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Americans Find Unique Ways to Help Haiti

Grassroots communities raise money, collect goods

Frank London blows his horn for Haiti Relief at Mehanata, an alternative club in New York.
Frank London blows his horn for Haiti Relief at Mehanata, an alternative club in New York.

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It's late at night at Mehanata, a small Bohemian music and dance club on New York's Lower East Side, where many of the city's ethnic and alternative musicians are gathered to raise money for Haitian relief. It's one of many grassroots events communities across the country are organizing in the wake of Haiti's devastating earthquake.   

Musicians at Mehanata say music is an important element in the relief and recovery effort. "Music has the ability to enliven people's spirits and everyone does what they can," says trumpeter Frank London of the Klezmatics, a Grammy Award-winning Jewish world music ensemble. "And if some people are there digging out bodies and trying to save people, that's great. And if someone else can play a horn and keep people smiling while they're doing that, that's great."

London says that the grassroots support for Haiti in the form of food, clothing, medical and other aid has been both heartfelt and spontaneous among members of New York's creative community.

"Who are 'we' that are coming together in this way at this moment? People are coming together to benefit others," he says. "And in doing so, it benefits us, because it strengthens our community's ties."

A Small Town in New Jersey Gives Footwear

Meanwhile, in Ramsey, New Jersey, about 30 kilometers north of New York City, Louise Van Osten seals another carton of donated gently-used shoes that are bound for Haiti. The franchise outlet she owns and operates, Foot Solutions, is one of about 240 stores throughout the United States that sell footwear for hard-to-fit feet. Van Osten sprang into action when she learned that the franchise headquarters was partnering with a private relief group called, Soles4Souls, to help Haiti's earthquake survivors.    

"It was just so heartbreaking to see all those people displaced and the landscape just totally destroyed," says Van Osten. She says she felt compelled to do something when she noticed that many of the survivors had no shoes. Foot Solutions stores nationwide have collected nearly 2,000 pairs of shoes for Haiti and the donations keep arriving.

New Jersey shoe store owner Louise Van Osten and customer Jill Shobe with a carton of donated used shoes that are bound for Haiti.
New Jersey shoe store owner Louise Van Osten and customer Jill Shobe with a carton of donated used shoes that are bound for Haiti.

 
Longtime customer Jill Shobe came to Van Osten's store to deliver a big shopping bag full of with sandals, sneakers and other footwear she collected from her family and friends. Shobe says shoe donations are only one way her community is doing its part to help out in Haiti. "At our local elementary school, we have a collection happening because our custodian is from Haiti and we're collecting money for his family that is in Haiti," says Shobe. "Also, we're raising money through our church and through the Cub Scouts, everywhere."  


The Internet As a Powerful Organizing Tool

The Internet has made it possible to form new grassroots communities almost instantly, says Rebecca Garrison-Sokoloff of The White Aisle, a small online bridal merchandise business. Ever since the earthquake, she has run a promotion offering to donate the proceeds from the sale of custom wedding invitations and bridal jewelry to Doctors Without Borders, an NGO now working in Haiti.

"The Internet is amazing. When the earthquake hits, I was able to walk into my office, design something quickly, put it on my website within 30 minutes and contact other vendors who have blogs and message boards and have it spread so quickly, getting that immediate response," says Garrison-Sokoloff.

She says that for brides hoping to help, the Haitians who benefit and her own business' bottom line It's a 'win-win' for everybody.

Houses of Worship Seek to Honor God and Others by Giving

Communities of faith have also stepped up to help with musical fundraising benefits and other events.

"We've been taught, since the dawn of our civilization, if there is someone in distress, you help," says Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a century-old Manhattan institution that emphasizes social justice in its ministry. Hirsch cautions that this is not a time for hand wringing and analysis. "First, save the person in need, lift them up off the ground, out of the rubble. Ask questions later."

Cantor Daniel Singer of Manhattan's Stephen Wise Free Synagogue
Cantor Daniel Singer of Manhattan's Stephen Wise Free Synagogue

Indeed, while the specific gifts each grassroots group has to offer may differ, the underlying message to Haitians, as expressed by Daniel Singer, the synagogue's music director, seems the same. "We want you to know there are people around you who care. We wish the best for you, and help is on the way."  

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