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Room at the table

Global health alum partners with Haitian communities to improve health, well-being

Aslan Noakes
Aslan Noakes received her MPH from the CPHHS in 2015

When Aslan Noakes was a young girl, she went to a church service where something unusual caught her eye – shiny white shoes. The owner was Haitian, and Aslan never forgot him.

Fast forward 10 years to the aftermath of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked Haiti in 2010. Aslan was finishing her nursing degree, and when she heard of the quake her thoughts turned to the man in the shiny shoes.

Like some, she wondered if she had a skill set that could help those affected. Unlike many, she boarded a plane six weeks later to turn her compassion into action.

Growing up in a household with both her mother and grandmother who were raised Irish Catholic New Yorker, Aslan was immediately drawn to the Haitian culture – the people, the noises and colors.

“I was hooked,” says Aslan, who has traveled to Haiti 14 times since 2010. “There’s something about this place.”

Collaborative interventions, sustainable change

After a few initial trips to learn about Haiti’s history, culture and challenges, Aslan remained committed – but disillusioned.

“Everything I was seeing was too downstream,” she says. “We were treating people for worms when they lived on a dirt floor. We were treating water borne diseases without addressing the contaminated water supply. I asked myself, ‘What’s the point?’ I felt jaded. I assumed groups knew what they were doing, but I sensed that many who came to Haiti helped and then went home feeling like Superman without considering if their help was sustainable. That sucked. It didn’t settle well with me at all.”

Knowing there had to be a better way, she looked into the CPHHS’ MPH in Global Health. “I was sold,” she says. “I had so many questions. And I learned what questions I should be asking.”

She also learned two key tenets of OSU’s program: Change must be sustainable, and sometimes the smallest change has the biggest impact.

“Haiti made me go to graduate school,” says Aslan, who completed her MPH in 2015.

A degree, however, wasn’t enough. While still at OSU, Aslan created Empower Haiti Together, a for-profit social business akin to TOMS Shoes, with the goal of providing jobs, supporting the local economy and working alongside Haitians to help improve their health and well-being.

She began small by partnering with Papillon to buy and sell jewelry wholesale to raise money. She then added more trips, including taking OSU students who wanted an international experience. These students weren’t limited to public health, but also engineering and business and later nursing students from Linn-Benton Community College.

In 2016, she raised enough money to begin renting a home in Port-au-Prince that she uses as a guest house for student groups coming to Haiti on her Experience Haiti trips. She also uses the house as a revenue source for community projects by renting it out to other individuals and groups working in Haiti through Airbnb. Additionally, the home is being used as a location to train Community Health Workers (CHWs), and even served as a shelter during the most recent hurricane.

“We began expanding our business endeavors to create diversity, spread risk and provide sustainable funding,” Aslan says. “We are no longer focusing on one thing, but are also being careful not to spread ourselves too thin.”

Aslan Noakes in Haiti
Aslan in Haiti

She’s also being careful to be inclusive and collaborative and to partner with communities, learn and listen, and most importantly do no harm.

“Communities have to put skin in the game or we don’t play,” she says. “Interventions won’t last, and they won’t be able to sustain it.”

Aslan currently works with four partner communities. “You must leave room at the table for them,” she says. “Too often, people come in with good intentions, but leave out the local population. Communities drive change.”

For example, she’s currently working with two partners on concerns over lack of primary health care. The community wants a clinic, but Aslan says this creates new challenges, such as funding – and finding people who want to live and work there.

The solution, she says, comes from thinking about what can be done now, in the short term, which includes training Community Health Workers, having lots of conversations and being willing to compromise.

She just returned from two trips to Haiti in December and January 2016 to begin training CHWs, which began with 12 volunteers, elected by their communities, who learned CPR, the Heimlich Maneuver and rescue breathing. MPH candidate Lawrenza Bishop, who is a certified CPR instructor, led the trainings. Aslan will be returning over spring break with another student group to teach manual blood pressure reading and basic ankle sports medicine.

Big changes, small communities

Solutions also come from learning what you don’t know and being willing to ask for help.

People say to me, ‘I could never do what you do,’ and I tell them, “Do what you can do. Everyone can help. If you have a passion, you have a purpose and likely a skill that can help. Don’t limit yourself. A local realty company has offered to donate funds to repair roofs damaged by Hurricane Matthew’s damaging winds and rain. A local Zonta volunteer, Antigone Cook, and a friend and OSU alum, Rachel Boyle, helped make curtains for the guest house. If you offer a service, we’ll do our best to match the need, even if it means sending you to another organization.”

Aslan herself has learned Creole – and is learning about things she never imagined, such as inverters and off-grid electricity and planning for a new business start-up this June 2017, the Port to Port (Portland to Port-au-Prince) food truck, with hopes of involving students from OSU’s College of Business and Linn-Benton Culinary Arts.

“When I first began this work, I thought nursing was my best skill set,” she says. “It turns out it’s advocacy, networking and resourcing. If we all work together and apply our strengths and passions, we all do our best work.”

Aslan community meeting
Aslan participates in a community meeting about solar lights in Balan, a community east of Port-au-Prince

Progress, however, never seems fast enough when people’s lives are at risk. But she is undeterred, and being a parent only deepens her resolve.

“From a mom’s perspective, it hits especially close to home,” she says. “I had a hard pregnancy with a complicated delivery, and if were in Haiti I would have died from blood loss. As a mom, my calling has gotten even stronger.”

Add to that the fact that more than 80 percent of orphans in Haiti have one or two parents who love them but can’t support them. “Instead of starting an orphanage, why don’t we create jobs and support families? Institutionalized children have no sense of belonging, and it’s detrimental to their behavior and health. Good intentions aren’t enough.”

To avoid being simply another good intention gone bad, Aslan flips the paradigm.

“You think big organizations equal big impact – and they can. But they’re like big ships. They move slowly, they change direction slowly and they are slow to listen.

“On the flip side, I see Empower Haiti Together as a small Haitian sailboat and the communities as the wind that blows us in the direction we go. Big changes can happen in small communities. And a small organization can lead that change, provided it partners with the community, learns from them and develops mutual trust and respect.”

There’s no place for pity. “Pity is the last thing they need,” she says. “It harms them. It’s like saying you don’t have potential and that Haiti isn’t worth investing in.”

Still, it’s hard work. And this working mom has plenty of reasons to give up.

“Is this hard? Yes. Am I busy? Yes. But this is my passion and it’s what I love. If I give up, I’m giving up on vulnerable people, and that gives me perspective when I want to quit.”

You can learn more about Empower Haiti Together, learn about upcoming Experience Haiti trips and purchase Haitian goods at www.empowerhaititogether.org