Hope for Haiti

The philanthropy of JoAnne and Carl Kuehner of Naples, Florida, is imbued with their Catholic faith, responsive to the urgings of the Gospel and guided by the example of Jesus. Programs serving the neediest are the regular beneficiaries of their family foundation. Carl is president of the Florida-based Real Estate Technology Corporation, a diversified real estate and investment firm. A center providing free programs for the children of Florida farm workers bears his name; he serves on the board of Immokalee Non-Profit Housing and is a member of his county’s affordable-housing and homeless-advisory committees.1 JoAnne holds leadership positions in a variety of local humanitarian initiatives and is the driving force behind Hope for Haiti, the focus of this article.The Jewel of the Antilles. During the time when American colonists were contemplating a new nation, Haiti was the richest colony in the world. In the mid-1700s, with its lucrative African-slave market and exports of sugar, cotton, tobacco, coffee and the dye indigo, it contributed as much as half of the gross national product of France. By the 1780s, it was producing 40 percent of all the sugar and 60 percent of all the coffee consumed in Europe. Back then, its northern city of Cap Haïtien was known across continents for its wealth and elegance. It was called “Little Paris”.

But that was long ago.

Today, after generations of oppression, disastrous political leadership, disease, and national disasters, the erstwhile “Jewel of the Antilles” is the poorest, least developed nation in the Western Hemisphere and one of the poorest in the world. Nearly 80 percent of Haiti’s nine-million people live in abject poverty, ranking it second-to-last in the world in a comparison measure of global poverty. Only about three in 10 of Haiti’s inhabitants are employed; only about three in 10 have access to adequate sanitation; the average life expectancy is 57 years.2 Hunger and dysentery are the leading causes of death.

Recently, these truly lamentable human conditions have grown even worse. The Maryland-sized nation was buffeted over the past year by soaring oil and food prices and a series of devastating storms—last fall, in the space of a month, a tropical storm and three hurricanes left most of the Haitian population suffering from starvation; floods caused by this year’s mid-May rainfall killed at least 11 and swept away close to 1,000 homes in the southwestern district of Les Cayes.3 What’s more, the recession has meant significantly diminished contributions from donor nations, non-government organizations, and philanthropies. It’s also meant that emigrants from Haiti have stopped sending money home.

The Children of Haiti. The welfare of children in this bleak landscape is especially challenged. According to UNICEF, “Children born in Haiti are more likely to die in childhood than in any other country in the Western Hemisphere.” One child in eight does not survive beyond his or her fifth birthday. One in three under the age of five is malnourished and, in the country ranked last in the world for access to drinkable water, fully half of all Haitian children do not receive routine immunizations. Immunization rates for measles (which is highly contagious and often fatal) are lower even than in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

Less than 55 percent of Haiti’s primary-school age children attend school and the average child attends for only two years. Little wonder then that fully one-third of Haiti’s youth between the ages of 15 and 24 are illiterate. The illiteracy rate in the Haitian countryside is 80 percent. In cities, large numbers of Haiti’s young people are street children, a great many of whom are forced to fight in gangs, or become part of a subculture of bonded servitude. Upwards of 300,000, three-quarters of them girls, are “restaveks”—unpaid domestic servants.

Hope for Haiti. JoAnne Kuehner’s commitment to improving the quality of life of the people of Haiti began nearly two decades ago. The more familiar she became with conditions there, the more she wanted to do. So in the mid-90s, with family and friends and a Naples physician named Keith Hussey, she formed Hope for Haiti, a charitable organization initially committed to improving educational opportunities, but which expanded its focus as other pressing needs became clear. Over the course of the past decade, the organization has channeled more than $40 million into the projects it supports. Hope for Haiti currently provides education for close to 12,000 Haitian youngsters in 37 schools and operates a service program which imports students from U.S. colleges for short-term service stints. Its Nutrition and Healthcare programs provide needed medical supplies and services to over 300,000 individuals each year, preventing death in many cases, alleviating horrible suffering in most. And in addition to providing medical equipment to the more than 60 healthcare facilities with which it works, Hope for Haiti distributes substantial amounts of medications and other health-care supplies. “A tax-deductible contribution of $1,000 enables us to distribute $50,000 worth of medications and medical equipment,” JoAnne Kuehner says. “Last year, we were able to distribute medicines and equipment valued at $14 million. Our goal this year is $20 million.”

Water purification is on the organization’s agenda, as well. Because eight in 10 Haitians have no access to clean drinking water, millions suffer from stomach ailments, intestinal parasites and dehydration. With the help of village people who carry equipment, build water-tank platforms and help install solar paneling and piping, Hope for Haiti is installing solar powered UV water-purification systems capable of producing more than 500 gallons of clean drinking water a day. The organization expects to have provided communities with over 2.5 million gallons of purified drinking water by year’s end.

Emergency Service. After last fall’s storms, which washed out roads and bridges and cut off Les Cayes from the rest of Haiti, the humanitarian organization shifted into disaster-relief mode. A plane owned by a Naples real-estate broker delivered two 1,000-pound loads of medical supplies and nutrition packets donated by the Catholic Medical Mission Board (CMMB) and, through the Rotary Club of Naples, by Kids Against Hunger of Southwest Florida. In addition, emergency supplies worth $300,000, donated by Medical Assistance Program (MAP) International, were dispatched by truck from Naples to Miami, thence by ship to Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital city, for overland transport to Les Cayes. “Survival Buckets” containing blankets, sanitation kits, candles, matches, water-purification tablets and dry meals continue to be assembled in Naples and distributed to Haitian families in greatest need. In preparation for the 2009–2010 hurricane season, 1,000 survival buckets have been prepared and are ready for distribution.

Among the special geniuses of Hope for Haiti are its abilities to engage volunteers and to do all it does with the sparest of administrative frameworks. Volunteers include a Kuehner son, the founder and president of the Connecticut-based Building and Land Technology, who periodically visits Les Cayes to build four-family residences, and a granddaughter, who convinced her college to provide a crash course in Creole history to the students joining her in volunteer service. An able, miracle-working staff of two stationed in Naples and two in-Haiti coordinators are the only paid staff. More than 95 cents out of every dollar received goes directly into projects in Haiti. Not surprisingly, the organization maintains a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, the preeminent evaluator of charities.

In addition to its volunteers and contributors, Hope for Haiti relies on the Church for spiritual direction and in-country guidance and facilitation.5 The group works closely with local parishes and missionary orders of religious and includes two U.S. prelates among its honorary directors—Bishop Frank J. Dewane of the Florida Diocese of Venice and the Most Reverend James C. Timlin, Bishop Emeritus of the Pennsylvania Diocese of Scranton (the Kuehners are Scranton natives).

Real Hope, Real Commitment. Is there really hope for Haiti? There is, JoAnne Kuehner says emphatically. “Hope is palpable, even measurable. It’s in the smiles of the children, the significant improvement in their test scores, the weight gains in the undernourished. It’s in the gratitude of families who can now rely on pure, clean water. It’s in the eyes of parents, who begin to see a future for their children. Challenges will continue to present themselves, to be sure. But our commitment will continue, as well.”

For more on this extraordinary organization, visit its web site (www.hopeforhaiti.com), phone 239-434-7183, or write to Hope for Haiti, 1042 Sixth Avenue North, Naples, Florida 34102.

1 The apple doesn’t fall far from its tree—the housing-for-the-poor advocacy of Carl’s uncle, Washington Archdiocese Monsignor Ralph Kuehner, is legendary.

2 In the Dominican Republic, the eastern two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola, the average life span is 73 years; in the U.S., it’s 78.

3 The 2009 hurricane season officially began on June 1.

4 JoAnne remains the group’s president; Dr. Hussey is its vice president and chief medical officer. Neither takes a salary.

5 More than 95 percent of Haitians are Roman Catholic.

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