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A runner's story of bringing joy and hope to Haiti

by Phyllis Tsang

Esther Pauls, owner of Runner's Den, sharing photos and stories in Haiti
Esther Pauls, owner of Runner's Den, sharing photos and stories in Haiti

 "Why are we giving to Haiti?" a lady asked a year ago when she found out about Road to Hope, an annual fundraising run for Haiti organized by Runner's Den, a running store in Hamilton and Westdale.

No one would ask that now.

On Jan. 12, the day of the earthquake, Esther Pauls, the owner of Runner's Den and the founder of Road to Hope, was on her way to Haiti with nine other volunteers from Joy and Hope for Haiti, a humanitarian organization dedicated to help Haitian children. Their journey was cut short because the earthquake touched down before they did.

Their original plan was to hold the second annual Marathon de la Soliderite road race, an event to bring a day of celebration to Cap Haitians and to alert others about the plight of the Haitians.

"We decided to come home, do something good here," explained Esther, "because…we are not doctors or anything."

On Saturday, Jan. 30, Runner's Den will be collaborating with its competitor in Toronto, Runner's Free to host Training for Solidarity, a 5k – 20 k running event that will happen simultaneously in Hamilton and in Toronto to raise funds for relief and long-term projects in Haiti.

Esther and the team of volunteers are still planning to return to Haiti in February. They will not be building schools like on their previous trips, but will be opening and setting up the schools and churches which they have built before for "the exodus of people that are going there but don't have a place to stay."

While the devastation in Haiti is foreign to the majority of the world, it is not to Esther who has travelled to Haiti over 15 times in the last decade.

"Every time I go, I see people living in horrible conditions," said Esther. "I have seen people living on garbage, no water, [and] no toilets...It is a living hell."

Esther travelled to Haiti for the first time in October 2001, a week after the first Road to Hope run, which was then called the Hope and Joy for Haiti run. Curiosity and concern prompted Esther to go to Haiti to see what the receiving organization, OMS International, which has been working in Haiti for over 20 years, would do with the $50,000 raised.

Esther said she came back as "a totally different person" after staying there for three weeks.

"Not only [because] I lost weight [but] because we were so shocked the first time," she explained with wide eyes, "three weeks is too long for your first time."

Despite that, she kept going back.

Joy and Hope for Haiti, which consists entirely of volunteers and with which Esther and her husband, Gord are heavily involved, has built over 40 schools and orphanages to date, as well as provided food, medicine, and books for the children.

While others are dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake, Esther, together with the Joy and Hope for Haiti is planning to bring about sustaining changes in the poverty-stricken land.

They are changing their focus from building elementary schools in the Cap Haitian area of northern Haiti to giving Haitians opportunities to work.

"We sponsored a child there for a long time but he's on the street now, you know why?" Esther raised her voice, "[Because] after school, there's no job there."

According to the Human Development Index, a scale developed by the UN to rank nations according to people-centered development like life expectancy, knowledge and education, and standard of living, rather than national income, Haiti ranked 149 out of 182 countries in 2007. CIA World Factbook reported that 80 per cent of the people live under poverty line and 54 per cent in abject poverty. More than two-thirds of the labour force does not have a formal job.

"A young boy finishes school; do you know what's waiting for him?" Esther asked, "Idleness—It's the worst thing. You get up in the morning and have nothing to do."

Esther thinks giving jobs is “sometimes more important than giving food.”

"You cannot sustain Haiti by giving them things!"  Exclaimed Esther, "That's what we have been doing for years. They [still] haven't grown up."

This is why Joy and Hope for Haiti is catching on to the success of microcredit to empower Haitians to become self-sustaining entrepreneurs.

Microcredit is considered to be originated with the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, launched as "an action research project to examine the possibility of designing a credit delivery system to provide banking services targeted at the rural poor," according to Grameen Bank's website. The bank grants small loans to the poorest of the poor so that they may engage in income-generating projects that will enable them to build wealth and break the cycle of poverty.

"We are going to give them a year of salary to start a business," Esther explained. "After the business gets going, they have to pay it back, with no interest."

In Haiti, the average annual salary is only about $450. The idea behind a loan without interest is to give a sense of responsibility.

Joy and Hope for Haiti has recently sent 1000 pairs of used shoes to Haiti to start a shoe business. Esther already has a list of ideas lined up: sewing business, fish farm, gardening, and carpentry.

"They have sugar cane, why can't there be a sugar cane export there?" Esther added another item to the list.

The recent earthquake is causing the world to reassess the situation in Haiti. Charities and humanitarian groups find alternative ways to deliver Haiti out of poverty, not just the earthquake. Christian Aid, a UK-based organization working to eradicate the causes of poverty is responding to the earthquake by launching an emergency appeal to drop Haiti’s debt.

Haiti’s total public external debt amounts to an alarming $1.8 billion US as of September 2008, according to the International Monetary Fund. A group of 19 major world lenders pledged to forgive Haiti's foreign debt obligations, CBC news reported on Jan. 19.

“Give whatever you can,” Esther urged, referring to the Training for Solidarity run, which starts at Westdale high school at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Jan. 30.

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