I can still remember the day the idea first came into my heart to start a program that would provide healing and resources to women seeking freedom from their pain. It was the fall of 2014, I had been living in Haiti for nearly a year, and I was beginning to understand that perhaps I was supposed to stay on the island and doing something that was so much bigger than anything I had ever imagined.
I dreamed of center that women could enter to find peace, stability, love, and acceptance. A place they could call their own and find the comfort and security of a family they had never known. My hope was that women would begin to learn and understand their worth and value, and that they were so much more than the trauma they had experienced.
I was a passionate, yet naïve 26 year old living in a rural Haitian village, completely unaware of where this journey would take me, or what saying 'yes' to this calling would bring.
It took nearly a year for the vision of Jasper House Haiti to fully take shape, but on September 4th, 2015 we officially opened our doors. We began with eight staff members and three women with only a residential program on the first floor of a house.
That first year was full of ups and downs, and I didn't have much of a life outside of the program. Each month was a leap of faith - not knowing where the finances for our operating expenses would come from. Yet, in spite of the many tears I cried and nights I lost sleep worrying for where our next dollar would come from, I grew so deeply in my faith and witnessed God move in ways only He could.
After our first three months we were able to rent the entire facility where we were operating and obtain both floors of the house. We grew from three residents to eight and slowly began to see the program take form and shape.
Our board grew as well and we hosted our first Rise & Empower gala in the spring of 2016, which gave us funds to begin to imagine what expansion for the future could look like.
By summer 2016 it was evident that our school classes should transition from just being available to the residents in our home to the women in the surrounding communities of Jacmel.
Together with Darline, and our psychologist, Ruth, we hosted our first community meeting to share with local women about the opportunity they now had to attend school -- some for the very first time.
October 2016 we officially launched the Jasper House Haiti Women's Education Center with more women than we ever anticipated. Our classes included literacy through the sixth grade, and three vocational courses of sewing, culinary arts, and art + jewelry design.
Our vision and dream was truly taking shape as more women's lives were being impacted and changed. Not only were our residents and students getting educated, well-fed, and having their physical needs cared for, but for the first time they were discovering that they had a worth and value that far exceeds any pain or trauma they had experienced.
In early spring of 2017 we launched the "Mwen Gen Fòs" program in partnership with our board member Natalie Keys, and members of her UFC gym in Utah. Their team came to teach our women self-defense techniques to remind them of the inner strength and that no one has the right to abuse or mistreat them.
Our women loved learning to box and began to chant the phrase, "mwen gen fòs," Haitian Kreyòl for "I am strong," or " I have strength" even quietly to themselves.
Slowly, Jasper House Haiti was becoming so much more than my dream. It was becoming a movement, a family, and it took an army of us banding together to stand in the gap for women most had forgotten or abandoned.
By December 2017, eight women had graduated our fourteen-month residential program, and seven women graduated their vocational classes, while twenty-seven students attended class daily. Our reach went far beyond just the women in our programs, by the end of 2017 nearly one-hundred lives from women to staff to the children of our women and staff had been touched and affected in some way.
As we celebrate our third birthday and move into our fourth year, I truly stand amazed at all that has been accomplished and achieved in such a short amount of time. Today, we no longer have one building but TWO. Our residential facility and education center have been separated to ensure more privacy and protection for our residents and provide a more cohesive learning environment for our students. We have sixteen full-time staff members from our incredible in-country director, Darline, to our psychologist, Ruth, three house mothers, six teachers, office administrator, chauffeur, and cooks. This fall as our school re-opens with a record enrollment of fifty-five students a combination of returning and new!
The testimony is purely a declaration of the sheer power and glory of God, and what happens when people come together to rise and uplift others. Our success has nothing to do with our savviness, prowess or abilities, but our dedication to fighting for something we so passionately believe in. Seeing women in Haiti restored, educated, and empowered is far more than a trendy social justice movement, it is the very beat of our heart and what keeps us going even on the days we want to give up.
Jasper House Haiti would not be in existence if it was due to my strength alone. There are countless people who have made and continue to make this work possible, and to those incredible individuals I cannot say thank you enough.
Looking into our future we want to see more women have the opportunity to know their precious worth and value, to be able to attend school, and begin to believe in themselves for the very first time.
We want to expand our reach far beyond Jacmel and see that women across the entire nation of Haiti have a chance to leave the nightmare of abuse and exploitation and have hope and freedom.
We want to grow our education programs and add more vocational classes to help our women achieve true personal success and financial independence.
As we move forward will you consider joining us? Will you help us to continue to grow, to rise and empower and make tomorrow for women?
Written by: Maria Atkinson - Founder/Executive Director, Jasper House Haiti
You can read more of her thoughts and journey on her blog, Going Forth.