NYE — Picture a pastoral scene, continent unknown.
A critter munches grass in the midday sun. A pair of mature but lively women consider their day’s chores. Because they live in a remote area, it takes two hours to reach the nearest city. The scenery is beautiful, but life can be difficult and weather punishing.
It could be a note from Nye, Mont., with the critter a cow. Or the story could be unfolding in a little-known corner of the Caribbean. Critter: a goat.
Two Stillwater County residents live with energy and commitment in both parts of the world, finding parallels and differences in their two favorite destinations.
Deborah Griffin and Lee Wilder spend several months a year in rural Nye, in separate mountain dwellings. There, they prepare for time they devote each year to a humanitarian project in Haiti. Their beloved nonprofit endeavor is the La Gonave Partnership, a collaborative effort of the people of the remote Haitian island, the Episcopal Diocese of Haiti and U.S. partners both sacred and secular.
The two 60ish women, both professionals with grown families, are no strangers to volunteerism. For decades both have given time and counsel to art centers, shelters, health and hygiene projects, literacy and church boards.
Both own homes in Atlanta, and from Georgia they fly several times a year to Port-au-Prince. (Their next trip is in early October.) After a two-hour boat ride, they arrive at their labor of love to immerse themselves in education, health care, nutrition, agriculture, economics and tourism.
“Our goal is to help the people help themselves,” said Griffin, a retired licensed clinical social worker.
The women teach the locals survival tips and crafts, help implement health programs, set up an adult reading and writing project, and woo funds and volunteers with a regular blog.
“We help the people become self-sufficient by instilling pride while teaching them to sustain themselves," said Wilder, a mostly retired financial analyst.
After years of “helping rich people get richer,” said Wilder, “I’m doing something deeply satisfying to my soul.”
“We spend weeks there each time and usually within a few days, we see results," Griffin added.
La Gonave, with fewer than 100,000 people, is an island of rural communities. Much like Nye, agriculture is a primary activity. Most families have small gardens where they raise part of their own food.
“You see chickens, donkeys, cows, goats, sometimes a pig,” Griffin said. “But the poverty is extreme.”
If Haiti is the land the world forgot, said Wilder, “then La Gonave is the land that Haiti forgot.” The island is 37 miles long and nine miles wide, and much of the wood has been cut for fuel. Farming the barren and hilly limestone soil is difficult. Residents struggle to feed their families. There is little plumbing and cooking is done outdoors.
Wilder’s and Griffin’s goal is to help the people become self-sufficient.
“Although there is poverty most of us haven’t seen, let alone experienced, the people are very proud,” Wilder said.
The women, longtime friends, finance their own travel and receive no monetary compensation. They live in a rudimentary compound — five volunteers share a bathroom — and they eat whatever the locals prepare — mostly beans and rice and occasionally fruit. They travel with and help subsidize a translator, and they are both learning Creole. They are also teaching English to interested Haitians, establishing another link to a better world.
“It is fulfilling to see them gain self-confidence and pride — to learn to trust us and our intentions," Griffin said.
Their days are spent putting a pump to a cistern; stocking books in the school; conferring with nurses, priests, teachers or fellow volunteers on priorities of need; helping plant gardens; and coordinating efforts to improve water and sewage.
The women also supervised craftwork such as woodcarving and embroidery. They bring plain pillowcases to La Gonave for the local women to decorate. The embellished pillowcases are then shipped to Port-au-Prince and sold to tourists.
Another important project provides local farmers with a goat and training on how to care for it.
“A goat is a savings account,” Lee said. “A pregnant goat is a means to a better life. Goats are barter, livestock, meat on the table. Owning one’s own goat means everything.”
In this remote environment, west-northwest of Port-au-Prince, nearly half of the children suffer from malnutrition. Eight to 10 percent don’t reach their 5th birthdays.
Through the volunteers, that is changing. Three years ago, the Episcopal Diocese, along with Anglican and Presbyterian church workers, helped secure funds to build a clinic, a 20-year dream. With that have come vaccinations, preventive care and nutrition.
For the first time, ultrasounds are available for pregnant women, the elderly don’t have to leave the island for medical help, and children can be treated for the prevalent problem of worms, caused by lack of sanitation and a scarcity of shoes. Most children go barefoot.
“Many of the children are unhealthy. The worst are those whose mothers died so they’ve never been breastfed," Wilder said.
Wilder, an accomplished photographer, documents the project and Griffin, a spirited observer, writes on the website, lagonavepartners.org, about their experiences. The two reflect on the pleasures of watching a child grow stronger, a young mother gain confidence, a farmer gain pride as his single pregnant goat in time supports and feeds his family.
Griffin said determination, faith and the hard work of the people keeps her and Wilder returning to La Gonave — three, four and five times some years.
“When people say we’re making a sacrifice, we never know what to say,” Griffin said. “We get back far more than we give. When one of the young men said, ‘You told us you’d come back and you did!’ we knew we were in it for the long haul.”