Paulina Montes, a businesswoman and "soccer mom" living in Miami is set on making the world a better place, one child at a time. Ten years ago, she created Fundacion Manos Del Sur, along with her sister and cousin. The charity organization focuses on children and education to help solve social issues.
Montes says as she watched her son growing up, she realized many other children did not have the same opportunities he did. The quest for water, food and an education was all-consuming.
"What we wanted to do is offer the same opportunities to our friends or people that we knew from different countries who had originally helped people from their original countries, but didn't know how to do it from here," she explains. "We provided all the administrative support, the legal support, the IRS authorization to receive donations so that the people who donated through us were going to be able to deduct it from taxes."
Paulina Montes at her office in Coral Gables, Florida
Manos Del Sur launched its first projects in Chile and Argentina, concentrating on the importance of education in children's lives. After the success of the initial projects, they launched similar initiatives in Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The foundation is currently active in 12 countries.
"We have a manager for each country who is in charge of getting the funds and getting all the paperwork in place, so
what each country receives is proportional to the work that the manager does," explains Montes.
Their latest project focuses on Haiti.
After the devastating January 12 7.0 magnitude earthquake, Paulina Montes and her co-founders decided they wanted to do something to help.
"After the earthquake in Haiti we were really shocked when we saw the images of the children in the streets and we got involved with another organization called Step by Step that was collecting water and tents and things to send to Haiti and we said 'OK let's do something!'," Montes recalls. "So we started thinking what we could do - they already have experience, they already work in Haiti - they built a school in Ti Pa Ti Pa - so we said 'OK we have somebody
who has local knowledge and who we can trust and we can work with them on a project in Haiti'."
Initially, Manos del Sur wanted to send tents to painted by children but that idea was re-worked into something much more elaborate.
"We wanted to send happy tents, we thought that everything would be so destroyed and dusty and dry and we thought that the children needed a little bit of happiness in their lives and color and joy," Montes says. "So a project that started with a couple of artists going to work with children developed into 10 tents painted by famous artists that we are going to do like a community center or a school that we are going to install in Haiti."
Art + education
Robert Duval runs l'Athletique d'Haiti
The 10 painted tents will be placed on the property of L'Athletique d'Haiti, a charity organization founded and directed by Robert "Bobby" Duval. It is a free sports program for underprivileged children living near the Cite Soleil slum in Port-au-Prince.
"It is a sports camp and educational center for young people," Duval explains, "so they can have a shot at a better life. Imagine what it has meant to kids... we've been doing this for 15 years now. So we invite everyone to come visit the center, it's near the airport. We're very open and as soon as you get here, you'll see what I mean."
After the earthquake, thousands of survivors flocked to Duval's property and have been living there ever since. He says initially there were 1,200 people living on his property. After the earthquake the number rose to 3,000.
Paulina Montes contacted Duval when her sons, who adore soccer, came up with the idea of sending soccer balls to the children of Haiti. She asked her friend, journalist Kathy Claridge advice on what charity organization inside Haiti would like to receive the balls. Claridge suggested Bobby Duval. After a few phone calls Montes was able to speak to Duval and the tent idea was born.
Each of the 10 tents Manos Del Sur plans to place at l'Athletique d'Haiti will represent a theme that is related to the country's past, present or future. The main objective is to teach the person looking at the tent something new about the country.
"When we started Manos Del Sur our objective was to do education. We found the harsh reality that sometimes education was not obtainable because the kids were not fed," Montes explains. "They didn't have vaccines or medicines. So we started to do a little of everything - we started first feeding the kids. Here, we can go directly to education, that we think is the only thing that will solve Haiti's problems."
Artist in charge
Tasked with finding and directing the international artists who will paint the tents is Cuban Antuan Rodriguez Perez, a very accomplished and self-proclaimed "rebel" artist. Antuan began studying art at the age of seven, presented his first solo exhibit at 16 and at 17 was enrolled at the request of Cuba's Ministry of Education as both college student and faculty member at the Instituto Superior Pedagogico Felix Varela. In 1998, he was was commissioned by the diocese of Santaclara to design and sculpt Cuba's gift for Pope John Paul II. The result was "Virgen de la Caridad" which currently resides at the Vatican.
Antuan believes in an artist's role as social worker and isn't shy about expressing his opinion on various world issues ranging from scientific research on endangered species to the environment to governments and leaders. His controversial works of art include mixed media peices entitled "Bailout", "Universal Health Care" and "Derecha Izquierda" (Right Left). The artist, who has devoted his time and expertise to the project he calls Base Paint, says he was thrilled to accept the position of curator because he wanted to do something for Haiti.
"I feel that the Haitian people have been marginalized by the world so the world owes them," he says. "They have been rejected simply because of who they are. The Haitian people and Antuan are united because I'm a rebel just like them. I have an admiration for their spirit of rebellion and for their way of living. I was born in Cuba in a region called Guanche de l'Escanaria where we too, are rebels. The guanches used to go out to the reefs and stay there until they were pulled out alive. So there is a unity between the Haitian way of life and how I live."
There were many artists interested in participating in the project but Antuan says unfortunately, the amount of tents is limited.
"Many artists from other countries wanted to participate but we only have 10 tents," he says. "But I think we have a really interesting group and each of these artists - in one way or another - have through their works of art provided some form of help during a crisis or during difficult times, and they have all donated their works of art for humanitarian causes as well."
Wide range of participants
Among the artists who will be painting tents for Haiti are: Haitian Edouard Duval Carrie, Cubans Jose Bedia, Leonel Matheu, Gean Moreno, Ruben Millares and Antonia Wright, Spaniard Pedro Barbeito, Argentines Nicolas Leiva and Damian Sarno, Chileans Teresa Aninat and Catalina Swinburn, Puerto Rican Elba Luis Lugo and Antuan.
Antuan's tent design for Haiti
Each tent is 20 x 10 feet and is 13 feet high. There are two windows and openings in the front and back to allow for adequate air circulation. Antuan says he personally designed the tent style and carefully chose the material taking in consideration durability, paintability, water and wind resistance and security. He says he wanted the children to feel comfortable and safe inside.
In addition, Antuan searched extensively for water-resistant paint that wouldn't fade in the sun or peel off after the tents are folded for transport to Haiti. He finally found a special paint made by SEM and used mainly on cars. It's a flexible paint that will be used by the artists on their tents. SEM offers a total of 30 color choices and each gallon of costs $200. The exception is red paint which costs a bit more: $220.
Antuan says he expects the project to be completed in 10-15 days and is planning to unite the artists in Miami in September or October. The painting will be done in a warehouse in Miami, donated by an Israeli businessman.
Fundraising and transparency
All the expenses will be paid by Manos Del Sur, thanks to a large fundraising effort. Paulina Montes says her foundation takes pride in the fact that they have complete transparency. All of the employees are volunteers and all of the money raised goes toward financing the project. Montes hopes to find a sponsor for each of the 10 tents during an auction to be held in the fall in Miami, during a gala event. The sponsors will receive miniature tents painted by the artists, representing the tents being sent to Haiti. They will also finance the contents of their tent including books, furniture, pens and pencils. Manos Del Sur also plans to auction off works of art by various artists that Antuan has already begun collecting at his home.
"Art can open doors," Antuan notes."It can also awaken those who are sleeping. I think there are a lot of people whose consciousness has not been awaken and who could do something. There are also people who want to do something but they don't know how. This project provides an opportunity for people with power to do something to help the people of Haiti. And it provides them with an opportunity to give a kind of assistance that is truly objective because we are transporting everything from the United States to Haiti. And God willing we are going to establish a school on Bobby Duval's property. The school will have everything: the furniture, the books, the pencils - so when it arrives it will be completely functional. And we want to make sure that there aren't any obstacles from the port or customs so that this humanitarian aid can arrive and function without any bureaucratic obstacles... because this is a project that aims to help with the reconstruction from an educational standpoint."
In addition to painting tents and fundraising efforts, Manos Del Sur is working with Puerto Rican filmmaker and artist Elba Luis Lugo on a documentary that will tell the history of Haiti through art. The documentary will also feature the artistic process of painting the tents for Haiti, and the delivery and installation at L'Athletique d'Haiti.
For more information on the upcoming gala, check out the Manos Del Sur web site, or the foundation's Facebook page.