - 10th grade. The 23 Oblate volunteers living at our HQ became our primary high school teachers and work 2 years before eligibility to enter the Oblate Seminary.
Employment issues became our biggest problem -- we could no longer fund the 200 extra jobs ($12,000/per month) we had created over the previous 2 years. The program was always explained as a temporary one-time outreach project designed to phase out early in the 2008 school year. To resolve this crisis, we offered the workers a "seed money" stipend that they could use for either education or enterprise business opportunities, like running a taxi or setting up a store.
A September 2008 e-mail from Fr. Tom to Doug Campbell:
"Doug, honestly, Doug, today will rank as one of the worst days in my history in Haiti. The day is ending and I am surprised at the anger that's still in me..anger toward people whom we helped a great deal..people who watched and did nothing. I can still see all the faces of the people in the insane crowd. I'm calming down after the fear and pain that I felt. I really thought at least three times that Nelson was dead. I finally saw an opening and for a brief moment they stopped blocking our vehicles. After we left there, I called you on the phone. I told you we would debrief at St. Veronica's. While in the office, I sent for cokes and water but within minutes I heard the crowd shouting again. We quickly left through the back barrier only to be met by an angry crowd that started pounding on the truck and throwing rocks. We eventually arrived at the center house and learned that Philogene got beat up pretty bad and laso Pocinat, one of our best teachers and a comissioner. I am angry and very sad. I feel very ambivalent. We have done so much and have receieved little or not appreciation or even understanding. What I witnessed today in the poor who so many people like to romanticize about was disgusting. I end by my promise to hit the chapel and maybe receive some transforming grace.
A response e-mail from Doug to Fr. Tom:
"Hey Tom...God gives us another day -- I was up at 4:30 am with my mind turning about what took place yesterday -- that is when I wrote you a short note in response to your e-mail that you send last night. To put you, Nelson, Philogen, etc. through a life-threatening scare like that just cannot be accepted -- we should turn off the "water faucet" -- I don't know if that will resolve anything, but those former counselors have a responsbility to act in proper way -- we never signed contracts nor promised anything more than what we did for them last year. It reminds me of powerful words that Bishop Ken Untner in Saginaw wrote about working with the poor -- 1) It is impossible to start trying to determine who are the "deserving poor" -- once you go down that road you are lost. Be reckless as Jesus was, with your mercy. 2) You will get taken working with the poor -- learn to write off the losses.
Hands Together officially dedicated the Becky DeWine School in June 2009. Thousands of students joined Senator Mike DeWine and his wife Fran along with the Prime Minister of Haiti, Michel Pierre-Louis, HT President, Joe Taylor, Fr. Tom and Doug Campbell for the official inauguration.
From September 1 - September 7, 2008, torrential rains from 2 tropical storms pounded Gonaives and the people experienced for the second time in 4 years catastrophic destruction of life and property. More than 300 people died, thousands of homes were buried in mud and countless business, vehicles, and food supplies were destroyed. In the surrounding villages, thousands of cattle and goats perished and almost all of the gardens and fields were destroyed as well. During our onsite visit we were shocked by the thousands of people living under bed sheets on top of buildings and tons of mud and garbage clogged the streets. From September - February, HT spent $300,000 repairing our Headquarters and vehicles, building homes, distributing food and water, removing mud and garbage, and other hurricane relief efforts.
With the purchase of 75 acres of farmland outside Gonaives, we began our second agricultural promotion program - the Clarke Agricultural Project. Along with the Bassen project, we will use the land to help farmers learn techniques to increase yields, plant profitable crops, and create cooperatives to pool resources and better markert their product.
In 2008, HT creates the outreach priorities giving focus for our ongoing Haiti mission projects:
- 15 school campuses with 11,000 students
- Spontaneous charity to poorest of the poor
- Response to disasters
Nutrition - Health
- Daily meals to 11,000 students, staff and elderly
- Canteens for children ages 2-7
- Medical outreach through 2 clinics
- Water well and irrigation drilling
- Agricultural promotion through Bassen Center & Clarke Farm & Enviroment Protection
- Employment for 500 people