From Stillwater to Haiti, with Love

How a nonprofit made the leap from Land o’ Lakes to Cité Soleil.

Stillwater-based Healing Haiti has been helping the 80 percent of Haitians who find themselves living below the poverty level for the better part of a decade.

Michael Stoebner had an idyllic Stillwater job: designing Christmas ornaments. Then a friend asked him to go on a mission trip to Haiti. They needed a photographer. “Seemed like a waste of time,” Stoebner says. He had work, a life. He went anyway. And as soon as he got off the plane, it was “so rough and raw and smelly and dirty and all the exciting things,” he says.

When Stoebner got back, he started slacking on his Christmas work. His employers saw why on Facebook: He took every chance he could to visit Haiti.

Now the communications director of Healing Haiti, a Stillwater nonprofit that organizes mission trips and spearheads development projects, Stoebner documents the country southeast of Cuba so we can learn what he learned.

“I’ve got it so easy,” reflects Andie Vizenor, a sixth-grade teacher at Stonebridge Elementary School in Stillwater. After taking a trip with Healing Haiti, Vizenor wanted to bring that lesson back to her students. “There are kids their age that are considered restavecs, or slaves, down there,” she says, “and here they are, sitting in school with computers and everything they want.”

Haiti is the poorest country in the world; 80 percent of its population lives below the poverty line. Haitian parents without the means to feed and house their children often sell them into labor or crowded orphanages instead.

In one such orphanage, a little girl sits at a table among her peers. Someone from Healing Haiti has placed a large plastic bag before her that spills Legos over the table. Research has shown that trauma caused by poverty stunts creative thinking skills in children. But the girl picks up a little R2-D2 Star Wars figure from the pile. Holding it to her face, she moves its legs as if to make it walk. She smiles, and Stoebner captures it on film.

Hunter Potter, one of Vizenor’s students, helped organize the drive to collect those Legos last year. “I used to play with them,” Potter says of the Legos he donated. “But when times get tough”—as when Haiti experienced a devastating earthquake in 2010—“little gestures, like sending someone something, can go a long way.”

Healing Haiti was founded in 2006 by Alyn Shannon as a way for people to make one such gesture. The nonprofit started paying Haitian truck drivers to import drinking water to ocean-locked Cité Soleil, where kids sometimes went days without eating or drinking.

A couple of years after the earthquake, the nonprofit hired Haitian builders to construct family-style orphan homes, a school, and a clinic that screens for cervical cancer, a disease affecting a quarter of the women there—all in a hub called Grace Village. There, Haitian employees work full-time as security, clinicians and teachers.

Healing Haiti creates jobs rather than doing the jobs for Haitians. “It’s the mission-trip model to go down, put roofs on houses,” Stoebner says. “But where’s the sustainability after that American team leaves?”

The 157 native Healing Haiti employees have salaries for raising families. That leaves missionaries—1,200 a year and growing—to do ministry work. They hug kids. They help carry 5-gallon water buckets. “We love on adults that might be at the end of their life—rub lotion on them and sing and pray over them,” says Monique Gainor, missions director.

“Part of being in poverty is that nobody cares. No one sees you. No one loves you,” says Stoebner, who now holds Healing Haiti meetings at his Stillwater home. “It’s just so much better when someone’s there, saying, ‘I’m with you.’”