Weeks after the earthquake wasted Haiti, Diems Duverlus went home. He walked broken streets and smelled death and heard the kindergarten class at TLC Barefoot School, open for the first time since the earthquake and six students short, recite the alphabet.
The Haiti-born St. Petersburg resident saw Americans, too, folks with good intentions who had hopped flights to come lend a hand. They tossed bags of rice out of truck beds and bandaged wounds inside massive tent towns that bloomed on hillsides.
The relief was needed. On subsequent trips, Duverlus witnessed similar scenes time and again. The wealthy feeding the needy, Haitians with their arms extended. He began to sense he was witnessing an immobile population growing dependent on foreign charity to survive. It struck him that the relief had become something else, something more permanent.
Two years later, after the earthquake left some 1.5 million people homeless and 300,000 dead, Duverlus has come up with a plan to help change a country still trying to rebuild.
He's trying to raise enough money to build 10 vocational training centers across the country to train Haitians in practical skills like plumbing, electrical work, carpentry and solar panel installation.
"For the 21st century, Haiti needs more than used shoes," Duverlus said in an interview a few days ago. "They were bringing those over before I was born."
Duverlus, who relocated to Florida in 2000, is a 35-year-old minister who founded Compassion Network International Ministries to help organize Tampa Bay area residents and faith-based organizations who want to help Haiti. He has persuaded a young architect, a graduate student at the University of South Florida, to draw plans for the first training school, a 22,600-square-foot facility with classrooms, nurse training stations, a media room and a 300-seat auditorium. The facility would also include a cafeteria and housing for visiting instructors.
His plan is to persuade leaders of charities who do work in Haiti to donate professional instruction rather than food and used clothing. Instead of passing out sandwiches, charities could sponsor a professional plumber to spend a few weeks teaching classes at the facility. Politicians predict the demand for jobs will rise as money continues to come into Haiti, and Duverlus wants to help train the new workforce.
"To give someone rice, that's a relief effort. To teach someone to grow rice, you're changing their life," Duverlus said.
Haiti is still a mess. Cholera has sickened 500,000 and killed 7,000. Thousands of Haitians still live in tent cities, which become more permanent as the months pass. The ambitious projects of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, led by former President Bill Clinton and former Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, have been suspended until Haiti's Parliament approves an extension. More than two-thirds of Haiti's labor force of 4.81 million do not have formal jobs, and the country's unemployment rate was at 41 percent in 2010, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook. More than 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
But little by little, Haitians have seen progress. According to the New York Times, about half of the 10 million cubic feet of earthquake debris has been removed from Port-au-Prince and other areas. More people have access to clean water in the capital than before the quake, though this has not stopped the cholera outbreak. A garment maker is planning an industrial park in the northeast that could bring 20,000 jobs.
President Michel Martelly and Prime Minister Garry Conille are focused on creating jobs as the country rebuilds. This is where Duverlus thinks his training center will help.
"We'll still help you if you need shoes or food, but we also want to teach you to fish," he said. "If we don't do that, we'll be doing charity for the rest of our lives."
Regine Barjon, owner of Florida-based BioTek Solutions, a company redeveloping Haiti's last sugar mill, said there's always a need for free vocational training in Haiti, but she has seen many nongovernmental organizations interested in making money rather than improving the lives of Haitians. She advocates private-sector development rather than more nonprofits in the West's poorest nation, with the idea that those with a vested interest will stay and do meaningful work, and benefit the local economy.
"Haiti needs to establish the foundations for a private sector," she said. "We need to create a large taxpaying pool where basic services become the norm, just like in the United States."
She says the outpouring of relief in Haiti has created a welfare state, and reversing that — training workers and putting them back to work — takes business investment.
"Why not make it a for-profit (business)," she said, referring to such training programs, "and pay taxes?"
Duverlus said he's planning to partner with other organizations in Haiti — both charities and businesses — to staff the school. He also wants to make the building available to others when it is not being used for training.
"I've received a lot of calls from people willing to partner with us," he said. "They believe in what we're doing."
He estimates the building alone will cost more than $1 million, and he's seeking private donations. Tonight, exactly two years since the earthquake, he's holding his first fundraiser at the First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg, where he will present the project to potential donors.
He'll tell them that those in his homeland want to work, and with a little help, they can.
"They still have the strength," he said. "They still have the capacity. They still have the ability to do work."
Ben Montgomery can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8650.