GIVING BACK: Melyssa Ford in Haiti

Today marks the second anniversary since a 7.0 earthquake rocked the country of Haiti. While many are in remembrance of those whose lives were shattered by the devastation, others are giving back regularly in any way they can.

Words & Interview: Aimstar
Images: Courtesy of Melyssa Ford

All eyes are on Haiti today as another year passes with very little having changed with regard to the restoration process since a mega quake hit the region on January 12, 2010. When the shock was still fresh, many pledged their support by donating clothes, non-perishable items and money to local and national organizations who promised to help those in need. Many expected the turn around to be quick, even with the plight of presidential elections mashed in between. For some today, the memory is long forgotten; lives and dreams were lost, but they moved on. For others, the struggle to heal Haiti continues on the ground there and abroad, and they’re doing their best to offer their assistance.

Actress, model and philanthropist Melyssa Ford is one of those people lending her support to a country that she has no connection to, other than an empathetic one. Seeing the opportunity to give back to the Haitian constituency in person, she traveled to the island last December for the first time.

How did the trip to Haiti come about?

I had never been to Haiti before my trip in December. It was something that had been discussed between my mentor, Dr. Marcia Dyson, and myself for close to a year. She works closely with the socio-political faction of the Haitian government and alongside WeAdvance.org, an organization that works closely to advance the health, safety and well-being of the women and children of Haiti.

Where did you stay, for how long and what was the experience like for you? What were you expecting?

Our group stayed in Port-Au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti. We stayed at a lovely place called Villa Bambou. I was taken aback by how beautiful my hotel was and the level of poverty and squalor I witnessed not too far outside the gates and all around the city. Truthfully, I was expecting to land and “get my hands dirty” right away. I wasn’t too concerned with where I’d be staying or my personal level of comfort.

What surprised you the most when you arrived?

I was surprised a great many times on my trip. I was surprised by the chaos on the roads, with no streetlights, signs or even names. I was surprised by the fact that, in the midst of all this chaos, rubble and destruction, the city still seemed to be functioning. The city almost had a “rhythm”; a method to the madness. And Le Palais [the equivalent of the US White House] [is] still unrepaired and broken from the earthquake. Let that have been America and our White House; it would have been the first thing repaired.

It’s the second anniversary of the earthquake today, do you feel like much has changed or progressed in terms of development since January 12, 2010?

No, it’s actually quite scary and disheartening. Of the estimated 1.2 million people who were left homeless from the earthquake, Port-Au-Prince remains one big shantytown. “Tent City” is another term commonly used for it. When the quake hit, so much money was donated so quickly to provide assistance, that a lot of it, possibly hundreds of millions of dollars, has been wasted and/or “lost” due to the lack of proper record-keeping. Politics and corruption infringe greatly on the effect of humanitarian aid. Food is still a scarcity for many people and a lot of non-perishable food sent in bulk to the country gets stolen and sold on the Black Market. The country is still very much in disarray and it’s only gotten more confusing since it’s become obvious that the lion’s share of donated money didn’t go to a proper rebuilding effort and the development of a proper infrastructure.

There seems to be so much attention on the country right now, but for all the wrong reasons. We can probably list all of the names of the celebrities who have visited the country in recent months and weeks, but we seem to have forgotten about the people who are still in dire circumstances. I know you’re a celebrity yourself, but can you talk about that?

Celebrities such as Maria Bello, co-founder of WeAdvance.org, Sean Penn, who took up residence in Haiti since the earthquake, Oprah Winfrey, Ben Stiller… their celebrity is being used in the correct fashion. They are residing within the destruction and living the daily circumstances faced by the people they are assisting. However, some celebrities have been accused of using situations like this for “image repair”, with a complete lack of altruism. That’s abhorrent behavior, especially when you see what these people—the people of the Sudan, the women and children of the Congo— are dealing with! Going there makes you want to come back, donate everything you have and give enormous thanks for your own circumstances.

Being that this was your first time going to Haiti, why did Haiti become so important to you now?

It wasn’t so much Haiti being important [now], it’s the cause I followed. It’s no secret that I speak on behalf and for women; I’ve started my own non-profit, LESS Is More, that focuses on mentoring and empowering young ladies by developing a strong sense of Self (worth, esteem, confidence). Dr. Dyson being my mentor and so closely affiliated with WeAdvance, an organization who I’ve come to follow their efforts and deeply respect, it seemed natural for me to go and see how I could make, even the smallest difference. Philanthropy is a constant learning experience; you develop an intuitive sense of how and where to help.

How are you contributing to the restoration process in Haiti?

The restoration process is a multi-tiered issue. You pick where you can be most useful. My usefulness comes in the form of personal and public outreach; by going to the scene, speaking and assisting the people, and conveying the message upon my return in an articulate and well-informed fashion.

You spoke to me briefly about the retreat you attended while you were there…can you elaborate on that for our readers?

I went to visit the medical clinic, Nap Vanse Clinic, run by WeAdvance.org. Part of what they do is they educate people on proper health practices, such as safe sex. Since I’m very much entrenched in the war on HIV/AIDS in the African-American community, I wanted to help with a large supply of condoms, donated by b Condoms. This company has pledged to keep the clinic supplied with condoms in an effort to prevent the spread of disease and also [to help with] birth control. I also worked with Sow a Seed, an organization that put on a Christmas party for kids from approximately seven [different] orphanages. To see all those children, a lot who were left orphaned in the aftermath of the earthquake, was heartbreaking.

Do you plan on going back? If so, how often and what are you looking to do?

[I] am actually discussing my return visit this February with Dr. Dyson as we speak! I’m returning armed with supplies such as condoms (provided by b Condoms) for the Nap Vanse Clinic in Cité Soleil and to arm myself with enough knowledge to educate others on how they can provide the best placement for humanitarian aid in countries such as Haiti. There is a lot of bureaucratic “red tape” when it comes to donations to high-functioning charitable organizations. The worst part is when you donate out of the goodness of your heart and it doesn’t go to where you intended.

Last words, what do you want people to know or do…What can others do to support the effort?

Read the fine print when you’re moved to donate to a charitable organization. Make sure they are accredited and that 100 percent of their donations go to the support of the needy.

To pledge your support to the people of Haiti through WeAdvance.org, or to find out how you can help on the ground, visit their site HERE.

To support Melyssa Ford’s LESS is more organization, visit her site HERE.

Follow Melyssa Ford on Twitter, @MissMelyssaFord

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