Albright College logo fbigtwyt
HOME | ABOUT | ARCHIVES | AWARDS

Students in the bed of a pick-up truck on their way to work on a well in rural Pignon, Haiti.

In the summer of 1985, then-sophomore Neil Van Dine ’88 visited Haiti for the first time on a two-week trip with a Youth for Christ ministry. Six months later he was back, this time with his father, Kenneth ’61, an ophthalmologist who travelled to the country to perform eye surgery on those in need. Following graduation, Van Dine made several more short trips to Haiti. “I felt good when I was there and doing work,” he says. However, he soon realized that short trips simply weren’t enough to make a difference. Van Dine decided to go all in. “I figured it would take about 18 months to solve all the problems I was seeing,” he recalls with a sheepish chuckle. Over 30 years later, he’s still hard at work.

Van Dine’s decision set him on a journey that has carried him across more than three decades of service in the country, through roles with the World Christian Relief Fund, the U.N.’s International Office of Migration in Haiti, and, finally, Haiti Outreach, an organization he helped to found in 1997 and which he serves as Directeur Générale.

The mission is simple: to assist the struggling nation of Haiti in becoming a developed country. In practical terms, this means helping residents to secure adequate food, clean water, proper sanitation and medical  care, well-maintained roads, reliable electricity, and education and employment opportunities. As Van Dine points out, however, Haitians define “developed” a bit differently than others might. “We’ve discovered that Haitians will develop the country to the point where they’re happy,” he says, “and that likely won’t look like an American’s vision of development.” Regardless, the goal remains the same: to collaborate with Haitians in building and maintaining resources that meet their needs.

“From 1989 through 2004, the main focus in the country was getting people water,” Van Dine explains, “and in the space of 15 years, we established 1,000 wells in the country, which we felt good about.” In 2004, however, Van Dine realized there was a problem. “We were constantly struggling to maintain the well pumps,” he explains. “We tried a variety of solutions, from arranging for local guys to fix the pumps to training teams of people to travel around the country and provide service. Yet when we sent someone out in 2004 to register all the pumps, we discovered that half of them were inoperable—it was incredibly disappointing.” But the crushing realization was also a turning point for Van Dine and his associates. “In 2005, we started treating the non-working wells as a management problem rather than a technical problem,” he says. “We realized that communities had to take responsibility for the wells themselves or the program would never be sustainable.” So Haiti Outreach began encouraging local residents to buy repair parts, manage well access and oversee well opening and closing times themselves. “The change in outcomes was revolutionary,” Van Dine recalls. “Before long, we had raised the number of working wells to approximately 90 percent.”

This evolution was perfectly in keeping with the goals of Haiti Outreach, Van Dine notes. “Our organization is committed to development rather than relief. Relief means providing the immediate assistance necessary  to prevent loss of life and assist in times of disaster such as floods or earthquakes, while development is about tackling the underlying causes that prevent a community from moving forward. This is where our program focuses its attentions.”

Many have bought into the mission of Haiti Outreach over the last 19 years, transforming the initiative into the premier water and sanitation program in the country, with such major partners as World Vision, Oxfam, water.org and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The group’s primary partner, however, remains the people of Haiti.

haiti1

haiti2

haiti3

haiti4

It was this commitment to community, coupled with the alumni connection that first attracted associate professor of French and Spanish Adam John, Ph.D., to Haiti Outreach.

A researcher in Haitian literature and culture, John first met Van Dine in the fall of 2013 and learned more about his work in Haiti on a trip to the country the following year. Moved by Van Dine’s dedication to community outreach and sustainability initiatives, John, along with Tiffany Clayton ’08, Albright’s coordinator of multicultural programs, decided to lead eight students—and President Lex McMillan (read about his experience here)—on an Alternative Spring Break trip to Haiti. “I wanted students to gain an understanding of Haiti beyond the headlines, which only speak of violence and poverty,” John explains.

While in Haiti, the group cleared brush and laid rocks in front of a new well house, painted it inside and out, then attended the inauguration ceremony for the new well. “The ceremony was wonderful,” says Rebekah Cineus ’17, a first-generation American of Haitian descent. “Community members sang and danced and even presented a few comedy sketches to demonstrate proper well etiquette.” The students also attended several community meetings and did a bit of sightseeing. The goal, says John, was to allow students to explore issues from the perspectives of residents as well as the local, regional and state officials, all of whom must work together to achieve success.

By all accounts, John achieved his goal. Van Dine’s own son Ken ’17 was among those who made the trip and says it offered him a fresh perspective on the country. “Normally, when I’m in Haiti, I’m acting as a translator for groups visiting the country,” says the younger Van Dine, a modern foreign languages major who aspires to work as a translator. “This time, I got to be on the other side of the equation, as part of a visiting group, and I really enjoyed it!”

International business major Cynthia Rann ’17 returned to Albright with a new perspective on Haiti and fresh appreciation for the luxuries she enjoys here in the U.S. “The landscape is beautiful and the people are lovely. I realized how much we have here and how important it is to live in the ‘now.’ For Haitians, family and community are central and the focus is on essentials: food, water, shelter. Life is simple and nothing is wasted—it’s refreshing.”

Cineus, a business administration and sociology major, says the experience has changed her perspective dramatically. “Before going on this trip, my end goal was to create a model for a sustainable agriculture, but after being there and speaking to Neil Van Dine, I realized that you can’t force your ideas on people, you have to work with what they want.”

Van Dine was pleased. “I want people to see Haiti through my eyes rather than through the lens of the popular media,” he concludes. “When I look around the country, I don’t see burning tires and abandoned buildings, I see farmers who love their land and take pride in their beautiful country. If I can help people to evaluate the country and its needs more objectively and understand what they’re actually supporting when they donate to a nonprofit like Haiti Outreach, I’m happy.”


Editor’s Note: Three other Alternative Spring Break trips were also held. Students helped care for animals at a wildlife sanctuary in Broken Arrow, Okla.; assisted with flood relief efforts in San Marcos, Texas; and volunteered at Reading’s Opportunity House and 13th and Union Elementary School. Albright has been running Alternative Spring Break trips since 2006.

Leave a Reply

Please answer the following question so we know you are a human being: *