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Haitian Group in Chicago Unites in Relief Efforts

Lionel Jean-Baptiste of the Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti, a Haitian aid agency based in Evanston, Illinois

Lionel Jean-Baptiste of the Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti, a Haitian aid agency based in Evanston, Illinois

Five months after devastating earthquake killed hundreds of thousands, need for supplies great for million more who are homeless

The City of Chicago has a historic connection to Haiti. Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, considered the city's founding father, was a fur trader from the Caribbean nation who settled in Chicago in the late 1700s. Now, roughly 30,000 Haitians call Chicago home. Disaster and tragedy has brought the community together in recent years. First a hurricane, and now this year's catastrophic earthquake, have mobilized Chicago's Haitian community to help fellow countrymen in their homeland.

Five months after a devastating earthquake killed hundreds of thousands of people in Haiti's capital Port au Prince, the need for supplies is great for the million more who are homeless.

Since the crisis began, Lionel Jean-Baptiste has been at the center of an ongoing relief effort in suburban Chicago.

Baptiste founded the Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti, a community organization based in Evanston, Illinois. The group formed in 2004, a tumultuous year for Haiti.

"Aristide was being removed from power, we were trying to celebrate 200 years of independence," he explained. "Hurricane Jeanne was hitting us. So we had a lot of partisanry and division within the community. But somehow we came together to pragmatically do some work to help our brothers and sisters face their reality."

But nothing could prepare the group for the reality of the January earthquake and the devastation it brought. Baptiste mobilized Chicago's Haitian community to help those in need.

"We called on people to collect medical supplies, medicine that's over the counter, clothing, crutches, etcetera," he recalled. "We put out a press release, and we began the process of mobilizing folks, so we have stayed mobilized since day one."

Money, medicine and other donations have poured into the organization's office. Baptiste says the group raised over one million dollars in cash and medicine.

By April, the organization had accumulated enough items to fill four large shipping containers.

But when the containers arrived in Haiti, they were delayed in customs. To help clear the logjam, members from Chicago traveled to Port au Prince to make sure the supplies got to those in need.

"We helped over 10,000 families through camps, organizations, churches, orphanages, individuals, etcetera," noted Aline Lauture, Executive Director of the Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti. She led the group's recent mission to Haiti.

"We didn't see a lot of movement of rebuilding," she added. "We just saw the rubble, they just cleared most of it to the side of the street, but we didn't see a lot of the rebuilding process started."

Lauture was surprised that people in the capital have managed to move on despite the lack of infrastructure.

"They have their commerce. They are selling their goods. Life is moving. Under the worst circumstances, they keep moving," she said.

And her group keeps accepting donations. It plans to deliver new medical supplies and other items during a trip scheduled later this year.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.