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The Road to Peace Begins by Ending Poverty

October 17, 2008—Haiti. It is the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. The average life expectancy is fifty-seven, the AIDS virus is rampant, and 80 percent of the population is below the poverty line. Haiti is also where IUP alumnus James Felter has spent the past three years performing humanitarian work to help alleviate and raise awareness of these devastating conditions.

Haiti

“Men Anpil Chay Pa Lou!” — “The More Hands The Lighter The Load”

boy in Haiti

Felter graduated from IUP in 1985 with a master’s degree in education. He now has more than twenty-five years’ experience as a producer, editor, and writer in television, feature film production, and educational programming. Felter continues to do the majority of his work for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic Television, and the History Channel. He has been internationally recognized for his technical innovation and storytelling. For the past five years, Felter has also produced NBC’s Hispanic Heritage Awards; it was while shooting a film for NBC that he made his first trip to Haiti.

Profoundly affected by Haiti’s extreme poverty, Felter was compelled to move from documenting the condition to actively trying to effect change. In 2005, he founded Vwa Ayiti, which in Kreyóle means “Voice of Haiti.” By establishing Vwa Ayiti, Felter was able to become a “hands-on” advocate and joined in the struggle for change.

boys in Haiti

Vwa Ayiti is a federally acknowledged 501 (c) (3) corporation, funding and promoting sanitation, water purification, and medical and educational initiatives throughout Haiti. In the past three years, Vwa Ayiti has become an umbrella organization uniting organizations, individuals, experts, and resources that now help to meet the needs of thousands. Vwa Ayiti is a volunteer organization, with all monetary contributions going directly to the people of Haiti and their projects.

When asked “What made you choose Haiti?” Felter responded, “Haiti chose me. I fell in love with Haiti the moment I set foot on the ground. Haiti’s culture, history, and people captivated me. I could not accept such devastating poverty existing so close to our borders. I knew I could help raise awareness of the situation in Haiti through my media connections, and I then founded Vwa Ayiti as a charitable conduit to help provide aid.”

“There is no such thing as a typical day in Haiti. I often say that you can live an entire lifetime in the course of one day. Everyone is living so close to the edge that life takes on a different meaning. One thing is for sure: I am never alone, because Vwa Ayiti is truly a grassroots organization. We have developed extremely close ties with the community. We are treated like family; I even have an adopted mother. We live, eat, and work side by side with our extended Haitian family.”

Jim Felter in Haiti

“There were no toilets of any kind or clean running water in the villages where we were working. This had a devastating impact on the overall health of the community. We saw our friends and family being eaten alive by parasites and E. coli.”

In the Haitian villages of Labadi and Bod Me Linbe, projects began in December 2005 to deal with the complete lack of any sanitation systems or water purification and to begin bringing doctors and medical aid to the villages. Felter conducts training seminars within the communities, and he is proud to say that Vwa Ayiti’s Haitian counterparts are now managing all of these initiatives—a feat many said would be impossible.

“Witnessing and working with individuals who constantly rise above their desperate situation to affect change, I am blown away by the true courage and selflessness of the Haitians I work with,” Felter said.

In December 2007, Felter completed shooting his third feature film, Ayiti Cherí—Haiti, My Love. Because Haiti has been isolated from the outside world, he believes that he has been able to capture amazing footage and has amassed a visually stunning anthropological gold mine. He found the Haitian people’s cultural celebration of song and dance inspirational to witness, humbling to be a part of, and magnificent to film.

Felter believes that working around individuals willing to risk their lives for change is an incredibly empowering experience; you lose your sense of fear. He hopes that Vwa Ayiti outlives him. “I know that it will take a while to remedy the situation in Haiti, but I hope that through Vwa Ayiti, my spirit remains in Haiti long after my death.”

Caitlin Hamryszak is a graduate student in the IUP Department of Communications Media. For more information about Vwa Ayiti, visit the official website at www.vwaayiti.org.

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