“Many Hands Make the Work Light” ~ Haitian Creole Proverb
Tiffany Owen ’12 may have just one pair of hands, but the amount of work she’s done and the people she’s helped would make it appear as though she has an army.
Owen is the 2011 winner of the Center for Peace and Commerce’s Social Innovation Challenge. Owen’s project, “Clean California, Clean Haiti,” aims to combat water-borne illnesses in earthquake-ravaged Haiti through a combined recycling effort in San Diego County.
Her inspiration for the project came from a service trip she embarked on to the Caribbean nation in 2010 to help repair and rebuild parts of Haiti under the “Imagine Haiti Tomorrow” project.
“Our first trip, well before the Social Innovation Challenge, was the most overwhelming,” Owen said. “We arrived a few months after the earthquake, and there were so many people living in the worst poverty imaginable. Choosing who to help with the limited resources we have has always been the most challenging.”
After winning the Social Innovation Challenge and receiving the $5,000 prize, Owen returned to Haiti for a second time last May and successfully installed three water purification systems in Les Cayes, the third largest city in Haiti. “Each water purification system will serve about one hundred Haitians,” Owen said in a written status report of her project. “Before our trip, the school had never had running water, let alone clean drinking water. Now it has both.”Owen and her team realized the residents of Haiti needed a very basic, yet vital necessity: clean water. Shortly after the earthquake, cholera, a water-borne disease, had been detected in all of Haiti’s major rivers. The only preventative measure was to make sure that clean water was available.
Yet, as Owen mentioned, the real challenge has been choosing who to help with the limited resources available. Owen and her team’s project goals began to shift, as they needed to decide whether or not to continue to work with Les Cayes in order to help make it a self-sustainable economy or implement their water purification systems in other cities.
The team chose to continue to assist Les Cayes in becoming a fully functioning city. “We were unwilling to leave a job half done,” Owen said. The team now has plans to build an Internet café that offers a computer-based English language course to help local residents improve their employment prospects. Through purchases and donations, Owen and her team have already gathered several computers, Rosetta Stone language software, solar panels and batteries while coordinating construction efforts.
“Now that the immediate needs of Haitians in Les Cayes are being met in Les Cayes, creating a prosperous Haitian-owned and operated industry would
mean that our presence would no longer be needed,” Owen said in her report. “This is real success, according to Greg Van Kirk [Ashoka fellow and advisor], who told our SIC group that the goal of a nonprofit is essentially to put itself out of business.”
Owen continues to use the help and hands of many to assist in rebuilding Les Cayes. Ideas abound. Her team is looking into sustainable agricultural practices of the Carib people, including community gardening projects. Recognizing that her initial project grew and shifted to accommodate the needs of a community is an important fact that she recommends future winners of the Social Innovation Challenge prepare for.
“Hopefully, in the next few years, the people of Les Cayes will be completely economically independent,” she said. “Once that happens, I suppose we will have to find a new cause.”
— Kelly Machleit