Islanders focus on needs, progress in Haiti

Lynn Christoffers

In some respects, the gathering of Island residents at Saturday’s ACE MV seminar on the current situation in Haiti was a happy time, despite the dire conditions that continue to plague the Caribbean nation more than a year after the devastating earthquake there.

After all, they were celebrating the upcoming marriage of Nadege Florian and her fiancé, Rony Louis. Ms. Florian oversees PeaceQuilts, a program started by Jean Staples of Edgartown that enables Haitian craftswomen to create decorative quilts that are imported and sold in the United States.

In addition, perspective on the small country with big problems was offered by Sister Angela Belizaire, a charismatic nun who teaches domestic skills, including sewing and cooking to adolescent girls, in a school in Lilavois, 30 minutes outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city.

There was also the satisfaction of the people holding copies of “Patience To Raise The Sun,” an exhibition catalogue that features beautiful reproductions of quilts produced by PeaceQuilts photographer Harvey Beth of Oak Bluffs, and an informative essay about the program and Haitian culture in general by Nora Nevin of Vineyard Haven.

And a sense of joy rippled through the audience as they perused a full-page Macy’s department store ad in the New York Times trumpeting the sale of Haitian quilted products and featuring the people behind the self-help effort in the country.

Haiti’s recent earthquake agonies have been exacerbated with grindingly slow relief efforts by aid bureaucracies, but the nimble four-year-old PeaceQuilt project has survived, grown, and is proceeding apace toward phase two: finding markets for its startling and beautiful large-scale tableaux of Haitian life and culture.

Ms. Staples began the PeaceQuilts project in 2006 in a school run by Catholic nuns in Lilavois. She envisioned the project as a way for Haitian craftswomen to earn money to support and educate their families. Haiti has high unemployment and a culture that favors women doing most of the work while men do the watching.

Ms. Staples had accompanied her friend Margaret Penicaud of Vineyard Haven on a visit to the Fish Farm Project, a self-help project launched by Ms. Penicaud in Lilavois several years ago.

As an artist and art curator, Ms. Staples was impressed by the art she saw in Haiti. She imagined a commercial application that would benefit Haitian women. She decided that quilting was a good medium for displaying the art and the way was clear — except that she didn’t have any students, supplies, or a workplace. Nor did a market exist for the quilters’ work.

First, Ms. Staples learned how to quilt from her pals, getting the school headmistress to sign on to the project, and taking space upstairs from the Fish Farm office. The initial handful of fledgling Lilavois students are now the instructors for 50 women entrepreneurs, quilting away in four locations, including in Cite Soleil, Port au Prince’s worst slum.

Post-earthquake, the Island quilting cadre shuttled back and forth to Haiti and found an unexpected benefit from their empowering work. The quilters had used their new organization and skills to round up their families and set them up safely in the courtyard of the school.

Ms. Staples has cranked up her marketing mojo. Last October, Macy’s gave the art a major promotional run, featuring the merchandise and scheduling appearances by Haitian artists and musicians.

Calling on her background as an art curator, Ms. Staples has crafted a nationwide tour for the art. Events have taken place in high-profile museums, including venues in Philadelphia and in Bennington, Vt. where museum staffers like Maureen Matthews McClintock have signed up as Haiti volunteers.

“We are looking for more fine art galleries” to display the Haitian quilts, Ms. Staples said. The quilts range in size from about two by two feet to six by six feet.

“Patience” is a 60-page glossy soft-cover book featuring photography of the quilters and their art by Island resident Harvey John Beth, essays by resident Nora Nevin. Bennington Museum director Stephen Perkins wrote the introduction. The book can be ordered online for $19.95 at

The difficulty of their service work, particularly over the past year, is etched in the eyes of Island residents who’ve been on the ground and have seen life and death in Haiti.

These Island women appear to be changed by their experience. They showed up on Saturday as ennobled and focused as a unit battle-hardened by the death, disease, and suffering they’ve seen on poverty’s front lines. They are not check-writing warriors. They go to Haiti, some several times a year, and they work missionary-hard. They know.

Marney Toole said Saturday that they all know that Haiti was the poorest country in the Americas long before the January 11, 2010 earthquake killed several hundred thousand people and left swaths of rubble in its cities, slums, and countryside. They know, at a micro-level, the risks they’ve run to keep the hard-won positive traction achieved over four years with PeaceQuilts.

They are just people, our friends and neighbors. People like Ms. Staples, Margaret Penicaud, Lynn Ditchfield, Margaret Spokus, Karen Flynn, Betsy Marshall, Tomar Waldman, Jo Van Loo, Sherry Geistfeld and Mr. Beth. As they spoke to each other and to the slim audience on Saturday, it was clear that they don’t want praise, they want more for Haiti.

They said on Saturday that they are aware of the lessons of patience and a joy for life taught to them by their Haitian friends. They also said they are grateful to know that, although the facts of life in Haiti could make you cry, its people know how to laugh.