A year ago, Mayor Deborah Frank Feinen joined a group of women from the C-U area on a mission trip to Haiti. The trip was a part of the She Said Soul Journey, an initiative started by local photographer (and 2017 Humanitarian Award winner) Karyl Wackerlin following the first That’s What She Said project, an evening of local women telling their stories. In addition to serving at God’s Littlest Angels, a Haitian orphanage founded by Monticello natives Dixie and John Bickel, Feinen had the opportunity to meet with the mayors in Kenscoff, Haiti. She and others from the Champaign group spent a day touring the community.

After the trip ended, Feinen kept in touch with those community leaders in Haiti and now, a year later, Feinen and City of Champaign have welcomed a delegation from Haiti to our community. Mayor Nadal Estime, his wife Lucianne, Chief of Staff Frantz Mars, and translator Almanthe Jean arrived Monday afternoon and have had a jam-packed schedule exploring the city and the University of Illinois.

On Tuesday and Wednesday the group toured the University of Illinois, meeting with a host of leaders from departments such as International Affairs and Global Studies, The International Rural Water Association, and the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering. They’ve also had the opportunity to see work that is being done at the community level, paying a visit to the Champaign Fire Department, Champaign Public Works, Habitat for Humanity, and the News-Gazette. According to Feinen, the benefits of the visit are multi-faceted. “There is the benefit of cultural exchange, but hopefully, after meeting with leaders at the university, seeds will be planted that could lead to a project in Haiti.”

Last night, Mayor Estime and his delegation, Mayor Feinen, and dozens of community members who have traveled to Haiti gathered at El Toro to exchange stories and enjoy each other’s company. I was able to crash the party and hear from not only Mayors Feinen and Estime, but some of the Soul Journey travelers, many of them repeat visitors to Haiti and God’s Littlest Angels. The evening began with a welcome from CU Area Project director and former NAACP of Champaign County president Patricia Avery who invited two CUperStars performers to sing for the group.

I had the honor of hearing from Mayor Estime about his impressions of our community. We spoke through his translator, Almanthe Jean. He was very appreciative of Mayor Feinen and the welcome they’d received in Champaign, and spoke of the stark differences between our community and his. “Our problems are complicated,” he said. “We have a lot of difficulties with economics, infrastructure, sanitation. Our community is very poor, and as a result 95% of our residents are unable to pay taxes.” Frantz Mars, his Chief of Staff, echoed this sentiment but feels there is hope. “Our community doesn’t have money, but there are things you can do with discipline, passion, and determination.” Mars’ job is to coordinate work of his city and make sure projects are successful. He hopes that some collaboration will come out of the visit, especially after meeting with experts in agriculture. He feels they could have a great impact on his community.

Some fruits of the visit have already come to bear. Carl Burkybile, a former area ag teacher and a member of Champaign Rotary Club, saw a News-Gazette article about the visit from the Haitian delegation and contacted the mayor with an offer of help. He is the agricultural director for Healing Hands International, a faith-based humanitarian organization. He teaches about “survival gardening”, which involves irrigation, composting, and working to increase soil fertility so that a 50 foot bed could potentially feed a family of seven. From his laptop set up on the table at El Toro, he was actually downloading instructions onto a USB, in Creole, for the mayor and his group to bring back to their community.

Wackerlin, the founder of the Soul Journey, will be leaving the C-U area soon, but already another leader has emerged and begun taking groups to Haiti. Holly Riegel and a group she's named “Ladies of Hope” helped GLA move to a new facility this summer, and she is looking forward to making return trips. She is most struck by the joy that the Haitian people find in simple things, such as clean water. “They take great pride in who they are,” says Riegel. She hopes that with each trip she is able to bring a piece of that back to Champaign and share stories with others.

Its seems that some of those “seeds” Mayor Feinen spoke of have already begun to be sown, and will hopefully continue to grow as this international relationship develops.