Few people would dispute the notion that we should care about what happens to the people of Haiti, a county that seems to be jolted from disaster to disaster.
In fact, artist Deborah Ugoretz, who lived in Teaneck for many years, uses those very words in a moving fundraising appeal to benefit a grassroots group there founded and run by an old friend.
Ms. Ugoretz — who now lives in Brooklyn but continues to offer art workshops at her former synagogue, Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom — writes: “Many of us have been devastated by the horrible news about the earthquake in Haiti. That country doesn’t catch a break. We often feel overwhelmed by these kinds of disasters and sometimes we don’t know what to do to help.”
One way, she suggested, is to contribute to Youthhaiti, founded in 2008 by her University of Wisconsin fellow student and friend Gigi Pomerantz. Ms. Pomerantz, she said, went on to train as a public health nurse “and does really good work.” She has been the executive director of Youthhaiti for 15 years.
Confronting the fact that Haiti has very few public toilets, Youthhaiti is trying to teach young people the basics of sanitation and is working on developing bio-toilets that will recycle human waste so that it ultimately may be turned into water for irrigation.
“It’s a small, grassroots organization, so you know where your money will go,” Ms. Ugoretz said. In fact, it will go to the mountain town of Duchity, where the organization is based, and which now is suffering the after-effects of the earthquake and hurricane.
As Ms. Pomerantz wrote in a newsletter, “On August 14, southwest Haiti suffered a 7.2 earthquake that has killed at least 1,400 people and injured thousands more. Over 30,000 families were left homeless, followed by Tropical Storm Grace, which left thousands out in the rain over two nights.”
Ms. Ugoretz sent the newsletter out together with her fundraising appeal. “This is an organization that is grassroots and truly having an impact on the people and the environment,” she said. “It is an organization dedicated to improving health and nutrition through recycling of waste into water…. Now they are focusing their efforts on aiding the citizens during this latest disaster. And because the funds you contribute will go directly to the organization and the work they do, you can feel confident that your donation is meeting the needs of the citizens of Duchity…”
Her personal connection to Ms. Pomerantz has been a motivating factor, spurring Ms. Ugoretz to do more than just write a check or sit on her hands and say “Oy.” Several years ago, feeling frozen by the number of problems in the world and stuck in her desire to tackle them in some way, Ms. Ugoretz created an artwork to express her frustration.
“I felt like a deer in the headlights,” she said. “What should I do first? Hunger, homelessness? Something else? I was feeling overwhelmed by what was going on in the world.”
The piece, which asks “What More Can I Do” and surrounds those words with lists of both problems and of possible solutions, has stayed in her mind. Finally, she decided, “Now is the time to strike. I knew this organization, knew that it did good work, knew they needed help and needed it now, and I wanted to do something. I thought about selling artwork, but I wanted to be very direct.
“Every time a disaster happens, I send out stuff about it. But this is my first major effort” to do something else. In addition to doing her own mailings, “I sent [the fundraising appeal] to my grown daughters, who forwarded it to friends and put it on various platforms. I know they’re raising a lot of money. People want to help, but they don’t know what to do or who to send it to.”
We should care about Haiti “because we’re human beings,” she said, adding that the idea of looking out for people who need help is engrained in our tradition. She also said that artists have a role to play in social action, since art “is a powerful tool to express emotions and communicate about issues.”
She said she knows of artists’ groups that are working to get artists out of Afghanistan, and she is hoping to launch another fundraiser herself to raise awareness about the plight of the homeless.
Ms. Ugoretz said she would tell people to “support organizations that do good work in any way they can.” In addition, “they might try to find a personal connection to help them stay more engaged. Don’t lose hope,” she said. “Stay involved.”
In the meantime, according to the Youthhaiti newsletter, “The road to the village was blocked by landslides until August 18, but now trucks are able to arrive with supplies. Funds are needed to keep supplies coming, including tarps and tents, medical supplies, food and water. We will distribute to the most vulnerable first, including in isolated areas where aid rarely reaches.”
To make a donation, go to www.youthaiti.org/donate-now or send a check to Youthhaiti, PO Box 170826, Milwaukee, WI 53217.